Part 3: Form/Style
i. On language and dialogue
Le Guin posits that style is important to fantasy literature because it marks a text as belonging to the genre. She describes a good fantasy writer as an ‘artist…who goes on learning after he grows up’. This ‘learning’ is the ability to ‘see his own world and speak his own words’. Although I agree entirely with Le Guin’s suggestion, she comments upon earlier fantasy texts so it is important to note that the fantasy genre has changed significantly since the writing of her essay. Today, there are copious sub-genres within the fantasy genre, further enlarging the definition of ‘fantasy’ as new authors quest for a place within the realms of fantasy. Yet, despite these changes, style remains an integral aspect of the creation of a fantasy text. Le Guin suggests that a fantasy author’s unique style resonates through his prose and textual construction. She argues that ‘if you remove the style [of a fantasy text], all you have left is a synopsis of the plot’. A fantasy author’s unique style makes his world come alive and is his own sense of identity within the genre. Essentially, style is everything an author uses in his text to successfully convey his created world to the reader. I have chosen to focus upon how fantasy authors use language and dialogue, structure, and character perspective to express the story.
Writers across the myriad literary genres use descriptive language to illustrate their worlds. In the fantasy genre, the worlds often need more description than a text depicting the contemporary world because they are invented, therefore significantly different from the present world. Regarding Hurley’s text, I would like to pay close attention to the language of a passage from the prologue in which Hurley first presents the world of Grania. ‘The pale green light of the satellite Tira bathed the world in a burnished emerald glow. The broader sky was a brilliant amber wash. It was the only colour Lilia knew the sky to be. Tira, the lifegiver, had been ascendant as long as she could remember’. From this description alone, this world is very different to ours. A moon glows with an eerie verdant luminescence whilst giving power, or ‘life’, to certain characters, and the rest of the sky is amber. Hurley suggests to the reader that Lilia is habituated to this view of the world. So how does a reader who is unfamiliar with this vision imagine the world she is reading? From the outset, Hurley plays with the relationship between inference and showing, rather than telling, the story to the reader. Instead of explaining everything, Hurley shows how her world functions and the reader infers the rest. For instance, Hurley never explicitly describes the Dhai people but the reader infers that they are humanoid tree-dwellers when Lilia is horrified to see the burning wreckage of the tree-cocoons where her people lived. Hurley also portrays a cannibalistic funeral ceremony with the dignity and respect with which people in the present world would portray a burial. Hurley drops the reader into the action of the text with no prior explanation of the world. Instead, Hurley explains her world vicariously through the characters navigating and exploring it.
Dialogue in fantasy should be different from that of the present world because a fantasy text should have otherworldly qualities; this is reflected in character interaction. In Crescent Moon, Ahmed’s characters interact by using fictitious religious language peppered with oaths, curses and quotes from scripture. Religious language is grand and a manner of speaking unfamiliar to the contemporary world. For instance, characters in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms ‘cheek-kiss and gods-peace each other’, a common greeting of intimacy combined with religious identity. They regularly quote scripture to each other, often in the form of advice like ‘if a man asks you to choose between virtue and your brother, choose virtue’. When Adoulla is hungry he tells his apprentice, Raseed, that ‘a starving man builds no palaces’. In this situation, Adoulla manipulates scripture to respond to natural human calls of his own and to justify his gluttonous actions. The delivery is reminiscent of how a person in the present world uses language to get what he wants, yet the register is foreign. But does this overlapping of the present world and ‘fantasyland’ come at a price?
Morgan opts for contemporary dialogue in Steel. He uses slang, swearwords, contractions and informal dialogue that would not be out of place in an everyday conversation between people in the present world. Morgan’s characters often use similes and metaphors from the world of the text such as the curses ‘for Hoiran’s sake’ or ‘Hoiran’s cock’, a reference to a fictional deity within the text. When Ringil’s mother finds the hungover protagonist in a small backward town outside of the Glades she tells him that ‘there’s more red in [your eyes] than the crater at An-Monal’, likening his bloodshot eyes to a fictional post-war wasteland. These intra-textual elements add a sense of realism to Morgan’s world. Another example of this is when Milacar tells the ‘backstory’ of Trelayne, which is then revealed to be a tall tale, further removing the veil from this fantasy world and giving the impression that not everything can be taken at face value. In a sense, Morgan inverts one of the motivations for reading fantasy; rather than wanting to escape the troubles of the present world for a moment, instead, Morgan shows this other world as being dark, dangerous and filthy, which is reflected in the complete lack of grandeur in the dialogue. For Morgan, ‘fantasyland’ is not an elegant and wondrous place in which to escape; it is more likely that one would want to escape from it.
