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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Not Poughkeepsie, No; Nor Elfland Either

In 1973 Ursula Le Guin published an essay on the importance of writing style in fantasy. That piece was titled “From Elfland To Poughkeepsie” and it has been oft-quoted and remarked upon by those who care about such things. I, too, care about such things, though I did not realize I cared about them until I bought a paperback copy of “The Wind's Four Quarters” at the age of seventeen and read what she had to say in that essay.

It starts like this:

Elfland is what Lord Dunsany called the place. It is also called [...] by many other names.

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast and beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion. But what happens when it is considered merely as a place to “get away to”?

What happens, according to Le Guin, is what happens at all national parks. People drive in in their air-conditioned mobile homes, bringing all their real-world accoutrements with them, and never really experience the place for what it is.

At first it seems as if she's talking about readers of fantasy, but we soon come to understand that she's talking about modern day (yes, I still consider those writing in 1973 to be 'modern day') fantasy writers. She then goes on to humiliate author Katherine Kerr for writing a passage in one of her books that, by changing only four words, could have been taken from a modern political thriller.

Le Guin takes great pains to explain why this approach is very wrong:

Seen thus, as art, not spontaneous play, [fantasy's] affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality.

No pressure there.

She takes no pains whatsoever, on the other hand, in separating out what we would today, by and large, term sword & sorcery, and what she calls heroic fantasy, as unworthy of discussion:

There would be no use at all in talking about what is generally passed off as “heroic fantasy,” all the endless Barbarians with names like Barp and Klod, and the Tarnsmen and the Klansmen and all the rest of them—there would be nothing whatever to say. (Not in terms of art, that is [...])

Le Guin goes on, of course, and gives many examples of what she considers the true fantasy writing style, from the past masters of the genre.

It's taken me 26 years to realize just what bothered me so profoundly about “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” It isn't that Le Guin had (and still has) such fixed ideas about art or the genre. Everyone is allowed those, and Le Guin far more than others, considering her iconic status and undeniable talent.

No, what bothered me about Le Guin's Elfland was in the little things she said that betray a larger issue in her perceptions of what fantasy should and should not be. When berating Kerr for her not-sufficiently-fantasy fantasy novel, she makes this comment about one of the characters who says “I could have told you that at Cardosa”:

Speech expresses character. It does so whether the speaker or the author knows it or not. When I hear a man say “I could have told you that at Cardosa,” or at Poughkeepsie, or wherever, I think I know something about that man. He is the kind who says, “I told you so.”

Nobody who says, “I told you so” has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.

The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness.

There, in those 101 words, Le Guin betrays her own character as a writer, whether she knows it or not; her own prejudices and presuppositions emerge. First, that a fantasy hero cannot/would not use pedestrian language (and to be fair, the whole essay is trying, in part, to make that point) and second, in an unstated, perhaps unintended, but quite direct way, that the heroes of Elfland must also be the Lords of Elfland.

It is inferred, this idea that a hero must be nobility, a ruler, one of the elite (though in a twisted sort of way it makes sense, since the nobility of Elfland can presumably afford diction and rhetoric tutors, thus ensuring that they will never speak such pedestrian, unheroic sentences as “I could have told you that at Cardosa.”)

But I wondered at seventeen, and still wonder today, why someone like me would ever want to visit somewhere like Le Guin's Elfland, a place where common speech precludes you from being heroic, where, if you are not a Lord, you are a spear carrier, unworthy of your words being set down, however much they might mean to you personally.

In Le Guin's Elfland, one is not allowed to merely ask for a cold leg of rabbit, oh no. One cannot merely say, “I am hungry; share your food, won't you?” One must ask for it heroically:

Detestable to me, truly, is loathsome hunger; abominable an insufficiency of food upon a journey. Mournful, I declare to you, is such a fate as this, to one of my lineage and nurture!”

Heroic, or bombastic? I think you can guess what my opinion is.

The entire point of “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” is, ostensibly, that the would-be writer of fantasy must tread a very narrow path, sanctified by the stylists of the past. It is that, more than anything, which bothered me at age seventeen, though I could not at the time phrase it in such a concise, rational way. 

Ultimately, Le Guin's Elfland is an incredibly elitist place. It is not a national park. It is a game preserve for some great lord, with stiff penalties for trespassing, and even stiffer ones for poaching.

But the truth is, Elfland did not suddenly spring into being when Lord Dunsany first whipped out his pen. It is a far older, far more wild place, and it is inhabited not only by lords and those creatures that give them the opportunity to be heroic. Its roots, the life that makes it “superrealistic” can be found in all the old fairy tales, from Snow White to The Three Ivans. Elfland was breathed into life, literally, by peasants and commoners and passed down orally from generation to generation by those who had no notion of what fantasy style “ought to be.”

Yes, there is something that makes Elfland a special, dangerous place. But I'm terribly sorry to say it isn't whether an ostensible hero of Elfland ever utters the phrase “I could have told you that at Cardosa.” And when we move away from the idea that the lords are automatically the heroes, so too will we move out of the game preserve and into the wider, wilder expanses of Elfland which, as G.K. Chesterton once said, 'is a world at once of wonder and of war.'

Le Guin rails against pedestrian language in a genre that should, by rights, be something special, something magical. I agree whole-heartedly with the special and magical part. But I believe she missed her mark in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” She mistook special for exclusive. Worse, she mistook form for content. After all, when have heroic words ever made a satisfying substitute for heroic deeds?

We, as readers, and hopefully as humans, judge a hero by their actions, not by their lineage or the way they use second person singular. We judge writers of fantasy by the sense of wonder they engender in us, and by the depth of engagement and immersion the world they have devised affords us. We may well turn to fantasy for the “distancing from the ordinary” that Le Guin assumes, but I'm completely certain such a distancing does not require the load of stylistic prescription that Le Guin tells us it does. Most fantasy readers want a good story, well-told, that transports them to Elfland. That's all they want, and they aren't terribly concerned about whether they go on foot, on dragon's back, or in a minivan. The destination is the journey.

I could have told thee that at Poughkeepsie, Ursula.

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