Reading Novels Aloud

English: Created by modifying this image Itali...
English: Created by modifying this image Italiano: Creata modificando quest’immagine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the pleasures of parenthood is reading to your children. Most children’s books read well out-loud. The Hobbit (a children’s book) is a great read. The Lord of the Rings, despite it’s length does pretty well, too. The early Harry Potter is also nice verbalized but, unfortunately, its suitability falls off near the end of the series. It isn’t that the novels get longer (LOTR isn’t exactly short), it’s that as they progressed, there gets to be too much plot filler (oh look, Ron and Harry are fighting like teenage girls again, we all know how that will end) and reading some of the dialogue with a she/he said plus adverb on every single piece of dialogue gets a little ridiculous (said the blogger, snarkily.) Even so, the Potter series was an enjoyable read through book 4, passable for another book but I gave up mid-way on book 6.

After not quite finishing book 6, it was time to find something new. I loved Dragon Riders of Pern (DRoP) as a teenager and still enjoy it, plus it’s on my kindle already so I decided to try that. Ouch. It takes a novel not very suitable for reading aloud to remind you of what makes a good one. DRoP had setting elements that proved a challenge: try distinguishing N’tol from Nytol when you are actually speaking it. It can be done but it’s a good way to trip you up. Then there are a lot of names with the same starting letter (F’nor and F’lar, neither of which really roll off the tongue.) But I think the real challenge is that the story flits around a lot in the first few chapters, both in scene and POV, making it fairly hard to follow as the listener is nodding off to sleep. I gave up on it as a bed-time read and went back to LOTR. It’s been a few years since I read that to my son and, for better or worse, it’s long enough to be the last thing I’ll read to him (most likely). He’s getting all growed-up.

Having wandered into a tough one and thinking about why it didn’t work as well, it seems it’s a combination of things: distinct and easy to pronounce setting names, places and terms. Clear POV is a huge help, preferably with only a few changes or at least a good while between changes. Same for settings: walking from one place to another is one thing but hopping from city to city, each with a different POV, can make it rather hard, especially when there are several per chapter.

As a writer, I do find reading my own scenes aloud helps both find problems but also produces better prose. Writing a book that is suitable for being read out-loud isn’t an explicit goal but I would be happy if folks found it suitable.

I suspect most YA and younger makes a good read-aloud book. Any thoughts on what makes a good read-aloud, be it a specific book or general observations?

Norse Myths, Tolkien, and Fantasy Worldbuilding

Cover of "The Norse Myths (Pantheon Fairy...
Cover via Amazon

It’s no secret that J. R. R. Tolkien was very familiar with Northern European mythology. After all, he is credited with a seminal lecture on Beowulf and was a professor of middle English literature. Still, it’s quite entertaining to actually peruse the Northern world and its myths. For me, they seem cleaner and more raw than those of the Mediterranean world, part of why they are the underpinning of my Calyx world where my last story took place and where I hope to write more.

Recently I returned to two great sources for this period, The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson. The former consists mostly of translations of the available myths- sadly, there seem to have been many that are now lost. The introductory chapter is a great survey of the culture and available sources. The end-notes also add quite a lot (more on that in a bit, but think “dwarf names”). Davidson’s work is more scholarly and a bit more dry but fascinating all the same. She quotes from the myths but focuses more on the culture, gods, and worship, including especially interesting sections on shamans and seers.

Cover of "Gods and Myths of Northern Euro...
Cover of Gods and Myths of Northern Europe

The Norse gods, such as they come down to us in the fragments we still have, seem more human to me. You could imagine almost any of the warriors in The 13th Warrior revealing himself as a god in disguise, something it is a little hard, for me at least, to imagine with the Greek or Egyptian or other mythos I’m familiar with. The Norse gods are both more fallible and more friendly– except perhaps for Odin. And their cosmology of multiple planes linked by a world tree seems especially romantic (talk about high fantasy 🙂 ). Even the dichotomy of Aesir and Vanir hints at ancient battles ending in stalemate, a fascinating relic to find in the myths. It’s a great place to look for inspiration when creating a fantasy setting.

