[DWJ] Tropes (was: trolling for ideas/suggestions)

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Tue Dec 5 14:15:07 EST 2006

The Knowledge Pika wrote:

>The Tough Guide was being used in another session to
>point out 'overused fantasy tropes'...
>Hm.. does tropes in this sentence really mean what it's supposed to
>mean? I looked the word up in the OED and it was defined as merely a
>figure of speech...

In Clute's entries in *The Encyclopedia of Fantasy* (from which the Tough
Guide sprang) he uses the word in a slightly more deep-and-meaningful way,
and it is probably his usage that's being referred to: the OED lags behind
the SF&F community by about thirty years, as far as I can make out, though
they did recently ask the SF community to contribute to their new edition
with usages from fantasy and science fiction of the latter twentieth

It was not for nothing that DWJ seriously proposed an entry for the Enc.
Fant., to be written by her, entitled "Humpty-Dumpty" and intended to
explain to Mere Mortals what Clute meant when he used various words and
phrases!  He ignored her suggestion, of course, which is a shame, because
it would have been fun to read that essay.

I think that rather than being merely a figure of speech, for Clute a
"trope" is at least in part a cliche or collection/clump of cliche that has
been so well-used as to become accepted without question.  Trivial examples
might well include many of the things so beautifully pointed up by DWJ as
faintly absurd when one looks at them afresh, like Colour Coding for eyes
and hair, or the way that Elves are always Old and Wise and Young and Sexy
and they Sing, or Dragons Speak The Truth At All Times.  All the baggage
that fantasy has gathered unto itself and made essential, all the rules and
conventions that you break only at your peril and only if you know what you
are doing (as with messing about with perspective in art: you'd jolly well
better know how it works before you play about with it, or what you paint
simply looks wrong instead of clever) are more-or-less to be regarded as
tropes.  I think maybe the trope is a sort of verbal/behavioural form of
"underlier" (another Clute usage), as the underlier proper is the "mythago"
behind a character who is being very similar to say Pierrot (who underlies
the young Don Quixote types) or Harlequin (underlier to for example Jerry
Cornelius) or Scaramouche (the slightly reprehensible Old Soldier who knows
his stuff and turns up all over fantasy) -- to take examples from the
Commedia dell'Arte just 'cos it came first to my mind.  Holdstock's mythago
works are chock-full of underliers and tropes, mostly Celtic or
Matter-of-Britain ones, and Clute writes of the Ryhope Wood sequence that
it "is almost embarrassingly dense with fantasy tropes".  If the trope is
what I think it is in Clute's lexicon, that seems about right to me.

Actually I suspect that by looking in the Enc. Fant. at a random "abstract"
entry, as it might be "Face of Glory", one can get a list of quite a few
"tropes" in Clute-speak: Face of Glory itself, Masks, Lion, Thresholds,
Map, Liminal Being, Quests, Metamorphosis, Recognition, Medusa, Hero With A
Thousand Faces, Foliate Head, Bondage, Mirror, Labyrinth...  And if one
then goes to those entries one will encounter more tropes in the Clute
sense of the word, like Polders and Crosshatch and Thinning and...

Humpty-Dumpty.  "Impenetrability, that's what I say!"


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