About a week ago, John (from Grasping for the Wind) posted a well thought out and articulated article on his stance regarding the presence of swearing in Fantasy novels. This is a topic I’m constantly thinking about and I planned on writing a response… but, well, time got away from me and I never really got around to it. Then Joe Abercrombie, (author of The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged and the forthcoming Last Argument of Kings, brought his own thoughts to the table and I figured this would be a perfect time to finally add my own ideas and opinions to the mix.
John’s article was fueled most heavily by a recent reading of Abercrombie’s novel, The Blade Itself, and while enjoyed the novel, he found himself able to “gloss over dâ€”n and even bâ€”ch, … [but was] always jarred out of … [his] reading by the word fâ€”k or câ€”t or some of the less common swear words.” Fair enough, I suppose; it can always be jarring to come across a disagreeable euphemism or cultural reference that, in theory, shouldn’t appear in the setting of the novel, but one also has to consider the most important aspect of the argument surrounding swear words in Fantasy: the setting.
John agrees, “I feel that it is just lazy of the author. If you canâ€™t say it another way, you arenâ€™t really trying very hard. Sometimes it is appropriate, especially in urban fantasy or some of the other subgenres. I can even accept it more so in science fiction since those worlds are built on our own, and we swear with certain words. But it lacks creativity in my opinion.” The problem that I have with this stance, however, is that it just plain isn’t realistic. Generally, Fantasy novels are based on a semi-medieval setting, based on our own world, but not set on our own world and based on this assumption I think there is a pretty good explanation for the use of language in a Fantasy world.
A Fantasy novel is a representation of a story happening in a universe. To my mind, this universe is probably separate from ours and therefore does not contain the English language (or the French, Spanish, Cantonese, etc… languages, for that matter) and so what an author is doing is, essentially, providing us with a translation of
the language spoken by the characters within this universe. Taken in this context, it makes perfect sense for an author to translate the curse words the characters are using into a form recognizable to us English speaking readers. Say Author A writes a novel and the characters, instead of saying f**k, say blargo and instead of going to castles they go to parches. Fair enough. But why would the author translate then translate parches into the English equivalent and not blargo?
Abercrombie has similar thoughts:
For me, as a reader, I find complicated oaths (by the holy beard of Swarfega etc.) to be unconvincing (and often truly risible) unless very well integrated into some specific element of a fantasy culture, and even then they are rarely a good substitute for a simple S**T in times of high excitement. When I stub my toe I very rarely reach for a culture-specific mouthful such as, “by the golden boots of David Beckham!” or some such.
To make up a word simply to act as a substitute for a perfectly good English word seems to me almost cowardly, and as a reader I would find it extremely irritating. After all, if frel or whatever is supposed to mean F**K, why not just call a spade a spade? And if it doesn’t mean F**K, then what the f**k is it supposed to mean? I can see the point if it means a TV show can air before the watershed, but I can’t for the life of me see the point in an adult work of fiction.
Take that, you straw motherf*cker!
Sure, the theory is a little meta, but I think we can agree that it makes some sense? If the English language doesn’t exist (as it couldn’t if the cultures and history of Earth doesn’t exist either) then everything we are reading is, in a sense, a translation. Of course, there are some authors who have chosen ways to avoid this. As John mentions, Urban Fantasy and Science Fiction are generally exempt from this rule because they take place either on Earth or in the same universe as Earth; but there are also some Fantasy novels that find nice loopholes: Terry Brooks’ Shannara novels, mainstays in the world of Fantasy, are set in a future version of our Earth; Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry features characters from our world traveling to another realm (as does Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Series); Greg Keyes’ The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone novels do something similar, with one culture having connections to the mysteriously disappeared colony of Roanoke, Virginia. Ironically these are some of the stories and series with the least amount of cursing in all of Fantasy.
One will often find that the novels that are rife with cursing (Abercrombie’s work, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards Sequence) are filled with cursing for a reason: the characters.
The notion that ‘folks all spoke nice in them old days’ is entirely a Victorian invention. The three words that I believe we are chiefly talking about here (F**K, S**T, and C**T, forgive my euphemisms) are all words with long and proud traditions in the english language, going back hundreds of years.
The simple fact of the matter is that bad language is as old a tradition as good language is. If an author is going to be attempting to create a world with any sort of realism and parallels to our own, then people are going to curse. A lot. Hell, I know people who probably swear more than any character in any of Joe’s novels.