ii. On structure
Not only should a fantasy author be a cunning linguist, he should also be a master mason when it comes to the construction of his text. It is important to consider how an author structures his text because it can have a considerable impact upon its reception. In NotW, Rothfuss experiments with interesting methods of constructing his narrative because it is essentially a story about a story. For instance, in the linear frame narrative of Kvothe tending the Waystone inn, Chronicler suggests he should record Kvothe’s story. Before Kvothe tells his story, he muses upon where to start, effectively brainstorming, foreshadowing some major events, creating a basic plan before centralising the entire story upon himself and, thus, focalising the narrative. The text then swiftly switches to Kvothe’s telling of his story, the inset narrative, interspersed with interludes every time he pauses in his storytelling, frequently moving between past and present.
The tone of the storytelling is that of the campfire, a long descriptive yarn that draws the listener in. This sort of story is exciting and thrilling but the listener is safe in the knowledge that he is not in the same environment as the story because ‘certainly, there were demons in the world but…they belonged in stories’. Interestingly, patterns begin to emerge. Within each chapter in which Kvothe tells his story, he initially gathers his thoughts ‘out-loud’ before telling the tale of a particular event. In this structural model, Kvothe relates, firstly, some background information and then describes the event itself before summing up with some reflections. Rothfuss has clearly paid close attention to his grandfather’s fireside tales or listened to old salts in local bars tell ‘war stories’ to gain inspiration. Rothfuss converts the oral into the literary by incorporating oral storytelling techniques into the presentation of how Kvothe tells his story. The function of this narrative technique is to give authenticity to a text in which the main character recounts his own tale. This technique makes it seem that the author is Kvothe rather than Patrick Rothfuss.
The contrast between dangerous past and relatively safe present becomes increasingly blurred as both narratives intertwine. The danger of Kvothe’s past eventually catches up to him, moving from the confines of the past inset narrative and bleeding into the present-day frame narrative when the patrons of the Waystone Inn are attacked by a demon. The technique of the campfire-yarn style of storytelling lulls the reader into believing she is safe, which makes the danger become more shocking because now the reader does not know what to expect next. Like a ghost story around a campfire being abruptly cut short by the appearance of the very same ghost, this breaks the false sense of security and the reader is on edge for the rest of the text.
The ending of NotW mirrors the beginning with the exposition of the Waystone Inn at night under a ‘silence of three parts’. Narrative mirroring is often linked to film but, given that Rothfuss’ text contains narrative techniques reminiscent of oral storytelling, it is not surprising that he chose to use it. In film, this structural technique allows the viewer to see how much a character has grown since the beginning because the mirrored end sequence reminds the viewer of the character’s initial presentation. Yet when it comes to Kvothe, the more he reveals about his past, the more his inner demons trouble him. Instead of positive progression, it seems as if he narrates his own regression because the ending hints at further inner turmoil.
Some fantasy novels are divided into solid episodic breaks with significant time jumps between each one, whereas other texts follow the perspective of different characters over the course of a linear narrative. In Brennan’s novel, A Natural History, the chapter divisions are further divided into sub-divisions that foreshadow the ensuing events of the narrative. These chapter divisions detail each narrative event, perhaps a reference to the epistolary format of the text. For instance, in chapter twenty-three, one of the subdivisions is entitled ‘More answers there, Many of them unpleasant/The arrival of the dragons’. This structural format is interesting because Brennan inverts the foreshadowing of the text. Foreshadowing is supposed to hint at what is to come before the later event is shown as a revelation to the reader. The preface of the text warns the reader to ‘continue at [her] own risk. It is not for the faint of heart’. Yet, contrary to the disclaimer, entitling each event in such a way is a ‘spoiler’ for what is to come, effectively removing the shock of the danger.
