Words and Worlds

Ocarina of Time

(Image: Nintendo)

You know what the first rule of flying is? […] Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air whenshe oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home. – Serenity

This is a blog about a few things I love.

A couple of years back I made the decision to do a PhD in English. It wasn’t because I thought I’d make any money or have a secure job or prestige. I did it because I wanted to study the books I love. And that meant Fantasy.

My PhD was on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. I had been reading Fantasy and thinking up imaginary worlds since I was a kid. When, in our first meeting, my supervisor suggested I should start on The History of Middle-earth (Tolkien’s drafts for The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion edited and published by his son Christopher) I was able to tell her that I had read all twelve volumes by the time I was fourteen.

My passion for the nerdy arts didn’t begin with Tolkien, however. It began in the mid-90s when I first played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES. This was followed by Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. I still don’t know quite what it was about them that hooked me. There was a whole world (several in fact) to explore, treasure to loot, magical races to encounter and learn about, a wedding that could only take place just before the world was destroyed, a lightning-tennis match atop a dark tower which then collapsed around you while you fought your way out.

I didn’t write much fan fiction but I did write some….

But that’s one of the things about Fantasy, Science Fiction, Medieval literature and the other fields I have come to study. They open up whole worlds for you, worlds where you are not some kid working in a supermarket or being miserable at school. These are worlds where the stakes are high and actions really do make a difference, even if it is only to go down fighting. Worlds that you want to keep on exploring and living in after you’ve closed the book or seen the end credits roll.

And while imaginary worlds, from the Marvel-verse to Westeros, are a source of pleasure, excitement and psychological relief for countless million people worldwide, they don’t get the respect and attention (I think) they deserve. To a lot of people ‘imaginary worlds’ sound like day-dreaming, rather than an artistic and psychological activity which is ubiquitous and spans cultures, time periods, and languages. People like Mark J.P. Wolf, Marie-Laure Ryan, and Jan-Noël Thon have been rectifying this in scholarly circles in recent years and it’s one of the things I want to write about here.

A few of the other things I’ll be writing about (deo volente) are:

1 Things fantastical

Or ‘literature of the fantastic’ as I call it while wearing my academic hat. Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, weird stuff of every shape and form. I could call it non-realist fiction but that would make ‘realistic’ writing normal and normative. It’s not. Human literature – from Homer to Harry Potter with Beowulf, Paradise Lost and Frankenstein along the way – has been fantastic through and through. One of my firmly held beliefs is that most of the stories we have told, and continue to tell, are fantastical. As Tolkien put it:

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. – On Fairy-Stories

When endless stories of adultery in suburbia and father vs son angst get treated as ‘good literature’ and everything else is called ‘junk’ we have a pretty distorted view of what people are actually reading and writing. But the thing is if we ignore 90% of what has been written and read we’ll be wrong about the 10% we do look at. Supposedly neutral literary awards (the Man Booker, Pulitzer etc) may be closed to ‘genre’ fiction but in recent decades Fantasy, Science Fiction and their disreputable kin have started to carve out a place in university courses and academic publishing. I’ve been lucky enough to teach courses on Fantasy and I hope to do again in the future. I’ll be sharing some of my experiences and thoughts here.

2 Philology

That would be the ‘words’ part of my post name. On a very basic level philology is the love of words. I’ll get around to defining it, and showing how difficult it is to define, soon. English, in one form or another, has been spoken for 1500 years. That’s a long history. But English is only one twig on one branch of the tree of language. (See Minna Sundberg’s beautiful chart here) It’s related to languages as different as Irish and Hindi. Seeing how these languages evolved and lived and changed in written and spoken art is one of the most exciting things I’ve been able to do in my studies.

I’ve taught Old English (back when the language looked a lot more like German) to some pretty nervous freshmen and seen their interest spark when they see the history words carry around in themselves. English spelling and grammar might seem crazy but it makes much more sense when you look at the history of the language.

Philology isn’t quite linguistics, it isn’t quite literary studies: it’s the best of both. Expect etymologies. And posts about how one word can change your whole interpretation of a poem, book or even historical period. And attempts to convince you that learning Old English is actually both fun and useful.

3 Translation and Adaptation

Speaking English as your first language is a blessing, and a curse. You can use it in so many places but the pressure to learn another language and open yourself up to other cultures is much lessened. For the past few years I’ve been learning a number of languages, both living and dead, and the benefits have been inestimable, especially for my literary studies. It has become pretty clear that you only really know a piece of writing well when you have to translate it. You start to see how many meanings one word can have, how slippery syntax can be and how much small changes can hugely affect meaning. You’ll never trust a translation again.

Related to my interest in translation is my interest in adaptation. When people react to film adaptations of books with ‘The book was better’ I’m always sorely tempted to argue ‘Better at doing what?’ The Hobbit films, for example, took a ton of flak for their treatment of the source material (and I’m not going to argue they’re successful even as films) but the reaction to them showed some pretty confused thinking about just what books and films try to do to make good art. This is worth teasing out.

One thing that reading Medieval literature teaches you is that people really like retelling stories, and changing them. In Beowulf and the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki we can see some of the ‘same’ characters and events told from two very different points of view. Enemies become allies and villains become heroes. The same applies, of course, for later literature. Do you know how few original plots Shakespeare had? And that’s even before people started retelling his works. But you can never tell the same story twice. And the small, and not so small, changes made can be fascinating to explore. Ere long I’ll be putting together a series of posts on adapting stories across media, starting with A Game of Thrones watchalong.

This blog is a way to remind myself, when times are tough, how much I love the weird, the fantastical, the old and strange, whether it be in books, art, films, and games; or the words and ideas they’re made out of. And maybe share some of that passion with you, dear reader.


One thought on “Words and Worlds

  1. You should keep writing, buddy. There aren’t enough blogs not written by assholes. We need more good words out there; they are all we have.


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