For me, the inclusion of swearing isn’t about trying to inject grittiness, or to make my books adult, or even to try and make them sell (though that would be nice). It’s a question of honesty. You see, when I started writing, my Mum said to me, “Joe, you’ve got to be honest. You’ve got to think about every description, every line of speech, every image that you use and ask yourself – is this true? Is this how that thing really looks? Is this how a person would really speak? Keep everything absolutely true, and you can never go far wrong.” Best piece of advice I’ve ever had. Apart from don’t eat yellow snow, of course.
Now some folks might say, “hey, it’s fantasy, it doesn’t have to be real,” but I’d say the exact opposite. It’s happening in a made up place, so it has to be more real than ever. Its being fantasy doesn’t forgive its being unconvincing, its being dishonest, its being false. Between you (which of course is potentially the entire world, but f*ck it) and me, I think fantasy is a genre where authors get away with weak-ass, lazy dialogue way too often.
Soldiers swear. Little Midgets with missing noses swear. Charismatic Con-men swear. It’s a fact of life. Yeah, if the kitchen boy from a small village (always a popular protagonist) were to fill the novel with potty-mouthed language then it might seem a little out of place; but, if a Barbarian, considered by many to the be most dangerous man in the north, were to use bad language, would anyone really be surprised?
Cut out this foul language and any scenes with these characters are going to read like a 50 Cent music video, with half the dialogue and character missing from them. They’d feel hollow and unrealistic compared to their true form. John touches on this, too, saying that “the author has the right, nay the duty, to write as he wants and for his target audience.” This is true, but the author also has to listen to the characters within the story. If s/he’s writing a novel intended for children and populates the story with soldiers, criminals and prostitutes then perhaps the author should either target a new audience or tell a different story.
As a reader, there’s nothing more irritating to me than faux-shakespearian dialogue, “verily, my liege, we should teach these goblins a harsh lesson.” I swear a lot in my everyday work and home life, it’s part of my everyday mode of expression and that of most people I relate to, so it would seem odd to me if my characters didn’t. It would certainly seem very, very odd if characters who are, to put it nicely, scum, didn’t swear in life-threatening situations. There are some words I don’t use, because they don’t feel right in the setting. I don’t use b*ll*cks. Too English rugby club. I don’t use d*ck (if you’ll allow the expression), but I’ve nothing against c*ck and pr*ck, depending on who’s talking. After all, what are you supposed to call it? Or should you just avoid talking about it at all?
Incidentally, I’m not knocking writers who don’t use piles of swearing. That’s their business, and it’s all part of creating a consistent atmosphere that feels right and honest for them and their readers. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be improved if Gandalf told the Balrog to f*ck itself, for example. Or maybe it would?
I think what Joe is essentially getting at here is that cursing itself isn’t inherently good or bad, but instead it has to be used in the right way at the right times. As he says, The Lord of the Rings would not be a stronger novel if it was filled with swearing and cursing. The Blade Itself and A Game of Thrones, however, would be weaker novels without the heavy language. Even John agrees that swearing has its place, “Do I think a fantasy story should have no swearing in it? Yes, except in certain subgenres. Do I think it ruins the story completely? No, I can still enjoy it, but I donâ€™t like the occasional jarring that occurs. Does my Christianity affect this? Yes, Iâ€™d be a liar if I didnâ€™t say so.” So it seems like he and Joe can at least agree on a base level that the characters and the story are, in the end, the most important factor when deciding just how much cursing is appropriate in a novel.
As you can probably tell, I don’t mind strong language in my novels. I don’t swear a whole lot in real life, in fact my friends make fun of the way I speak because it’s very articulated and “cultured” (eh, not my intentions…), but in my writings I will often come across characters that do swear and use bad language. It’s none of my doing, and it doesn’t always happen, but sometimes the characters just demand it. In fact, in my latest project I was surprised to see that a character that I had originally thought was a sweet, naive girl was in fact a bit of a self-deprecating potty-mouth. The story is stronger for it, despite any intentions I may have had when I set out to write it.
Language is language and it needs to fit the characters just as comfortably as any other aspect. As long as an author stays consistent and believable in their depiction of the world and the characters they’ve created then all the foul language in their repertoire is fair game in my mind.