Just as in Rothfuss’ text, the end of Brennan’s novel mirrors the start and comes full circle when Isabella picks up her copy of the fictional text ‘A natural history of dragons’ exactly as her child-self did at the start of the novel. Ending on a more positive note than Rothfuss’ novel, this structure offers a glimpse into how the character of Isabella has transformed from a timid girl with unconventional interests into a brave and intelligent young woman. The mirroring of the beginning and ending contrasts Isabella’s future with her past because, unlike at the beginning where she had to hide her obsession with dragons, she appears optimistic about her future thanks to her budding career as a dragon naturalist.
iii. On perspective
Perspective allows the reader to see the world from the point of view of a particular character, whilst also giving an insight into characters’ anxieties, thoughts or wishes. The multiperspectival text, GOT, is interesting because each chapter is focused through the perspective of a different character, which stresses the importance of subjectivity. One character may see another as honourable but another character may think differently. On the one hand, Stannis Baratheon has no love for Eddard Stark but believes that ‘only a fool would doubt his honour or his honesty’. Yet Littlefinger scorns Stark’s naivety, claiming that his honour does not ‘keep [Stark] safe, all it does is weigh [him] down and make it hard for [him] to move’. There is also a strong relationship between structure and perspective in that an event may occur in one focus chapter from one character’s perspective, and then in the next chapter there will be a presentation from another side of the story. For instance, Stark believes that exposing the truth about the illegitimacy of the heirs to the Iron Throne is the right thing to do. When Stark is lying in a prison cell in a later chapter, Varys explains that honesty and honour have not done him any favours. Multiple perspectives on the same event from a variety of sources show how different people respond to a situation which leaves it open for the reader to decide what was the best course of action.
The various perspectives also influence character presentation. Many of the characters in the text describe Tyrion in a negative light, partly due to his appearance. For instance, Jon describes him as ‘by far the ugliest out of Lord Tywin’s brood’ and Sansa views him as ‘grotesque’ and ‘sinister’. Regarding his character, Lysa Arryn describes him as being ‘full of low cunning’ and a ‘vile dwarf’. Yet, when it comes to his focus chapters, he comes across as intelligent, shrewd and undeniably likeable. It seems that opinions towards specific characters can be changed when Martin reveals more about them or we see the characters from a different perspective. The kings and political mavericks like Littlefinger or Varys do not have perspective chapters, so their presentation comes funnelled through the eyes of others. By limiting the narrative focus to specific characters, Martin manages to keep schemes secret and surprising, as when Littlefinger suddenly betrays Stark. Martin also maintains a sense of objectivity surrounding the kings. For instance, he presents Robb Stark’s maturity into the ‘King in the North’ through Robb’s mother’s perspective chapters, and most of the close-up presentation of King Robert Baratheon comes from Eddard’s perspective. The reader’s gaze is also limited to what the character sees. For instance, Stark’s death is never explicitly described because Yoren forces Arya to look away and then Sansa chooses to ‘unsee’ her father’s severed head on the battlements of the Red Keep. The restriction of certain perspectives has an impact upon how the reader digests the story. Reading GOT is not a passive experience because the reader is encouraged to think more for herself and to speculate on the subject of plot revelations which makes reading Martin’s text that much more rewarding when these plot predictions come true.
In Wells’ mono-perspectival text, The Cloud Roads, the sole perspective comes from the protagonist, Moon. Wells presents only Moon’s immediate thoughts which adds to the feeling of being engulfed by Moon’s anxieties and his own desire to figure himself out. There are no alternate perspectives on his behaviour either, a further addition to the overarching theme of isolation. When Moon asks Stone what he wants, he is shocked that the older Raksura does not want to kill him, but instead wants Moon to accompany him to court. As well as this, when Moon agrees to come with Stone to Indigo Cloud court, Moon cannot tell if Stone is pleased, which means that the reader does not get Stone’s reaction either.
