Does a story tell anything in the telling?

In my browsing across the blogsphere, I’ve come across this post on “narratology” from the Urban Archives blog. It’s extracts from a book that discusses the central point of narratology as the contention that “stories, or more properly their narrative component, should be studied in their own right, without reference to the medium in which they are cast.” The broader point of the book is to understand how language, and by implication narrative, transfers knowledge. Narratology does this by “a search for the invariant components of all narratives and their mode of articulation; specific kinds of articulatory configurations then permit the establishment of a taxonomy of narratives.”

As the book itself points out, “the analyses of story and of discourse cannot be free-standing”. That is, stories cannot be separate from the cultural context in which they are situated. This has large implications for modern storytelling, and for anyone trying to be “original” or “authentic” in their storytelling, or for stepping outside the “usual” fantasy paradigm. This is more than just the setting, as much as almost every fantasy setting seems to be in some spin-off of northwestern Medieval Europe. This encompasses the narrative convention of what is described, and how it is described.  In other words, pretty much the whole of a narrative.

To get an idea of what I mean, here’s a translation of a passage (actually a whole chapter) of Njal’s Saga, the longest existing Norse saga:

There was a man whose name was Njal. He was the son of Thorgeir Gelling, the son of Thorolf. Njal’s mother’s name was Asgerda. Njal dwelt at Bergthorsknoll in the land-isles; he had another homestead on Thorolfsfell. Njal was wealthy in goods, and handsome of face; no beard grew on his chin. He was so great a lawyer, that his match was not to be found. Wise too he was, and foreknowing and foresighted. Of good counsel, and ready to give it, and all that he advised men was sure to be the best for them to do. Gentle and generous, he unravelled every man’s knotty points who came to see him about them. Bergthora was his wife’s name; she was Skarphedinn’s daughter, a very high-spirited, brave-hearted woman, but somewhat hard-tempered. They had six children, three daughters and three sons, and they all come afterwards into this story.

icelandic manuscript, about 1350 Deutsch: Das ...

You just don’t get stories like this any more. And even when you do, they’re not easily understood.

That this is the whole chapter should tell you something straight away about the differences in narrative form. Th narrative appears to the modern reader as an infodump; bald, without embellishment, quite boring in many ways. In addition to this, Njal himself dies 28 chapters from the end of the tale. A protagonist dying that far from the end of a story is pretty much unheard of in a modern tale. This is also the limit of physical description of Njal; it’s never mentioned again. There’s also a large amount of assumed social conventions, such as what is honourable and acceptable in the society. Characters in Njal’s Saga are not noted as reacting to every situation, but they do outline the characters’ observable behaviours. Characters in Biblical narratives have the same limit to the same extent. This can be argued in terms of the development of subjectivity in the 19th century, but it’s more than that. Njal’s Saga assumes the reader knows certain things about the social context the saga was written in.

These limits in narrative form are more observable in tales that are closer to as well; The Lord of the Rings contains quite archaic linguistic forms consistently throughout. There are  no attempts in modern novels, even things like Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time which attempt to be similar exercises in building an overarching world narrative, do not create a similar mode of societal interaction to LotR.

And although LotR is the definitive fantasy novel, modern fantasy writers cannot easily emulate it or earlier sagas from which Tolkien drew inspiration, because the current narrative discourse does not allow it. It alters the form of the story and the way it is seen, despite the claim of things like narratology that narrative is universal. The “invariate components” are vanishingly small, and I think only really observable in the transfer of the same story between different media. In this, narratology may have a point in analysing the unique points of particular stories, but cannot say anything about the structure of narratives in general.

So how do you break out of this? The current idea of “transgressive” fantasy doesn’t cut it for me; simply being “edgy” or addressing current issues through narrative doesn’t make something different or break new ground. Hypersleeper will address current issues in fantasy specifically soon, so I’ll leave that alone for now. For me, creating a different social set-up for the novel is how to make it different, which should flow from the world creation and nowhere else. Bringing your own social assumptions into the world and its characters is a sure-fire way to put me off. You’re creating a new world, and so it should have its own way of being. This can of course take inspiration from other places (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand it or empathise with characters), but it can’t take anything from these environments without a reason.

We need to extend fantasy to breaking the social discourses in which they are written in order to enhance the “otherness” of fantasy, but the reason why so many fantasy novels seem the same or reflective of our current social norms is that a lot of our values, attitudes and social makeups are assumed, like the honour driving much of the action in Njal’s Sagagoes unstated. Creating new norms and expressing them in the story is a good start in getting out of this, and an awareness of the values and influences in your own society to make sure you step away from them.

Any thoughts on this rather disjointed collection of points? Please comment below! Coming soon, I’ll either finish a piece of Magic: the Gathering writing or provide some more information on Mists of Albion. Any preference as to which, let me know below!

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About CrucibleofWords

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I intend to explore it various ways with this blog, both through positing my own ideas, and reflection on that of others.
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