yotg discussion (spoilers)

Philip.Belben at pgen.com Philip.Belben at pgen.com
Tue Dec 19 12:59:12 EST 2000

Sally, replying to me.

>>on the other continent?  Also a subject that painfully few fantasy authors
>>tackle - why the heck to the griffins and the humans speak the same
> There's a very good reason for not tackling this subject. It's the same
> reason that lets characters accept the evidence of their eyes when real life
> people would be off to the oculist or the mind-doctor. If you have someone
> spending half the book denying what's happening, you've got a boring book.
> And if you spend half or a whole book with characters who can't understand
> one another, you've got a real problem.  It's been done a few times, with
> varying success, but it certainly isn't common. "Enemy Mine" is the only one
> thst springs to mind - oh, and the original Tarzan where the child Tarzan
> very implausibly (IMO) teaches himself not only reading but speech from old
> books!
> I think that if you accept that griffins and other creatures can exist by
> "magic" then you must accept they can talk by the same power. After all, we
> accept that dragons can fly, though in real life the wingspan would have to
> be city-size.

I'm sorry, Sally, but I don't think there's a good reason at all.  Mainly
because there are plenty of examples where it is done well.

To take your comparison first - people who deny the evidence of their eyes - you
can start with Deep Secret - in which Nick complains about the other characters
doing just that - and move on through Heinlein's "Glory Road" to Donaldson's
Chronicles of Thomas Covenant - in these last, Donaldson builds a major part of
the plot on the fact that his hero spends most of two extremely verbose
trilogies denying the evidence of his senses.

Language - while few fantasy writers tackle the subject, almost every science
fiction writer of the last hundred years has at least acknowledged the problem,
even if many have taken easy solutions such as telepathy or the automatic
translation computer.  (Most such writers have conveniently forgotten this
problem when invited to write Star Trek scripts, though.)

In fantasy solutions are rarer.  The idea that Sally suggests should be taken as
read - that the ambient magic provides unity of language - is deconstructed to
good effect in one or two of Piers Anthony's Xanth books.  DWJ also acknowledges
it in Lives of Christopher Chant and in Sudden Wild Magic by claiming it as a
property of the Related Worlds or their equivalent.

The other easy solution is the translation spell - the fantasy equivalent of the
translation computer, perhaps.  This I have seldom observed, although Tom Holt
has a good twist on it in "Who's Afraid of Beowulf".  Jack Chalker also tries
this solution in his "Dancing Gods" series, but I think he gets it a little

But neither of these easy ways around the language problem is necessary.  Jamie
in Homeward Bounders actually has to sit down and learn the cattle nomads'
language - and DWJ works it into the story without taking up half the book in
misunderstandings.  And when Jamie and Helen find that neither knows the
cannibals' language, they have to make signs.

Another example of a good solution is in Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books.  There
are several languages, and language difficulties, but all the mechanics of
learning goes on behind the scenes, with the possible exception of a scene or
two in the Tombs of Atuan.  In fact, here Sally's suggestion is turned on its
head - rather than magic helping people with languages, you have to learn the
magical language to perform magic.  I am pretty certain this provided the
inspiration for the "words" in Power of Three, too.

In short, I don't see why I should take it as read that the ambient magic
enables all talking creatures to speak the same language.  There are better ways
of presenting the language problem and its solutions, and DWJ herself has used
them in other books.  In this case, I would even accept it if there was evidence
that Chesney had enforced unity of language, but there isn't.  And anyway, I
don't think his influence spread to the other continent...

Philip.  (Who is still disagreeing with things, for reasons he can't fathom)

PS I've been wondering the last couple of days what it must be like to be one of
Derk's pigeons...


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