If there is interest, I’ll start posting about the Norse myths. For today, however, I’ll just end with dwarvish names as listed in the Creation myth. This myth explains the origin of the current world starting with Ymir, a giant who formed in the rime in Ginnungagap, the space between searing Muspell and frozen Niflheim. It continues through the three worlds and the various races. Among the people of the Norse world were, of course, the dwarves. Not to be confused with the un-magical dwarves of D&D and the like, the Norse dwarves are masters of magic, creators of much of the gods’ special items. They tend to be misshapen, small, dwell-underground, and above all, covetous. Tolkien capture much of this sense in The Hobbit and his other works, although he softened them somewhat because in the myths, they tend to be relentlessly dark. Speaking of dark, there’s reason to be believe dark elves and dwarves are the same beings, at least in the Norse myths, if not in D&D 🙂

In the end notes (p. 183 of the paperback edition) on the creation myth, Crossley-Holland gives the names of the first dwarves. You might recognize a few of them, especially if you allow for alternate spellings:

Nyi, Nidi, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Althjof, Dvalin, Bifur, Bombor, Nori, Oinn, Mjodvitnir, Vig, Gandalf (!), Vindalf, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Fundin, Vali, Thror, Thrain, Thekk, Lit, Vit, Nyr, Nyrad, Rekk, Radsvid, Draupnir, Dolgthvari, Haur, Hugstari, Hledjolf, Gloin, Dori, Ori, Duf, Andvari, Heptfili, Har, Sviar, Skirfir, Virfir, Skavid, Ai, Alf, Ingi, Eikinskjaldi, Fal, Frosti, Fid and Ginnar

I used to think the dwarves in The Hobbit had childish names because it was a children’s book but when you remember that these myths were entirely oral traditions until they were transcribed in the Christian era, you can appreciate that many of the name pairs (Dori and Ori, Bifur and Bombor) were meant to aid recollection. I always get a kick out of seeing Gandalf’s name among the dwarves, as well.

Dark Ages as a Setting

Arthurian knight
Arthurian knight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a healthy near-future apocalyptic genre but it’s more rare to find this as a fantasy setting. This is unfortunate because a Dark Age scenario has a lot to offer the fantasy worldbuilder: the struggle to preserve the old, or just to survive, small warbands with plenty of scope for heroes, limited world knowledge that means your readers learn about the world as the characters explore it.

The term is out of favor with historians. Before more modern research and archaeology, the post-Roman to early Middle Ages period was very little known, thus the appellation “dark.” It is still a poorly documented era but between more thorough archaeology and review of existing documents, it doesn’t appear quite as unknowable as it used to be. Lesser known (and still much more ‘dark’) are other periods following a collapse of civilization, especially the famous one at the end of the east Mediterranean Bronze Age.

Interestingly, historical Dark Ages give rise to some of the greatest stories of all: in a time of decay and hard-scrabble existence, people seem to need heroes more than ever. Thus, out of the British Dark Ages, we get the Arthurian stories. And from the Bronze Age collapse, we get the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although, it’s rather curious that the Bronze Age heroes are the very pirates who probably played a role in the collapse whereas King Arthur, of course, is cast as a defender against the darkness. Odysseus wasn’t called “sacker of cities” for nothing: the Greek kings were raiders.

There are two sub-genres for a Dark Age setting: the onset and the aftermath. Both offer rich opportunities for writers but let’s treat them separately.

Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de - Fire of Troy
Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de – Fire of Troy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collapse of Civilization

The details of this situation depend on the cause of the collapse. In most fictional cases, it is the clash of civilization and barbarians, although in a fantasy world the latter could be anything from orc hordes to undead to a witch-queen and her evil minions. However, it could also be the result of some sort of environmental or magical catastrophe. In the event of the latter, you lose the opportunity for a stark, sentient foe but depending on the cause of the catastrophe, this might provide a great premise, for instance: what happens when magic is overused? Or, what if the gods disappeared? Or, what if magic ceased to function?

In both cases, you still have characters dealing with their world falling apart: how do they protect their own, how do they even find food, where can they find safety and shelter. This is the story of people who have everything suddenly having to deal with the most basic needs in a world made exceptionally harsh by too many people fighting over the scraps. This basic premise of what happens to the civilized person thrown into the uncivilized world is at the root of many stories from Lord of the Flies to Mad Max but it is not as common in the fantasy world.

