Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

August 12, 2009

Tigana, part 1 – A Blade in the Soul

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:19 am

To begin at the beginning, with the author’s acknowledgements. He cites a number of scholars; the three I know offhand are Joseph “Hero’s Journey” Campbell, Robert “White Goddess” Graves, and Johan Huizinga. So altogether, a nice mix of “ooh, interesting”, “hm, could be entertaining if he doesn’t take Graves too seriously”, and “oh, god, not Campbell again”.

Next we have one of the most traditional markers for Fantasy of all; a pronunciation guide. This particular one consists of “most of it is Italian”. And speaking of traditional markers, here’s the map. The Palm looks very much like Italy turned upside down; across the water there’s what looks like the edge of a continent, Khardun, and Ygrath and Barbadior indicated by arrows pointing west and east respectively. To the south is Quileia, and we have no clue what any of these places are like.

And now the text, with the Prologue. The land is lit up by two moons, and a falling star arcs across the sky. We’re in a battle camp by the River Deisa, on the eve of a war, and “the dark-haired Prince of grace and pride” is giving the boys a touch of Harry in the night. They know perfectly well they’re going to lose, against the sorcerer-king of Ygrath; but that isn’t going to stop them. “The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us.”

Part 1 – A Blade in the Soul. Chapter 1 opens in a khav room, thus proving once again Diana Wynne Jones’s adage in Nad and Dan adn Quaffy that there’s always some variant of coffee around. A bit of background; the Palm is divided between two tyrants now, Alberico of Barbadior and Brandin of Ygrath. Given the Interestingly Cryptic nature of the scenes with a particular musician, he’s clearly one of our heroes. The chapter ends on the words “he’d forgotten to ask the musician his name” – and this is, of course, a theme we’ll be seeing over and over again. It’s all about names.

The other thing it’s all about, of course, is the sea, and the next chapter opens with one Devin getting drunk in a bar by the docks. Devin is a lot smarter, more resourceful, and emotionally useful than the typical 19-year-old we meet in the early stages of Big Fantasy, and that’s a refreshing change. Apart from a bit of Golden Bough background, and an introduction to a couple of people who will later become important, that’s it for this chapter – except that we learn the name of the musician from earlier, Alessan di Tregea.

The third important theme is music, and they’re all working together – Alessan, Devin, and a young redheaded singer named Catriana who resents Devin for making it look so easy. The fourth is sex, preferably illicit, kinky, and/or socially unapproved sex – and from the text, I can’t decide whether bisexuality falls into that category or not. It’s worth noting that just about all the sex anyone has, for most of this novel, is very much for a purpose – it’s to distract someone, to get close to them so they can die, as a hopeless beacon of protest in the darkness. We’ll see more about that when we come to Part 3.

In Chapter 4, it looks like Devin’s stumbled into the intersection of two complicated conspiracies – the Duke of Astibar has taken the Juliet Drug to make sure he and a few others have time to talk unobserved by Alberico’s agents. Alessan crashes the party before the Duke wakes, and points out that getting rid of one tyrant won’t do; the other will just take over the entire Palm. So here we have yet another theme, that of compromise with the stubborn imperatives of pride. More gnomic comments about names, and then – cave! Alberico’s coming. Someone betrayed the party; everyone dies before they can talk, except the Duke’s son Tomasso. Whom, it turns out, is gay and sadomasochistic, and wears makeup, and who “would leave nor ever a name to be spoken, let alone with pride”, and who is Secretly Very Competent. What a surprise that was! Seriously, though, it’s good to see a fantasy book that doesn’t immediately jump on any of those things as signifiers of Evil.

Outside, the conspirators test Devin out by telling him a story. The map shows a province called Lower Corte; the people of that province killed Brandin’s son during the conquest. In revenge, the sorcerer took their name away, so that no-one who was not born in that province could hear and remember the name of Tigana. They can speak it, but nobody will hear.

That’s really horrible – I find it an incredibly cruel revenge, to erase the identity of a people like that, and give them no way to represent themselves to others, no voice. To force them to use another’s name for their land, and to know that their children will be strangers, foreigners, that their home is lost and will die with them. And unlike most instances, this was done to them deliberately. I’ve got a particularly strong viewpoint on this one, of course, since I’m Cymraeg. Both in my country and in Scotland, the native languages were abandoned, the English names were the “real” ones, children were beaten for speaking Welsh or Gaelic at school – and the worst, saddest thing is that we did that to ourselves, to our own children. We told them to go and be English, because it was the only way they’d get on in the world, the only way they had to be better than they were.

Devin, on the other hand, was born in Tigana and can hear the name – and these passages, again, are full of water metaphors. We hear throughout the book that there’s a special connection between Tigana and the sea, even when it’s not stated outright as it is here. “If something could be remembered, it was not wholly lost” – and that shard of hope, those few people who remember and care, is all they’ve got. It doesn’t look like much, but that’s no excuse – and Alessan, it turns out, is the Prince of Tigana, child of the prideful Prince of the prologue.

The section ends as the Duke wakes, and joins with Alessan’s band because it’s the only revolutionary game in town; and when he admits to being a wizard, and uses his powers to visit his son Tomasso in prison and take him poison. The last words are “The difference between the spoken and the unspoken ceased to matter any more.”

