English for Epic Fantasy

In a very interesting blog post, Cheah Kit Sun explains why Chinese is a language uniquely suited for writing epic fantasy. It’s a good post and I recommend reading the whole thing. The short short version is that the Chinese language is packed with tons of meaning in each word, for various reasons but especially because etymology influences meaning.

To give a little bit of his post to show what he means:

Upon hearing the order, he answers, “弟子遵命!”

In English, this is usually translated as “Understood!” or “I will obey!”. But in Chinese, spoken as dizi zunming, it carries huge connotations.

弟子 means ‘disciple’ or ‘follower’. By using this term to refer to himself in the third person, Jiang demonstrates humility, and acknowledges and reinforces his relationship with [those who gave the order]. The word ‘弟’ means ‘younger brother’. More than just a student, he is considered part of the family. In classical Chinese etiquette, laid down by Confucius, everyone has duties to uphold to their social betters and inferiors. As the younger brother, he is expected to immediately and faithfully carry out all orders from his superiors. In turn, his elders are expected to nurture him, as if he were their younger brother.

遵命 is usually translated as ‘obey orders’ or ‘follow orders’. 遵 is to comply, to follow, to obey. It is also a homophone of 尊, to respect, honour and revere. 命 is an abbreviation of 命令, to ‘order’ and ‘command’. 命, by itself, means ‘life’.

These four words are spoken with literary meter and deep conviction. This line is not merely a soldier acknowledging an order. Terse and forceful, it is a warrior sage paying homage to his superiors, demonstrating humility, upholding the Chinese social contract, and speaking his convictions.

This is in keeping with other things that Benjamin (Kit Sun) has said when explaining the connotations which Chinese etymology imbue words. (For example, see my post Benjamin Kit Sun Cheah on Wuxia which quotes a Twitter thread of his.)

He’s also correct that English words frequently change meaning and that their etymology is not often revealing. It’s worse than this, since there is such a broad swatch of English speakers, every English word has been used to mean a wide variety of things. On the plus side, English speakers are fairly used to words being given specific definitions, so one strength of English is that it’s possible to develop specific definitions of a word and then use it that way to convey fine shades of meaning, even within a paragraph.

But what is the English speaker to do when he wants to convey a lot of meaning in a few words? Context is key, but English words don’t come with their own context.

There are two basic solutions, and really only one of them is available in fantasy writing (unless it’s urban fantasy).

The better, but less universally available approach, is reference, typically by quoting snippets. The most common sorts of references used to be from the bible because one could rely on people being familiar with it. For example, if you were to have the commander of an army be told that the village he’s about to attack is, in truth, not in the fight, and he replies, “Truth? What is truth?” That would convey a great deal about that commander.

Shakespeare is also common, even if he’s not always quoted correctly, as anyone who’s seen the phrase “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”. (In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the queen meant that the character in the play made too many vows, since at the time to “protest” was to assert something to be true, and the character was vowing that she would never remarry if her husband died. It did not mean that she objected to something too often.)

Interestingly, the common misquotation of Shakespeare with regard to protesting itself offers layers of meaning. It can be quoted correctly, which would also convey aspects of having actually read Shakespeare, or in the common way, which adds ambiguity. In either case, you can get a lot of meaning out of a few words not only because of the original referent, but also because of the intermediate referents.

The field for quotation is quite wide, of course. Consider the opening to Alexander Pope’s famous poem:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

It would be possible to convey quite a lot of meaning with just the words “a little learning”.

One cannot make use of quotations in high fantasy, though. In period fantasy (set in a historical timeplace) one would be quite restricted to giving characters words that might possibly have gotten to them; it would be a bit egregious to have a medieval knight quote a man who won’t be born for centuries (whether you’re talking about Shakespeare or Pope). So what is an English author to do in this case?

The solution here is to develop one’s own references. This can be part of world building—working into the narrative the stories that all children are told as they are growing up—or it can be part of the narrative itself, giving people noteworthy phrasings at critical moments that can be referred to later.

The phrasing must be noteworthy in order to be referenceable. Imagine how hard it would be to reference the annunciation if Gabriel had only said, “hello” and Mary had only said, “OK”, rather than “Hail, full of grace” and “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.” But, to be clear, the noteworthy aspect in this is not the archaic language that is commonly quoted. Even if one went with a more contemporary translation, such as from the New Jerusalem Bible, “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour!” and “You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said.” If one is referencing something, using the actual words of the quote is important; my point here is that if the words of this momentous occasion were commonly translated into contemporary English like that of the New Jerusalem Bible’s translation, they would be just as possible to reference. The key is that the way the thing is said must not be the most common way, and it can’t (with rare exception) be single words.

A good example of this comes from the movie The Princess Bride. The beginning fairy tale backstory builds up the meaning of “as you wish”, such that the phrase can convey tremendous meaning later on in the story, and can even be the grandfather’s way of telling his grandson how much he loves him at the end. That ending bears some examination to make my present meaning clear, btw. The phrase “as you wish” is not merely code for “I love you”, as if the original words don’t mean anything and are just an index into a code book, like one might have found during World War II. Instead, the grandfather is conveying the one level of meaning, “I love you” but also another layer of meaning, that the two now share the bond of shared knowledge. Another layer is that bond of friendship of both loving the same thing, together. There is even the layer of meaning that the two have gone through something together—the grandfather reading a story to an at-first unwilling grandson, and persevering through the grandson’s initial resistance, snarky comments, etc. The literal meaning of the phrase is also a layer of meaning, that the Grandfather is respecting the child’s will now, though he mostly wasn’t at the beginning, when his grandson would rather have been watching video games. Having gone through the story, the grandson has now matured enough that he can make his own decision about whether he would like it read a second time. Yet another layer of meaning is reflected in the structure of the containing story, where the child is growing up with modern things, like the video game he was playing when he was told his grandfather had arrived to read him a story; there is a gap between the generations. The grandfather gives him the book wrapped up, and when the kid opens it he is disappointed. “A book?” he says, incredulous. He had expected something he would recognize as giving pleasure. The grandfather replies, “That’s right. When I was your age, television was called ‘books,’ and this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick and I used to read it to your father, and today I’m going to read it to you.” In the end, that words from the book convey meaning from grandfather to grandchild means that this gap has been bridged. Not a shabby amount of meaning for three words to convey.