In the case of a foe of some sort causing the collapse, now you have the chance to have your protagonist face a horrible, alien foe. There’s a lot of drama potential in the clash of two incompatible forces, wonderful scope for sacrifice and heroes, loss and despair.

While King Arthur is more commonly depicted in modern fiction as occurring in the Dark Ages, rather than at its start, the sources are actually about a warleader (in the earlier records, not even a King) at the collapse of Roman civilization in Britain trying to hold back Saxon invaders.

In the Dark Age

The second type of story occurs after the collapse. The old world is gone, except for ruins and stories of ancient glories. A fraction of the old population remains, barely able to scratch an existence. In the struggle for survival, with the loss of so many books and scholars, knowledge and literacy are either gone or remembered by a very few. Order has broken down and people turn to local strongmen for protection. These strongmen will in time become petty kings but early in the period they are simply men (and possibly women) violent and ruthless enough to hold off other strongmen who would plunder and murder. For this protection, the bulk of the population offers food and services, usually willingly at first but in time, often coerced. Of course, these strongmen cloak themselves in the mantle of old heroes and new gods to give themselves legitimacy.

The advantages for this setting is that populations are low so armies are tiny, probably just warbands. This means your heroes are much more significant: a god-touched warrior at the head of a troop of 80 will have a lot more impact than at the fore of an army of 80,000. There are also lots of these strong men in close proximity: grounds for incessant conflict, such as you find in Beowulf. The characters also know little of their world, which makes it easy for you to explain your world as the characters discover it.

In this setting, you have the option of the other type of Arthurian story: the beacon of hope, honor, civilization arising from a morass of despair. Or you can have the “travel” story: your characters set out into the big, unknown world, discovering all the different ways in a fantasy setting that pockets of people might deal with the collapse of civilization: theocracies and undead kings, elven enclaves, amazon queens, the list is endless because in this setting, you have the equivalent of endless islands with limited contact with each other.

For those of you who don’t like overarching premises, or aren’t comfortable creating a big world, the travel-in-a-dark-age-world setting provides an excellent setting: you need only describe the next bit that the characters visit and when they move on, there’s not much need to worry about what they left behind.

You may recognize this type of story: both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be considered travel stories where the characters go from island to island, figuratively. I’m pretty sure when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, that’s really all he had in mind: you go from the shire pocket to the elven hidden realm, to the goblin mountains, the bear-man’s dwelling, the enchanted forest, the forest elves, the lake people, the dragon mountain. Except for the last few, there really isn’t that much connectedness to it all. These are mostly just independent discoveries until they are tied together in the last battle. (Just last night, I finished reading The Hobbit to my son for the second time 🙂 )

LOTR has a firmer history to it but it also has strong elements of characters traveling in the ruins of a once greater world visiting little pockets of this and that: Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights, Rivendell again, Moria, Loth Lorien, Fangorn, Minas Tirith, Rohan, Mordor. These are all places with mostly minimal interaction with their neighbors, let alone a larger world. The story even has a strong element of these neighbors discovering each other: the Ents are essentially forgotten until their attack on Isenguard. So little is known of Loth Lorien that Galadriel is more of a witch-in-the-woods to outsiders. Rohan and Minas Tirith seem to have little to do with each other until one needs the other for help against a greater foe. The Shire is very much a quant English shire plopped down in the middle of a harsh wilderness.

This isn’t a criticism of LOTR, it’s one of the things I and probably many people like: the sense of adventure and discovery as you get to each new place tied together by a world-shattering quest. Just think: you can do the same with your own Dark Age setting, whether or not you end the book (or lucrative multi-volume series!) with a new golden age.

As a personal note, my first novel was set in a near-future apocalypse but I have to confess my appetite for such settings has evaporated now that I have children. A real fall of civilization is horrible; the resulting population collapse would be heartbreaking on a truly mind-numbing scale. But a fantasy world is far enough from reality that I don’t mind writing Dark Age settings there.

In the Fantasy Genre: What is Tolkien?

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark
Tolkien’s monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a story Tolkien-esque?

