yotg discussion (spoilers)

Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk
Tue Jan 9 14:06:42 EST 2001

Tanaqui again:

> Philip Belben [discussing language barriers and magic-noticing]:
> Tanaqui in _the Spellcoats_ also complains that her brother is required by his
> notions of reason to dismiss magic, and that its continued presence possibly
> "damages his respect for his own mind". As with Nick, though, this is by no
> means the primary perspective: Nick may mutter darkly about deniers, but there
> isn't a textual revelation of "oh! Look! Magic!!" in there anywhere. Each of
> these books is obvious in its fundamental acceptance of magic.

Yes, but I don't think that's the problem.

> The Heathens and the Natives can talk for a reason: there's been plenty of
> prior contact, and a hefty set of hints to the effect that the Heathens were
> earlier Natives of the country. And, as you said, unity of language is given
> as the common currency of the set of worlds in _Deep Secret_, which are
> centred on the Empire of Koryfos.

It isn't what bothered me most about Deep Secret, nor did it bother me about
Spellcoats.  There are plenty of scenarios for books in which language doesn't
have to be a barrier.  I was merely saying that where one would expect it to be
a barrier, I so often find the issue has been ignored or glossed over.

>+ 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.
> nah. Covenant accepts the evidence of his senses, but is unsure as to
> whether the evidence informs dream logic or actual worlds. So, while he can't
> reject the input, he can have all the existential doubts there are as to
> whether it's "Real". He's got to be difficult - I think the word Donaldson

Bunk.  Total bunk, in my opinion.

First bunk:  the perceptions in dream mostly don't originate with the senses.
So if he is denying the reality of the world he's in, he is in that sense
denying the evidence of his senses.

One might say that existentialism is largely about questioning the validity of
the notion that one's senses are trustworthy.

More to the point, you have shifted the boundary.  Sally's comment, to which I
was replying, about whether you would accept an experience as real, implied two
possible denials - one to be backed up by an occulist, the other by a
psychiatrist.  You seem to have moved the boundary between acceptance and denial
so that it now sits _between_ the occulist and the psychiatrist.

> uses to define his leper's coping strategy is "intransigence". Most of the
> verbosity comes from what Sallyo criticised: an attempt to distance the
> familiar by constantly quibbling with the evidence.

Second bunk.  You're shifting boundaries again.  At the start of your paragraph,
you had Covenant accept the evidence.  By the end of it, he's quibbling with it!
This quibbling is what I was referring to as denial.

Third bunk.  Donaldson's verbose anyway!  Mordant's Need is a two-volume novel
in which none of the main characters - Terisa, Geraden, Person with space-suit
whose name I've forgotten, etc. - who could deny the evidence in this way do so,
but in which Donaldson manages to be equally verbose.  Mordant's Need is not as
_long_ as the Chronicles of TC, possibly for the reason you mention, but I think
it's equally verbose.

But then Donaldson is a Wagner fan, so you might expect verbosity ;-)
(Actually, the way he draws out Mordant's Need is not dissimilar to the way
Wagner draws out some of his music - building up tension and refusing to resolve

> You can have something fundamentally different, but as Sallyo indicates, it
> requires a LOT of effort to make the book tick if you don't use the easy
> presets. Being subversive with the material you have is easier than making

There is certainly a place for the easy presets.  In my opinion, there is not a
place for ignoring the issues.

> from nothing something both strange and informative. With both _Dark Lord_
> and _YotG_, DWJ has a rather generic fantasy universe into which to breathe
> life, and the easiest way is to bring it back to what one of her worlds should
> be by pulling the rabbits out of the hat where they've been hiding.

Fine.  But...

> My unease is an unease with DWJ letting things be generic ever!

In that case, don't worry.  She has taken a generic fantasy world, and is
refusing to let it be generic - that much is quite clear!

