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Friday, 13 July 2012

'Yes it is, not that it be...'

I’ve just finished reading the astonishingly good ‘ThreeHearts and Three Lions’ by Poul Anderson. It’s a book that was writtencontemporaneously to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but unlike the rather sombreprose of the master it fair bounces along. The gags are funny, the charactersgreat and I can’t recommend it enough. Yet there was one bit of it that irkedme, and that was one of the character’s dialogue.

The character in question is a dwarf (Hugi) whom Holder, themain guy, picks up on the way. He’s a Scottish dwarf and, given this book setthe standard for many fantasy works since, I have no issue with that.Unfortunately the author writes his dialogue in mock-Scottish style. I cansense the cringing through my keyboard already. For example:

‘Mon, where’ve ye been a while?’ cried Hugi. ‘We’ve beenfretted sick o’er ye. Na word or track past the lake’s edge, till ye returnsoaked and reeking o’ wicked places.’

‘Noo we maun galumph quick’s may be oot o’ this ill realm,’ gruntedHugi. ‘Sooner we’re in honest kands, better oor chances be o’ living to bragaboot this dunce’s trip.’

You get the idea! WTF? Or in Irish dialect ‘Wa thi feck?’Why on earth do writers do it? Throw in a little dialect, perhaps a fewcolloquialisms appropriate to the character, but whole speeches sounding likesomeone taking the piss? It brings to mind Dick Van Dyke’s attempts at aCocker-nee accent, which must have made the Kray twins put a bounty out on Dickback in the sixties. Or Russel Crowe’s unforgivable attempts at regionaldialects in the last Robin Hood romp, which were a whistle-stop tour of everyaccent in the British Isles.

But you can kind of pardon films. Actors are, after all,human and not all are nutters like Gary Oldman (who insisted on specific voicecoaches for his eastern European accent in Dracula, and still sounded like a camp Hammerhorror vampire). And it’s well acknowledged that most of the US think the UK islike a Sherlock Holmes film, all smog, cobbles and rowdy taverns (Halifax ISlike that, but most of the UK isn’t...). From authors, though, I expect adifferent standard. And for fantasy authors I expect the best. Why? Becausethose of us who write in it have to battle through years of prejudice againstit being a succession of Tolkien rip-offs, plump with dwarven singing, orcsa-chopping and wizards with pointy hats. And the mock-Shakespearean dialoguesdon’t help (my personal opinion is that only one character in the whole offiction can use phrases like ‘Forsooth’, ‘Verily’ and ‘Varlet’ and that isThor... no one else... ‘I say thee nay!’).

It’s like there’s a covert style-guide brought out by amateurauthors...

Step 1: add –eth and –est to verbs in a strangeunpredictable fashion. Geteth me?

Step 2: extra (silent) E’s will augmente the realisme ofthine worke.

Step 3: Reverse thine order of nouns and verbs. E,g. ‘Verilythe Emperor most darke shall be banished thus.’ ‘Smite the ogre foul, I beseechthee.’

Step 4: it’s ‘Ye’  and‘Thee’ not ‘The’

Step 5: Sling around a few medieval terms... ‘thee’ ‘thy’‘thou’ ‘art’ ‘doth’ ‘mine’ (not ‘my’ as in ‘Taste mine war-hammer, orcish scum’)

No-one minds one or two, and to be fair it’s perpetuated bythe UK Touriste industry in places like York andChester (Ye Olde Fucking Tea Shoppe, my Wife ofBathe sized-arse!). But authors really screw their books up with it. Wags likePratchett and Eddings mock its usage in their books

Oddly I don’t mind modern slang in dialogue, or evenreasonable use of apostrophes in regional dialect, or even use of the word‘feck’ in Roddy Doyle’s books. It’s the bogus medieval dialogue that reallygets to me. And pirates that say ‘Arrrhhh’ a lot (unless it’s in response to acannonball blowing their leg off).

So I’ll leave you with the classic sketch from Blackadder 2in which Lord Blackadder goes in search of the wise-woman....


  1. This is fantastic! said the American who also cringed at Dick Van Dyke's Cockernee. I love the rules for amateur fantasy writers - brilliant!

    1. Cheers, Allie. Don't get me wrong I live DIck Van Dyke... Just that accent. Much better as Dr Sloan...

  2. That's pretty funny ... but I still think the weirdest place to see it ever is in Ernest Hemingway novels ... there's something really wrong about Spanish civil war communists calling each other 'thee' and 'thou' in some vain attempt to render the tu vs vosotros/usted distinction.

    But you're right though, nothing camper than a fantasy novel character attempting some awful attempt at what they think is Shakespearean dialogue ; - )

    1. Nik! It's all Commie, Commie, Commie with you! Certain the KGB trained you as a sleeper in your years in Moscow ;-)
      Yeah, find it a buzarre notion that Hemmingway would use 'thee' and 'thou'- mind you they do on Last of the Summer Wine too...

  3. Verily, I say, stoppest thou thy false parodies, else thy tongue trippest thee!

    Write dialogue you can read out loud without gagging.

    Learned it the hard way. *doh!*

  4. Lol...hahahaha, I love step 3. You should call it "Yoda speak." Alas, I'm a literary nerd and I've spent many a time hunched over a work of Olde English lore written by some insane dark magician from back in the day. I can have a field day on that kind of writing. However, you are right. Unless, we are happy selling one or two books to other nerds of ancient texts, we should probably write for the

    1. Lol, Lacey- I'm happy to sell to anyone! Like the idea there is some authenticity to the way Thor talketh!! Thanks for your comments.

  5. You're so wrong about the Dwarven singing. It makes the Hobbit. Can't wait to see Jimmy Nesbitt and Dicky Armitage crooning in the movie. Ah them misty misty mountains. The Elves are rubbish though. Dwarves sound like the Dubliners or the Pogues. Elves sound like Enya. Avoid.