I don’t think there is a single answer. His main published works go from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Ring (LOTR) to The Silmarillion. That’s a children’s adventure story, a fantasy epic, and a mythopoeic work (and yes, I had to look that up; it didn’t exactly roll off the fingers). They are all fantasy, the first heavily so with a lighter, more whimsical touch on setting, the last in some ways mostly setting. Any of these can serve as the model for a reader as to what is Tolkien.

For me, though, it’s the middle work that defines Tolkien-esque: a mix of characters, plot and, above-all, setting. It’s not setting couched as a story (which The Sillmarillion has always felt like to me) nor is it a fantasy story with some setting sprinkled on it (which is more The Hobbit for me, as well as many fantasy classics over the last 30 years).

LOTR is a setting become story: the plot and characters capture and illustrate the setting, one that is deep and whose “bones” go back to the beginning of the world. But the story also illustrates the setting without being subservient to it. The setting is not lost nor inconsequential but neither does it submerge the story and characters. It is this harmonious blend that strikes me as Tolkien-esque and one that is so hard to find on the shelf (or achieve as a writer).

I’m sure many might find it curious that the length of LOTR nor its many sub-plots and locales are not critical to me in capturing a Tolkien-esque feel. I do like a long, healthy read but perhaps its all those, very, very long epics since the 70s that seem to end up focused more on a franchise and less on good plot and closure that cause me to omit that from my criteria. And again, it’s my just own opinion. There are many ways to view his works.

The title page, of the book "The Silmaril...In Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy, I commented on my desire as a fantasy reader to find strong fantasy elements in the fantasy stories. This, of course, carries over to what I write. So, too, does the desire to have a “big” setting with a long history that matters to the characters and plot but without becoming the end-all of the book. It’s a delicate balance, one that only time will tell if I’ve achieved.

It makes me nervous to share this because I’m sure it seems arrogant but it isn’t arrogance that drives me to post this so much as self-realization. As I read other blogs and authored my own over the last year, I’ve come to wonder, what makes me write? What do I want to contribute? Well, it’s this Tolkien-esque balance as I see it that motivates me. So there it is 🙂

Dragons: Temper and Temperament

Silhouette of a dragon. Original caption: Thei...
Silhouette of a dragon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) How does this dragon think?

What would a dragon really be like? Would he prance and caper like the almost-catlike ones in How to Train Your Dragon? Would she be a mind-linked soul mate as in Dragonriders of Pern? Or maybe just the vicious animalistic dragons of Reign of Fire? There’s no right answer and I’ve enjoyed all the archetypes mentioned but for me the closest epitome of dragon is Smaug from The Hobbit. Smaug is huge, ancient, clever and malevolent: the perfect foil for the hero and a force to be reckoned with.

But as interesting as Smaug is he still feels a bit too human for me. Granted The Hobbit is a children’s book but Smaug’s vanity and complacency are what you might expect from a powerful warlord grown fat. His foils and temperament, his reasoning (aside from a draconic greed for gold) smack of a despot.

A Congo African Grey Parrot in Herborn Bird Pa...
A Congo African Grey Parrot in Herborn Bird Park, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Proof that a non-mammalian brain can be affectionate and intelligent.

How would a dragon really think? There’s no right answer. It depends on the setting. Dragons are almost exclusively lizards and our human biases are to think of these as mindless and coldblooded (in spirit and body). But if you’ve ever kept a parrot, you’ll know that the avian brain (not so far from a reptile’s) can host an engaging, cheerful companion. I once had an African Grey that was brilliant- answering as appropriate (“Goodbye” to the clicks of the alarm system, “No” in my voice when my wife asked me a question). We also had a Sun-capped Conure who was just the sweetest, most affection bird you can imagine. If birds are any example, dragons could be friendly and sociable, like in Pern. Plus Anne McCaffery has her dragons descend from social fire lizards ruled by a queen. Such a heritage would certainly lend itself to smart, gregarious dragons capable of friendship and affection (just like we humans descended from sociable primates. Current thinking is that our big brains evolved to deal with the pecking order and other pitfalls of life in a social group.)

But what about dragons as enemy? Is there a different path than the Smaug-route of dragon as “evil human with scales” (as opposed to the friendly dragons of above which are more “kitty-cats with scales”)? How about a dragon that is its own creature, not anthropomorphized?