Wells’ text is different from that of Martin because her world is funnelled through the perspective of Moon rather than that of multiple characters, which influences the presentation of the world. For instance, because Wells’ protagonist is unaware of the customs and practices of his own race, the reader is also left in the dark. If Moon does not know something then neither does the reader. This is interesting when it comes to perspective because of the limit it imposes upon the knowledge of the world. Although this could be a textual limitation, it adds to the divergent themes of Moon not wanting to be part of the Raksura culture whilst also not wanting to be entirely alone in the Three Worlds.
i. Disambiguating ambiguities
I have addressed the notion of danger in fantasy literature frequently, yet its complexity may have led me to be somewhat imprecise in its treatment. When I describe ‘danger’ in the fantasy genre, I refer to that which arises from reading difficult and challenging concepts. The created worlds in fantasy are not there simply for escapist pleasure. The presentation of these worlds encourages the reader to change the way she thinks about her own world.
I would like to revisit my analogy of travel broadening the mind. When travelling, there is a great difference between taking a vacation and embarking upon a journey. Fantasy is not a holiday in the sun spent lounging by the poolside of a sheltered resort. Whilst this sounds appealing, it is not real; this is merely an escape from reality. On the contrary, fantasy is an expedition into uncharted faraway lands. While the reader may desire a short break from reality before returning to the mundanities of life, what she truly longs for is a shock to the senses by travelling to a distant land and exploring the limits of the self.
Fantasy literature is not didactic in the simplistic sense that ‘one can learn something by reading it’. Tolkien describes the true mark of fantasy as a certain ‘joy’ which he explains as ‘a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth’. He refers to how fantasy illuminates and reveals something about the present world. Because these worlds are created, they seem far away from the present but, upon closer examination, these worlds often do not differ much from our own. In fantasy novels, characters attempt to solve problems that are also found in the present world. For instance, in The Cloud Roads, Wells handles themes of isolation and self-discovery, which are common adolescent anxieties. One of the numerous benefits of fantasy literature is considering how characters handle these problems. NotW focuses on Kvothe dealing with his desire to avenge his parents’ murder at the hands of the Chandrian. It is interesting to observe his thought processes regarding vengeance because initially he is hot-headed and wants to fight. As time goes by, he learns to sensibly research his enemies and their weaknesses before confronting them. The real danger is the eye-opening realisation that some problems, such as how some people will use others to benefit themselves, are ineluctable and eternal.
ii. The contents of good fantasy
For such a realisation to occur, the created world must be built carefully piece by piece. The establishment of a consistent setting is one of the most crucial aspects of fantasy world-building because it is the stage upon which characters act. The characters within a created world navigate the setting with all its various obstacles to complete their quest. How an author establishes his setting sets a precedent for how the characters navigate the world. For instance, if the text begins with violence or danger, it is highly likely that this will be a common thread throughout the narrative.
Characters then navigate these settings with varying degrees of heroic behaviour. Heroism is an interesting notion because it is entirely subjective; one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. According to Sansa Stark, the foppish Loras Tyrell ‘even looked a true hero, so slim and beautiful, with golden roses around his slender waist and his rich brown hair tumbling down into his eyes’. But what does a hero look like? Each author’s treatment of heroism is a crucial aspect of the establishment of the created world. The way in which the world rewards heroic behaviour is indicative of how the world functions. In The Mirror Empire, Kadaan takes Roh under his protection and takes ownership for Roh’s murder of the Patron. If Kadaan did not do this, Maralah would have murdered Roh because, by law, Roh would technically be the next Patron, which would thwart Maralah’s plans. Heroism refers to behaving selflessly even if it means that credit will not be received for the actions taken. It means displaying vulnerability and emotion, yet having spirit and determination despite the odds.
