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 d—n and even b—ch, … [but was] always jarred out of … [his] reading by the word f—k or c—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 can’t say it another way, you aren’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.

   From Joe:

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 don’t like the occasional jarring that occurs. Does my Christianity affect this? Yes, I’d be a liar if I didn’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.

  • Joe Sherry September 23, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    I don’t have much to say about Joe’s article or yours (except that I agree and the swearing should be appropriate for a – the audience, b – the writer, c – the setting, d – the story), but I was thinking about Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales.

    I took a class on Chaucer in college and one thing that I noticed, and was pointed about by the professor, was that Chaucer’s work is very ribald, laced with profanity, references to genitalia, puns on genitalia, and so on and so forth…and while Chaucer is telling stories set more or less in his era, his era was not too far off some of the medieval times epic fantasy is aping.

  • Jebus September 23, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    I’ve been a reader of fantasy for about 20 years now and frankly swearing in fantasy novels doesn’t bother me in the least. I swear in every day life – maybe more than I should – so I expect characters to do the same. We don’t all come from a Christian background or even a background where swearing is frowned upon.
    I believe it can be used to great effect so long as it isn’t overused – thinking of Erikson and Pratchett as prime examples of excellent use – and I detest, absolutely DETEST faux swearing for the sake of being “polite”. Say what you mean and say it proud.

  • John (Grasping for the Wind) September 24, 2007 at 4:37 am

    You nailed my argument well Aidan. I think that there just needs to be balance. Authors should write the character and use language that is appropriate to situation. They should also think about audience and take that into account as well. I would not hand GRRM to my children, but I might hand it to a friend. I might hand Abercrombie to a college student, but would shy away from giving it to a middle schooler. Audience has effect, even if the author simply is trying to write to be honest.

    A lot of this stems from my beliefs and my judeo-Christian heritage, as I mentioned in my article. So what is not okay for me will be okay for someone who was raised or believes differently. That makes sense. I still think that no matter what one believes, there can be overuse of swearing to the point that no one enjoys the novel. Or only a limited audience anyway. Abercrombie does not fall into that trap, for which I am grateful (since his book is so good!)

    I love GRRM’s books. I find them disturbing, provocative, and extremely well-written. Would I take a care who I recommend them too? Yes. Will I stop readin them just becasue of swearing? No, because that is not all a story is. It is one element only.

    To Joe Sherry: remember that Chaucer was trying to ridicule the class and society in which he found himself, hence having characters say or do things that normally wouldn’t have happened in polite society. Of course, we romanticize medieval culture way too much just as the medievals were guilty of romanticizing King Arthur. Or the Romans the Greeks. All cultures are blind to the reality of the dirt muck an filth of the history.

    I like Abercrombie because that is essentially what he is trying to show. He is tearing down those preconceptions and rtomaticization of fantasy. Does he swear more than I’d like? Perhaps. But his characters call for it too a certain extent in order to ridicule the romanticizing of the medieval setting so many fantasies fall into. So call Abercrombie the new Chaucer for our genre. I think he’d like that.

  • Joe Abercrombie September 24, 2007 at 10:28 am

    Sh*t, yes!

  • The Book Swede September 24, 2007 at 11:02 am

    I come from a reasonably heavy religious background, but I myself am an atheist. I also like fantasy. Not something my parents were that impressed with…

    Anyway, I find the use of swearing within a novel fine*, and agree with Joe’s point about ridiculously convoluted blasphemies (can you call them blasphemies if they’re against gods which are literary creations?) which do jolt more than swearing. “By the eye teeth of Spamra, the Dark One” will set me laughing (and in that kind of novel maybe it is a good substitute) but a simple sh*t would be, forgive the irony, cleaner.

    Some made-up swearing is OK, though. Robert Jordan’s use of the curse “Light” and “Light and bloody ashes”, etc is fine by me — but then some would say that the word bloody is really swearing. I guess it’s all a matter of opinion.

    I liked John’s post, though, because it was very fair to both sides of the opinion.