>+ 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.
> Each of those worlds are little backwater worlds. Their languages are not the
> "language of the wider times" in which Helen is carefully schooled, and which
> becomes damned useful once she is forced to go Traversing. This book does tell
> us that English is the most-common of languages... but those bound to a home
> have to have their own little warning systems. The cannibal world has a sign-
> warning set by other travellers, but attempting to communicate with the
> is futile! And Jamie learns nothing of "wider" use by learning a cattle-
> herder's language.

English is not the language of the wider times!  (if that's what you're saying.
Jamie notices this talking to Prometheus near the end of the book)  I agree that
it is widely spoken, though - Konstam for a start...

> What signs between Helen and Jamie and the cannibals? The language is
> "oomera-woomera" and never decoded - and our two protagonists both speak
> "English".

Indeed the language is never decoded.  Jamie and Helen can speak Wider-times,
but they have to communicate with the cannibals in sign language.  Very basic
messages like "walk this way please".  As Jamie put it, "we make signs".

And finally, if it's an issue, Jamie gets the experience of language learning
from the cattle nomads.  He says that after learning several languages, he got a
system for picking them up.  But that wasn't my point.  My point was that it was
neither necessary for Jamie to have some miraculous way of communicating with
the cattle herders, nor for a large part of the book to be devoted to his
experiences in learning their language.

(Note:  Both Jamie and Helen speak both English and Wider-times, but it's never
made clear which they are speaking at any moment.  Arguably, they could be
speaking Wider-times right up to the moment at which they meet Adam, who can't
see _them_ and therefore (?) won't be able to understand Wider-times.  Also, if
Helen is a Random Factor who can see _them_, does she need to be taught
Wider-times at all?  But these are merely fun speculation, not objections to the

> As far as LeGuin goes, Earthsea has One True Language, which the dragons speak
> naturally and which men use for invocation. Human languages are Fallen from
> that Adamic model (those 18th-Century presecriptive grammarians were looking
> for the Original: in Earthsea, it's still a living language, because He Who
> Raised the Islands is still there speaking it!). In _Tombs of Atuan_ there are
> indeed a couple of linguistic pointers between human languages, but first Ged
> has to point out to Tenar that she should call him Sparrowhawk in public and
> should learn to buy fish not how to make bunnies come to her in trust, or know
> that "tolk" is "stone" in the primal one-to-one objective language.
> People do learn the magical words, but they also hunt for lost ones - not only
> like the Master Namer, in dusty research, but in their own minds and among
> living speakers of the language. Kuremkarmerruk is part of the "mechanics of
> learning" which would have been really boring if replicated, but which are
> given even more of a nod than Jamie-with-the-cattle-people. Those who have a
> "feel" for dragons and the dragon-tongue make good mages, and can guess True
> Names once they've got the fundamentals. Unlike non-magical languages, it's
> instantly checkable for veracity too: "Chair, turn into a goat".

In other words, Le Guin has set up, behind her fantasy scenario, a quite complex
and plausible structure of languages.  That's exactly the sort of solution to
the language problem I like to see!  Given the existence of a one-to-one
objective language, as you call it, this model, of all languages descended from
it, but become mutually incomprehensible, is a very likely one, but not the only
possible one (incidentally, I don't recall any conclusive evidence that human
languages were decended from it).  My point here must I think be that you can
address the problem in the background without the narrative itself suffering,

>+ 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.
> On the other hand, this is true. It is not reasonable. "Our" griffins speak
> the expected language of the book because they were raised by Derk and Mara.
> DWJ doesn't discuss at all why everyone seems to use this language. Mr Chesney
> as cultural imperialist is certainly plausible, but there's no reason to
> suppose that people from other lands don't start a speak-the-language spell
> when arriving on the shores of "our" land. Just because the mechanics aren't
> *explicit* doesn't mean that the book is faulty.

Well, the language spell was one of the easy ways out I mentioned.

But in YotG I think it is more complex than that.  There are several instances
of interchange between the continents, by at least two distinct groups of
beings.  Did they all do the same thing - is the language spell something that
readily available?  That is far too easy a way out.

Language _is_ an issue.  I don't necessarily want the mechanics explicitly
described, but I do want to see some evidence that the issue has been addressed.


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