Form and style are the building blocks for the establishment of the created world and the telling of the narrative. This is an author’s unique way of constructing his story to make it more pleasurable and interesting to read. While language paints a picture of the created world, dialogue expresses attitudes and character behaviour. Rothfuss expresses the power of language in NotW, claiming that ‘words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts’. What he means is that language is a fantasy author’s most useful tool for creating a consistent world and building a thrilling narrative. Narrative techniques, such as structure, are powerful in terms of building and maintaining tension. Tension, which arises from the presence or near-presence of danger, keeps the reader on edge and tosses her emotions in the air with the care of a flamboyant circus juggler before dropkicking them into the audience. When danger is present in a fantasy novel, a good fantasy author writes in such a way to make the reader think that death is coming for any character, not just the extras. When the reader falls in love with certain characters, this makes the tension even greater because any character could get the axe at any given moment. Character perspective influences how the reader receives both these techniques because the limitation and focalisation of certain voices changes the vision of the created world.
iii. Final words and reflections
To bring this discussion full circle, fantasy is a ‘wilderness’ in terms of its lack of rules and uncertainty about what lies in wait around the next corner. A fantasy author effectively has carte blanche regarding genre experimentation and narrative construction. It is undeniable that the storytelling techniques and scope of contemporary fantasy texts are anything short of incredible. Fantasy is arguably one of the very few genres in which a lengthy novel is not a deterrent to a fantasy reader because it means that they can spend more time in the created world. I find fantasy appealing because the alternation between danger-and-safety and tension-and-calm is one of the basic elements of good storytelling. Without this alternation, the story cannot function because it provides a reason for the characters to act and allows their personalities to come alive. If the reader becomes attached to the characters, then the danger is even greater because she will fear for them. Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself commences with the Shanka, a bestial humanoid species, chasing Logen Ninefingers through a forest. Instantly, I want to know why he is being chased and, more importantly, how he ended up with only nine fingers.
Essentially, fantasy without danger is pointless. The onset of danger provides a common goal for the characters to work towards. Why create a fantasy world in which the characters do not embark upon quests or interact with other characters? Be it a saving-the-world quest, as in Crescent Moon, or a revenge-story-cum-final-showdown, as in The Mirror Empire, the characters must navigate the created world to prevent the danger. When characters interact with the environment around them, this visualises the created world.
Fantasy is essentially good storytelling and brings me back to all the farfetched tales my grandfather used to tell me during my childhood. These are stories that induce feelings of joy when the heroes win, despair when they are in danger, and fear when they encounter malevolent creatures. Essentially, these are stories that can be told, retold and rehashed without them losing their magic. Fantasy was the first literary genre that I began seriously reading and it gave me the desire and confidence to tackle others. Although these days I spend a great deal of my reading time self-educating with literary classics, exploring the worlds of science fiction, and appreciating the serpentine writing techniques of accomplished crime authors, I always seem to have a longing inside me. A German word, fernweh, describes this feeling perfectly because it means ‘farsickness’ or the often unsatisfyingly translated ‘ache for distant lands’. This is not ‘homesickness’, as that is a desire to be somewhere familiar or in a place of comfort, or ‘wanderlust’ as that refers to a desire to travel. Fernweh is more internal, referring to experiences never had and emotions never felt. The relation this word has with fantasy is that the genre provides amendment for this indescribable feeling. Fernweh is the feeling for daydreamers and fantasy readers because, in fantasy, there are endless possibilities to be discovered and no limits to imagination.
 Le Guin, 11.
 Hurley, 12.
 ibid., 14.
 ibid., 104.
 Ahmed, 40.
 ibid., 18.
 ibid., 20.
 Morgan, 22; 208.
 ibid., 19.
 ibid., 39.
 Rothfuss, 49-53.
 ibid., 9.
 ibid., 630-4.
 ibid., 1, 662.
 Brennan, 317-19.
 ibid., 10.
 ibid., 22, 334.
 Martin, A Storm of Swords, 1055.
 Martin, A Game of Thrones, 513-4.
 ibid., 528.
 ibid., 634.
 Martin, A Game of Thrones, 51; A Storm of Swords, 393.
 Martin, A Storm of Swords, 942-3.
 ibid., 529.
 ibid., 797; 39-48, 109-117, 153-9, 305-319, 351-8, 424-30, 502-7.
 ibid., 727; 749.
 Wells, 76.
 ibid., 84.
 Tolkien, 60.
 Martin, 472-3.
 Hurley, 409-410.
 Rothfuss, 579.
 Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself, (Great Britain: Gollancz, 2007), 1.