• Fiona McIntosh: Voyager Author of the Month

    Fiona McIntosh was born and raised in Sussex in the UK, but also spent early childhood years in West Africa. She left a PR career in London to travel and settled in Australia in 1980. She has since roamed the world working for her own travel publishing company, which she runs with her husband. She lives in Adelaide with her husband and twin sons. Her website is at www.fionamcintosh.com.

    Her latest book, The Scrivener's Tale, is a stand-alone and takes us back to the world of Morgravia from her very first series, The Quickening:


    About The Scrivener's Tale:

    In the bookshops and cafes of present-day Paris, ex-psychologist Gabe Figaret is trying to put his shattered life back together. When another doctor, Reynard, asks him to help with a delusional female patient, Gabe is reluctant... until he meets her. At first Gabe thinks the woman, Angelina, is merely terrified of Reynard, but he quickly discovers she is not quite what she seems.

    As his relationship with Angelina deepens, Gabe's life in Paris becomes increasingly unstable. He senses a presence watching and following every move he makes, and yet he finds Angelina increasingly irresistible.

    When Angelina tells Gabe he must kill her and flee to a place she calls Morgravia, he is horrified. But then Angelina shows him that the cathedral he has dreamt about since childhood is real and exists in Morgravia.

    A special 10th Anniversary edition of her first fantasy book, Myrren's Gift, will be released in December!

     

     

How JRR Tolkien’s Modern English Helped Inspire Blake Charlton’s Spellwright

When language holds extraordinary power ... you want to get your spelling right!

Most fantasy readers know that Tolkien invented his own languages, drawing from his knowledge of Old English, Old Norse, Finnish, and Welsh. Fewer readers realize that he dreamt up his stories of Middle-earth for his languages, not the other way around.

The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. (Letters p.219)

When I first discovered this, it made me queasy. I’d found Tolkien’s untranslated passages of Quenya or Sindarin to be beautiful, certainly. They commanded my admiration for their intricacy, beautiful calligraphy, and linguistic viability. But I loved Tolkien’s work, not for his use of invented languages, but for his use of English. It was the characters and stories as told in modern English that touched me. And yet here I had discovered that Tolkien felt that they were derivative from—and therefore seemingly less important than—his synthesized languages. That’s not to say I thought he disregarded characters or story; clearly he had a masterful control and appreciation of both. But still, that he should exalt synthetic language over character upset me. Tolkien is the Homer of our literary tradition. Would Homer have honored another language above his Greek? The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me.

Then I began to write Spellwright—my first novel, an epic fantasy that take place in a world where written words can be peeled off the page and made physically real. Before I could finish the book, I needed to reconcile myself to the greatest author in the tradition. I did some research into Tolkien’s relationship to modern English. In the foreword to his excellent analysis, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey provides an overview of Tolkien’s conception of language before going on to provide hundreds of pages of evidence for this overview:

Tolkien was the holder of several highly personal if not heretical views about language. He thought that people, and perhaps as a result of their confused linguistic history especially English people, could detect historical strata in language without know how they did it. … [He also thought] that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied. He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one’s way back from the words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist…However fanciful Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was ‘reconstructing’, he was harmonizing contradictions in his sources-texts…he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in the collective imagination.” (Shippey xiv-xv)

When I first read this sentiment, I found it bizarre. But I had grown up nearly a century after and half a world away from Tolkien’s quiet Midlands. I’m a native of a young, Pacific, and cosmopolitan city filled predominately English and Spanish but flavored by Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Samoan, Tongan, and others. In my conception of the world, languages are constantly moving, constantly borrowing from or resisting each other. To me, language is in far too much international flux for anyone to intuitively suss out the historical vicissitudes of one in particular. My world was, and still is, more like medieval Britain when the Old Norse, Old English and various flavors of Celtic were all a tangle, stealing words from each other or resisting the urge to do so.

Though I found Tolkien’s linguistic beliefs strange, understanding them changed the way I saw both Tolkien and fantasy literature. Much in the same way that a hard SF novelist might cleave closely to the principles of physics of computer science to project us into a possible future, Tolkien was using his scholarship to project—not the reader forward in time—but himself backward in time. His characters and story (both of which he believed, in some way, actually existed in his homeland’s collective imagination) could only be reached through linguistic creation. Tolkien, like Homer, wanted to create a story that was ‘original’ in an ancient sense of “coming from the origin;” not in the modern sense of “starting a new origin.”

One of the delights of Tolkien’s work is that seeking to be original in the ancient sense, it became original in the modern sense. The list of epic fantasy authors to follow in our Homer’s footsteps is long, and the vast majority of them created (at least parts of) fictional languages to improve their world building. It must be admitted that many, lacking Tolkien’s expertise, failed at this endeavor. But there are glorious successful examples. Most inspiring to me were Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, which created a world in which those who could glean the ‘true name’ of a person, object, or animal could exercise power over it.

In writing Spellwright, one of my primary goals was to create an epic fantasy that added something original, in the modern sense, to the tradition of epic fantasy and language. In attempt to do so I drew upon my personal experiences as a dyslexic and upon my studies of the molecular languages of DNA and proteins, first as an undergraduate then as a medical student. Using those experiences I asked myself, what the world would be like if you could peel written words off the page and make them physically real? Could you cut yourself on a sentence fragment? Thrust a sharply worded invective at an enemy’s throat? How would physical language shape culture, technology, history? Tolkien created Middle-earth for his languages. But could I dream up a world built by—not around—its languages? More importantly, could I intertwine a character’s story into this world? Instantly, my disability provided the answer.

 Citations

Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, London: Geroge Allen & Unwin, 1981; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey, 2001; New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Debut novelist and medical student, Blake Charlton is a new face in both fields working to establish a dual career in fiction and medicine. Currently, Blake is writing fantasy novels, science fiction short stories, and academic essays on medical education and biomedical ethics (and very currently he is walking the Inca Trail in Peru! Visit the offical Blake Charlton website at www.spellwright.com and visit the Specusphere for Astrid Cooper’s interview with Blake.

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2 Responses

  1. I like your insight on the nature of language. Being immersed in Hebrew tradition I find the notion of spoken words’ achieving greater reality rather natural. As a writer I find Tolkien’s approach to language revealing. Perhaps, it is our sturdy western confidence in fixed meanings and precise definitions that doesn’t allow for an easy take on moveable meanings, straggling from historical depths. I believe I love Tolkien’s writings precisely because he is so language-centred. It feels completely natural, in my view, that the languages configure Middanyeard and not the other way around. Please do visit my blog if you find the time. I’ll shortly post a few essays on fantasy.

  2. Hi Pablo, I am _gratuitously_ late to reply to this, but I just fished the notification for for this comment out of my spam folder. Thank you very kindly for your comment. I do think you are onto something about how language-centered JRR is; lately I’ve been about how that speaks to something inside of us that we (ironically) don’t truly have word for. I will indeed check out your blog (far faster than it took me to reply to this). Thanks again for your contribution!

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