Thursday, October 13, 2011

It's not where you're going that matters...

My interlocutor RMB and I are both fond of books many people seem to find dull.  Some of them, like Middlemarch, are classics that people don't give a fair shake (perhaps because they're already expecting a boring novel).  Others, like O'Brian's Aubriad and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, are genre classics that many fans of the same genres tell me are too dull to read.  They loved the movies, though.

And I have to say that I can see where they are coming from.  Neither series of novels is in a hurry to get to the action, and the authors of both seem to think that an anticlimax is the best kind of ending (I happen to agree, but that's another post).  But I'd like to focus on one 'boring' feature of both series that I think is actually a great virtue: the amount of narrative space devoted to traveling.

Today, a journey of 100 miles is trivial, and a journey of 1,000 or 10,000 miles is a mildly significant but routine undertaking.  Traveling is not a long process but a rapid succession of layovers, rest stops and scenery seen from the road.  Unless you really mean to make a journey out of it (and this has to be deliberate), how you get to your destination becomes completely unimportant.

And I feel like this kind of mentality is so pervasive that it gets written into our fiction.  Journeys are told in simple vignettes with tabulations of days and miles traveled to fill in the gaps.  The travel times may be accurate, but the chopped-up nature of the travel narrative doesn't give a feeling for the passage of time, or for the ground covered.  To really show that, you need to let the reader along for the ride.

Both Tolkien and O'Brian do this in part by refusing to make the character's destination into the focus of the novel.  In Desolation Island Jack and Stepheen never even reach Australia, and it takes 2 novels for Frodo to get to Mordor.  So much happens along the way that the novels are about the voyage.

O'Brian adds to this by giving you a feel for the rhythm of the sea.  Many chapters start the same way -- Stephen is awakened by the swabbing on the decks and goes to breakfast.  Bells are struck, the crew goes to meals, various birds are observed.  Again and again -- it doesn't sound like a recommendation to say that a novel captures the tedium of life on a ship, but the effect is wonderful.

Both O'Brian and Tolkien also give us so much detail about the changes that the characters notice that we get a feeling both for the distance they've covered and for the world they live in.  In Desolation Island we see tropical squalls, then the doldrums, then the first fresh breeze, then an albatross, and then we're in the vast and inhuman expanse of the Southern Ocean.  In The Lord of the Rings we pass from the familiar countryside of the Shire to wild and abandoned heaths to inhospitable mountains to the magic of Lorien and on.  As they heroes approach Mordor we first see the brown lands, then the dead marshes, then the ash wastes themselves.  None of this is rushed in either case.  It is spread out over hundreds of pages.  But the combination of detail and pacing lets you see a world as people did when it took 4 months to reach Australia, or a year to go 500 leagues.

This allows us to truly get to know the world that the author is writing about, by seeing it (somewhat) as its inhabitants do.  Place isn't simply objective geography, or topography, or ecology, but it includes how human beings interact with all those things.  Allowing us to interact with the world as the heroes do is thus crucial to building a strong world.  And I suspect that's one reason both O'Brian and Tolkien's worlds seem so vivid.

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