Saturday, October 29, 2011

"On Thud and Blunder" for our Times?

By: Schick

Poul Anderson's "On Thud and Blunder" is a classic essay on errors of fact in fantasy that detract from verisimilitude and may interfere with the reader's willing suspension of belief.  I recommend it to all mythopoets, be they writers or gamers.  One of our fellow Ramblers (thanks, Sarah!) pointed me to K. V. Johansen's "Five Things You Should Never Do in Epic Fantasy."  Johansen's essay follows in the same vein.  I recommend it for your consideration, as I know I will be rereading it.

Number one on Johansen's hit list is all you post-Enlightenment city-slickers out there who toss hay-bales into the scenery on the way from the keep to the dungeon.  Many of us are so historically out-of-touch, we imagine the above is a traditional bucolic image.  Why?  Because all contemporary urbanites know that nowadays, bales of hay are rectangular for convenient seating or stacking and bound with tight plastic.  Check the OED! thunders Johansen.  Might as well ask me to eat vanilla ice cream or take a nap.  

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Harvesters, 1565
Now, I don't have the room or the money to fulfill my dream of personally shelving the venerable set, and Fate has been cruel to my magnifying glasses, so for years I've been making doT with the two-volume, Shorter OED as the next-best thing.  Bale (third entry) leaves me in a bit of quandry: L15-E19.  That is some range there, clerks of Oxenford.  Maybe the full version tells a more complex tale, but it looks reasonable to me that the word entered English from the Dutch during the time when we were doing lots of business with them involving "package[s] of merchandise, originally round in shape, now usually compressed, wrapped in tight canvas etc., and tightly corded or hooped."  If so, the late middle ages seems likely.  No examples are given in SOED.  With one of my favorite Pieter Bruegel paintings firmly in my imagination, I look up "hay" to see what gathered hay might have been called in ye olden days.  Haystack?  Bundles or trusses held with a hayband?  (Yeap, there is a word for what you see at the top of those things that I guess we are not going to call bales.) Sadly, the historical stuff is what gets trimmed down for the shorter version.  Hayrick? Haycock?  Heaps?  Piles?  Now I see we were just being linguistically lazy no matter how the anachronism issue plays out.  Also, I get the feeling that we have size issues here that could benefit from accuracy.  Do I see a haystack in the far distance in the left background?  Then I want to call those things in the right middle of the painting something else, like bundles of hay.  (By the way, you really have to see this big blond beauty in person at the National Gallery in London.  Man, PB really has created a psychological study of humanity in this masterpiece that you don't see when you are looking at the whole instead of the parts.)

Historical linguistics and creative writing is a tough intersection.  How far do we take things?  Where are the lines?  Johansen is lying in wait for me if I refer to the peasants baling hay, but I bet if I refer to the above as corn harvest (it's actual title, unless you want to call it August), then most of my readers, Americans of various stripes, I'd wager, are going to have heads filled with maize: a crop I am not going to put in my imaginary worlds unless you are on your way to dreaded Tamoachan (a one-way ticket to Xibalba!).  But for the majority of the history of the English language, corn is the right word, so we had corn supply, corn laws, corn riots, and even corn rebellions. (Helpful hint: If you are the player playing Rome, never lose control of Egypt.  Never.)  So we have the history of language behind us, our mythopoesis churning within us, and the audience in front of us.  From before and behind, we have relevant issues interacting with our internal process that demand the best of our judgment in mediating these issues.  And remember, there's a few of us word mavens out there waiting, cudgels in hand.  I hope the links help you think well about how to do this, even if they don't give you the bread needed to buy yourself OED access.  Happy mythopoesizing!


  1. This was thought-provoking! I couldn't resist going to the Middle English Dictionary online, to see what that had to say about ye olden days hay-terminology. The things on the right in the picture certainly are haycocks ('a conical heap of hay in the field') but there are lots of medieval words for bundles or heaps of hay: the MED suggests a small heap is a hipple, a tass or a staddle, while a bundle is a knitch or a bottle. (All those are in the OED too). That would give some colour to a pre-modern rural setting...

    Looks like a big heap is just a haystack, though, which is dull by comparison.

    Speaking of hay and anachronisms (or rather the opposite, an author who does their research), wouldn't it be great to read a rural scene which uses 'aftermath' in its literal sense? And check out the first few definitions of 'wisp' in the OED... That surprised me.

    Thanks for the links - both very interesting.

  2. Since we have A Clerk of Oxford responding to a post reliant on the clerks of Oxford, maybe it is time for this panegyric:

    The clever men at Oxford
    Know all there is to be knowed.
    But none of them know half as much
    As intelligent Mr. Toad!

    Clerk, I will definitely follow up on these! Thanks for the great leads, and I'm glad you were provoked.

    People who are jiving on my post and Clerk's response like they are nectar from the lips of the muses should check out Ring of Words: Tolkein and the OED. The book is great, and some poking around on iTunes should turn up some free lectures by the authors and other scholars on Tolkien and language.

  3. Wouldn't a suitably fantastical fantasy world replace technology with magic, explaining the baling of hay? I realize that is a slippery slope, full of hand-waving and other dismissery, but I wouldn't have a problem with such an explanation for something which is fairly mundane.

  4. Mike:
    It has come to our attention that you are agitating for the popular availability of magic. Demagoguery aimed at devaluing magic will not be tolerated by the Guild. The practice of the Arts Arcane demands years of dedicated study and expensive practice. The idea that benefits owed to the few should be pressed from them and given to the many at low cost is the idea of a thief. You will cease spreading your radical ideas or expect Unpleasant Visitations of Magical Varieties.
    You have been warned.
    The Conjurers' Guild of Fawtlondonium
    A Member of the Universal Arcanium of Registered Magi