Where to start? We are humans after all and it’s hard to completely put ourselves into an alien intellect. Here it helps to pick apart what makes us human. Certainly we have innate intellectual skills involving reasoning, capacity for mathematics, language, and so on. While it is fine to strip some of these aspects from a dragon to create something alien, as a writer I prefer a dragon that can be interacted with at more than the physical level so I prefer to leave speech in the mix and I don’t want to disadvantage my dragons so at least a human’s reasoning skills and other latent abilities seem appropriate, like capacity for mathematics and magic for the appropriate setting.

But this basic intellectual capacity, and in the case of language, physiological capability, does not address temperament. How does the dragon view and interact with other sentients?

For example, disdain for lesser folks is long a staple of Dragon stories but I see dragons differently. I don’t see them as disdainful because I don’t see them as having the empathy for disdain. Most of the negative traits assigned to dragons require some awareness and consideration of the opposing sentient creature as a separate entity, a being with its own desires and fears. Manipulating such a creature (and scorn is a form of manipulation) requires some awareness of the other creature’s motives, a concept of the other creature being an entity like yourself. What if a dragon did not have that sense, at least not innately?

Could you ever befriend a creature who doesn’t see you as any different from the elk he just devoured? Maybe you can speak but the wind can whistle. What are you to a dragon?

So how do you write that? Well, such a creature would lack the ability to see things from another view-point. They would have difficulty separating what they know from what others know. They would likely have great difficulty reading other’s expressions. Something as simple as the gesture of a pointed finger at something might make no sense to them. Point at a distant hill and they might simply stare at your finger tip.

Some of you may already realize where I’m going with this: we have some idea of what this would be like from the autistic among us. First a caveat, I’m absolutely not suggesting that the autistic are heartless, psychotic or anything of the sort. I have a surprising number of family members who clinically are on the autism spectrum (and others I suspect, include myself, who might be on the more empathic end of the spectrum but haven’t been diagnosed). Plus I’m an engineer: I know that a healthy percentage of the people I work with fall on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum. So, this is not a slam or attack or a denigration of people with autism. But autism does provide some interesting insights into what a dragon without human social aptitudes might be like.

There is a wide range of autism from the severe to the mild to what is considered more human-typical. You see behaviors ranging from a complete absence of empathy to simply a slower development of empathy in a child. And it is clear that those diagnosed with autism can learn these behaviors, either as a mechanical adaptation (they don’t really get the jokes but learn when they are expected to laugh) to full empathy, depending on the person.

One early test for autism is a three panel comic strip. Panel 1: two children are in a room and the first child puts a ball under a box. Panel 2, the first child has left and the second moves the ball to a different box. Panel 3, the first child returns. The person being tested is asked where does the first child think the ball is. Children who are more likely to have autism are much more likely to point to the new box. They have trouble getting in the mind of the first child and have difficulty understanding that the first child did not see the ball move.

Similarly to understand what the gesture of a pointed finger means, you need to realize that the other person wants to show you something. They see something that they want you to look at. If you have trouble understand the viewpoint of others, such a gesture might mean nothing to you. All gestures might be meaningless because gestures require interpretation of other’s desires and feelings.

Again, this is not an attack on the autistic but simply using what is known about autism as a guide for how to make a more alien dragon. Before you say, well you are calling the autistic aliens, I’m just looking at autism as an example of being “different brained”. Temple Grandin who is autistic, has likened her own experience as being an anthropologist on Mars: having to learn about human social behavior as an outsider. Might that make a good model for dragons interacting with humans, even eventually learning much about human social behavior?

We’ll see how it work: I’ve got a mother and son dragon in my current project. The mother is centuries old and has come to understand humans by long years spent with a powerful Archon. The son is young and completely lacking in empathy. The mother places her son with the protagonist for the ostensible purpose of learning about humans. Of course, she’s still a dragon and has more sinister reasons. Neither are evil but to the humans in the story, they seem evil.

There’s much out there on autism. Check it out for some ideas on how to create not an evil or  wrong-brained but a “different brained” character.

Also, checkout Wrymflight for more on dragons and notes on her new book!