    *Swearing can upset my reading experience and bring me back to Earth, though, when the author has been very polite all the way through, using clever ways of avoiding swearing, but right at the end, one of the characters says “f*ck” — if you’re gonna use it, use it, don’t save it for the end, when I’ve got used to you avoiding it!

    Bl*rgo! — What a confused reply by me ;)

    The Book Swede

  • […] couple of interesting posts on swearing in speculative fiction at Joe Abercrombie’s blog and at Dribble of Ink. Some people apparently feel that normal English curses like fuck, cunt, shit, motherfucker or […]

  • aidan September 24, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    RE: Joe
    Hey, if a little bit of Chaucer rubbed off on some of today’s more rambunctious Fantasy authors, that can’t be a bad thing, right? You’re also correct that the setting of Chaucer’s stories does indeed reflect that of many of the Fantasy world’s in question.

    RE: Jebus

    First, with a name like Jebus I’d hope you wouldn’t be offended by swearing and using God’s name in vain!


    It would be interesting to find out from some Christian authors where they stand on the subject of swearing and whether there are any very devout Christians who do, indeed, have swearing and foul-mouthed characters in their novels, despite their own religious beliefs.

    RE: John
    Nice to see you drop. Even nicer to see that you’re still on good terms with me! It was great to see someone approach this article in a civil manner and eloquently state an opinion that was opposite mine! It gave us the perfect opportunity to look at both sides of the subject.

    I think you’re right that of course there would be a point where bad language could be overused to such an extent that it would get in the way of proper storytelling. A little akin to horror-porn (movies like Hostel, Saw, etc…), and I hope never to run into a novel like that.

    I like what you had to say in response to Joe’s Chaucer statement, it is indeed curious how much we romanticize medieval times. Having never lived during the time period I can’t say exactly what they’re like, but I’m sure they weren’t nearly as much of a Faerie Tale as many authors make it out to be! That’s what appeals to me about authors such as GRRM and Guy Gavriel Kay, I get a sense that they really do their research into what it would really be like to live in the time periods they are trying to emulate.

    RE: The Other Joe
    Judging by your response, it seems like you do enjoy being called the Chaucer of our genre!

    RE: Chris
    I actually just had one of those moments with Tobias Buckell’s novel, Crystal Rain: the language is rather tame throughout most of the novel, but near the end there were a couple of swear words thrown in and I was thrown for a bit of a loop! Looking back on it, though, it makes sense because of how the character progresses through the novel.

    I don’t mind made up swearing, I suppose. I prefer when it’s character specific, though. The Wizard, Zedd, from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth Novels, for instance, always says “Bags” instead of swearing and I always found it endearing. If every character in the novels was saying the same though, though, I imagine it would get irritating. Everyone has quirky words and phrases they say in real life, so it’s a nice little insight to a character when they have their own exclamation like that.

  • Robert September 25, 2007 at 8:14 am

    Well, it’s not something I’ve really thought much of, so I don’t have anything intelligent to say ;) Basically, it doesn’t bother me either way as long as it ‘fits’ with the book, but there have been novels where I thought the cursing felt out of place, and others that I thought could have benefited from some edgier language ;)

    Regardless, good reading…

  • Narnek July 1, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    I know this is an old post but it’s a topic that i find interesting.

    Why is swearing unchristian?

    Or to put it another way; why do people who consider themselves Christian get upset about swearing?

    Or another way; What has swearing got to do with religion?

    Please understand I am not having a dig at religion.

    People will swear for the rest of time, if you can’t write it into a book then there is something out if kilter with the world.

  • […] literally as anyone who has read any of the First Law books will know. There’s already been plenty of internet discussion about that so I won’t bother to rehash. Although I did find the […]

  • […] The first thing he tackles is a subject I (along with John from Grasping for the Wind and Joe Abercrombie) am familiar with. Swearing. […]

  • […] A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was starting to feel a little oversaturated with Fantasy. As someone who runs a blog centred around the genre, and also an aspiring writer working in the genre, this could be a rather distressful type of comment. One of my readers, Sean, thought so, too: […]