The selective pigheadedness of fantasy fans

January 16, 2012 § 5 Comments

Or: The tension between fantasy and familiar

(Note: for anyone hoping for the second post on book trailers: It’s coming, but I haven’t had the time to put it together properly yet, so be patient)

Recently I found myself in a bookish conversation when my fellow reader took issue with the use of the word “id” in a fantasy story (though I can’t remember which story for the life of me). The argument was that id is part of a theory of the psyche that was developed by Freud, and since Freud had never lived in this fantasy world, the characters wouldn’t have any idea what id was.

I’ve raised similar issues before regarding technology or terms that don’t belong in a given fantasy world, my favorite being Mrs. Beaver’s sewing machine in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is the most advanced piece of machinery we see in the entire series (and where the deuce does she plug it in?). Also, why would they celebrate Christmas in a world where Christ never lived? I love C. S. Lewis, but these are thoughts that amuse me now that I’m older and looking back on the series. But I digress. Like I said, I often poke holes in stories, but for some reason, taking issue with “id” struck me as completely ridiculous, though it took me a little while to unpack why.

Taking just one step back, if you were to banish “id” from fantasy, you would also be forced to exile “ego” for the sake of consistency because Freud coined both, and while “id” is rather academic, the average person is familiar with “ego.” I can think of few examples in fantasy outside an outright discussion of the psyche where a synonym couldn’t be used for ego (rather than “he had a big ego,” “he was quite arrogant), but beginning to banish certain words from fantasy gets us into complicated territory. For example, should it be taboo to talk about “equal and opposite forces” because Newton never lived in whatever fantasy world I’m writing in? And while we’re at it, “taboo” should almost certainly be forbidden because it was introduced into the English language by Captain Cook who, in this fantasy world, never lived, and the word was originally Tongan, a people group that never existed.

I’ve recently struggled with this in my own writing. The world that my current project takes place in has just bounded into an industrial age full of airships and electricity and all sorts of other machines. For many of these inventions and advancements, I would be tempted to rename them. Perhaps in this world a locomotive should be a rail carriage? And it didn’t seem that light bulbs should be called light bulbs, but something more exotic and steampunkish. Then I realized the ridiculousness of what I was thinking about. If a rail carriage is a locomotive, then why bother a) inventing a different name for it, and b) forcing your reader to learn what a rail carriage is? Why spend two paragraphs explaining a rail carriage in detail, when the end result of the explanation is the reader saying to themselves “Oh, I see. It’s a locomotive.” You might as well come up with different words for sword or shoe.

As I see it, we have one of two options here: either we take the English language as a whole and cut the author some slack, or we have to start learning a new imaginary language for every new fantasy book or series we read because in those worlds the wouldn’t speak English. (My one disclaimer is that some words are loaded with cultural connotation that can get in the way of the story telling. While I would let you get away with “zeppelin” in a story, many people might immediately think Germany, which probably isn’t what you want them thinking.)

I think it’s a bit ridiculous that we allow ourselves to get hung up on “id” and “locomotive” when we’re talking about worlds where we don’t question dragons communicating psychically with humans (or existing in the first place), the existence of trolls and goblins and rings of power, and the fact that some or all of the populations can use magic, a force rarely thoroughly explained. I understand that you can’t really control what irritates you in a book or takes you out of the experience, but, from my perspective, I’d rather the author take the extra time creating believable characters than thinking up whole ecosystems full of invented plants. Unless the author is writing science fiction. Then he’s in big trouble with me if he’s walking through cedar forests on a distant planet, and I’ll be as pigheaded as I want, thank you very much.

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§ 5 Responses to The selective pigheadedness of fantasy fans

  • Mrs Beaver’s sewing macchine was one of those really old ones that you turn a handle to make it sew: it didn’t need electricity :] But great post, I agree!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      You’ve just made my day. I never even considered that it might be an older kind of sewing machine because when I was a kid I just pictured a machine like my mom’s. In any case, it seems to be piece of post-industrial age machinery that is a bit out of sync with the rest of the series.

  • I say anything goes in a fantasy world as long as you can have it make sense (more or less). Isn’t Terry Pratchett a good example of that? I mean, it’s fantasy! Pretty simple, right?

    I’m not entirely sure how clear this comment is…I’m still not quite awake yet

  • Jay Swanson says:

    I actually had a fan tell me just today that he was thrown by the use of “faceplant” while reading my book. To him it seemed completely out of place. Everyone has different preconceived notions of the look and feel of the world, and the words we use to describe it – and the things that happen within it – will be loaded in ways we can never fully anticipate. It’s great to have people point out the really jarring ones, however, as I’m sure they’re rarely the only ones to feel the effect. Great post man, I’m loving your blog more and more.

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