May 30, 2009

Place names and a sense of history

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:27 pm

Reading Rush-That-Speaks’ livejournal post about MammothFail, I finally codified one of the principal issues I have with a great deal of (particularly American) fantasy, and why I instinctively class it as “fluff” or “not serious” in comparison to other examples.

There’s no sense of history, or of change. The names are all instantly legible – Oaktown, Kingswood, or Greywood, for instance. And I’ve heard Americans asserting that this makes them “sound English”. The thing is, though, that in Britain that’s a marker of newness, not of antiquity – if a place has a name that any English speaker can instantly understand, it’s not been around for very long at all.

The three examples I cited are all places in Britain, but in translation – Acton, for instance, the town in the oaks. Coed-y-Brenin, near where I grew up in Gwynedd, is Welsh – it translates as “the King’s wood”. Lytchett, in Dorset, and Llwydcoed near Aberdare both mean “grey wood”.

Names tend to stay the same, or at least the same at their root, while languages change around them. The River Avon, for instance – afon is the Welsh word for “river”, and in Irish & Scots Gaelic it’s abhainn, so what that means is that some dim Anglo-Saxon came along, said “‘ere, whatcha call that thing?”, the Celt he asked said “‘s a river, innit mate”, and the Anglo-Saxon put it down on his map as the River River.

Sometimes, though, two almost-parallel terms can survive alongside each other. For instance, the Welsh names for a lot of towns & cities begin with Caer (as in Cair Paravel – but pronounced more like “kyre”) and the English versions will usually end in -caster, -cester, or -chester. Chester itself is referred to on Welsh maps as Caer, and Gloucester is Caerloyw (“shining fortress”). But the two words, caer and castrum, aren’t from the same place at all – the Welsh just means an enclosed place, more or less the same as the hay component in southwest English placenames, while the English term is from Latin military terminology.

Actual castles in Wales (most of which were built by the English as instruments of subjugation) get referred to as Castell – Castell Harlech in Snowdonia, for instance.

“Snowdonia”, of course, is another example of the same linguistic layering and obfuscation. Any English speaker will vaguely recognise that the -ia suffix means “place of” or “around that sort of general area”, but “Snowdon” is the Saxon name for the highest mountain, meaning “Snow hill”. And in Welsh it’s Yr Wyddfa (though I don’t know the etymology) while the area is Eryri. It’s tempting to think that that means “eyrie” (since eryr means “eagle”), but it’s more likely just “highlands”. Of course, this isn’t just English nationalism (though that plays a large role) – Welsh place names are notoriously difficult for the English anyone else to get right.

Which name you use for a place can be highly politicised, too – mention in the wrong pub that you’re thinking of a trip to Derry, or to Londonderry, and you may well be In Trouble.

Tolkien, unsurprisingly, is very good on this. Fornost Erain became Norbury of the Kings, and Amon Sul became Weathertop, while the Tower of the Sun became the Tower of Guard.

Robert Jordan has instances of interestingness, too – Mafal Dadaranell became Fal Dara, and Al’cair’rahienallen became Cairhien. Of course, since we learn this from the Ent expy, it’s an obvious homage to Treebeard’s comment that the Land of the Valley of Singing Gold has become the Dreamflower, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Juliet McKenna’s Einarinn books have a couple of instances of the same thing – Kel’Ar’Ayen (the new continent) becomes Kellarin over time. Though, oddly, there’s no sign of anything similar happening to the original continent of Tren’Ar’Dryen, and the name just falls out of use.

On the other side, we have David Eddings (yes, yes, cheap target, I know). In the world of the Belgariad, almost all countries have uniform naming schemes. The capital of Tolnedra is Tol Honeth, and the other cities are all Tol Something; the capitals of Arendia are Vo Mimbre, Vo Astur (ruined) and Vo Wacune (ruined and genocided). Everything in Gar og Nadrak starts with Yar, and everything in Cthol Murgos with Rak. Of course, there’s an in-universe explanation for this, in that the Gods really did just dump people down into a wide-open uninhabited land, but again that’s an in-universe explanation. We don’t see it except from characters in the narrative, so we’re entitled to treat it with Suspicion… especially considering that marginal savage demon-worshipping peoples survive in the icy or jungle-covered parts nobody else wants. They even wear feathers.

Raking through the shelf of books I might want to read again someday, but probably not, I found an even better example – Jane Lindskold’s Through Wolf’s Eyes. Flipping to the front of the guidebook for the map, I see New Kelvin and Dragon’s Breath by the Sword of Kelvin mountains. The White Water River runs down to the sea at Port Haven, passing by Stilled, Gateway to Enchantment, Plum Orchard, and (oddly) Zodara. Scattered across the rest of the map, we see Eagle’s Nest Castle, Rock Fort (by Broadview), Revelation Point Castle, and Good Crossing.

This is clearly a colonialist land, though we can hold out some hope for Zodara. Flipping through it – since I haven’t a clue what it’s like after so long – I see kings, queens, Grand Duchesses, both “societies” and noble houses named after animals, but no mention of where the colonists come from (except a tantalizing note at the top of the obligatory genealogical chart full of Adjectivenoun Names that some dates are in the “Gildcrest Colonial Calendar”) and no mention of any indigenous population. Not even any fairy mounds.

Seriously, this makes Eddings look good.

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