Friday, December 7, 2007

A Wondrous Felicity of Language:
A Sample of Prose Artistry from Smith's Short Fiction

I am coming to understand more of why I enjoy certain works of fantasy more than others, and in particular, why I find very little satisfaction in works written after, say, 1980. Much of this seems to stem from a certain habit of language (or perhaps deliberate antiquarianism in the pens of authors who wrote in the 50's, 60's, and 70's.) The sweet spot for fantastic language seems to have been 1890-1930, when the main influences on modern works of fantasy were in their heyday. These were the years of George Macdonald, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard--and just before the advent of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Jack Vance. I am learning that my interest in fantasy is equally concerned with the beauty of the prose and language itself as it is with the communication and artistry of the story in its larger structures. Interesting ideas and wonderful philosophy of character are not enough to sustain my attentions; a work must also have beauty in its smallest parts.

In metaphorical fashion, I got out my magnifying glass and went over a sample of text from one of these masters of language, and I found myself quickly astonished at the range of vocabulary and prose artistry employed by such an author. Consider these excerpts from culled from a single story of Clark Ashton Smith, A Tale of Satampra Zeiros:

...a habit of mind both agile and adroit.

...and the breaking of the adamantine box of Acromi, in which were all the medallions of an early dynasty of Hyperborean kings...

...we sold them at a dire sacrifice to the captain of a barbarian vessel from remote Lemuria...

We made use of a rare and mordant acid...

...but I must not linger too long and too garrulously by the way

...amid heroic memories and the high glamor of valiant or sleightful deeds.

In our occupation, as in all others, the vicissitudes of fortune are oftentimes to be reckoned with...

...the goddess Chance is not always prodigal of her favors.

...had found ourselves in a condition of pecuniary depletion

People had become accursedly chary of their jewels and other valuables...

...guards had grown more vigilant or less somnolent...

...all this that I may not seem in any wise vainglorious.

...will lend a new and more expeditious force to our spent limbs, and our toilworn fingers."

..."will ennoble our thoughts, will inspire and illuminate our minds, and perchance will reveal to us...

The darkness and dubiety of our future ways became illumined as by the light of rosy cressets...

Anon, there came to me an inspiration.

A day's journey from this tiresome town, a pleasant sojourn in the country, an afternoon or forenoon of archaeological research...

...all mortal beings who should dare to tarry within its environs.

...there lies entire and undespoiled as of yore the rich treasure of olden monarchs...

...that the fanes have still their golden altar-vessels and furnishings...

...the sun had ascended far upon the azure acclivity of the heavens when we left the gates...

At a single step, we passed from all human ken...

...they were interwoven by the endless labyrinthine volumes...

The flowers were unwholesomely large, their petals bore a lethal pallor or a sanguinary scarlet; and their perfumes were overpoweringly sweet or fetid.

A few sips of the ardent liquor had already served to lighten more than once the tedium of our journey; and now it was to stand us in good stead. Each of us drank a liberal draught, and presently the jungle became less awesome...

...between the boughs and boles the wan pillars of shadowy porticoes...

...for it was builded of a dark basaltic stone heavily encrusted with lichens that seemed of a coeval antiquity.

...have sometimes been seen to make obeisance and have been heard to howl or whine their inarticulate prayers.

The temple, like the other buildings, was in a state of well-nigh perfect preservation: the only signs of decay were in the carven lintel of the door, which had crumbled and splintered away in several places. The door itself, wrought of a swarthy bronze all overgreened by time, stood slightly a-jar.

Surmising that strength might be required to force open the verdigris-covered door...

...in particular we noticed the unfamiliar fetor I have spoken of previously...

...filled with a sort of viscous and semi-liquescent substance, quite opaque and of a sooty color. It was from this that the odor came—an odor which, though unsurpassably foul, was nevertheless not an odor of putrefaction, but resembled rather the smell of some vile and unclean creature of the marshes. The odor was almost beyond endurance, and we were about to turn away when we perceived a slight ebullition of the surface, as if the sooty liquid were being agitated from within by some submerged animal or other entity. This ebullition increased rapidly, the center swelled as if with the action of some powerful yeast, and we watched in utter horror, while an uncouth amorphous head with dull and bulging eyes arose gradually on an ever-lengthening neck, and stared us in the face with primordial malignity. Then two arms—if one could call them arms—likewise arose inch by inch, and we saw that the thing was not, as we had thought, a creature immersed in the liquid, but that the liquid itself had put forth this hideous neck and head, and was now forming these damnable arms, that groped toward us with tentacle-like appendages in lieu of claws or hands!

...taking as it reached the floor an undulant ophidian form which immediately developed more than a dozen short legs.

What unimaginable horror of protoplastic life, what loathly spawn of the primordial slime had come forth to confront us, we did not pause to consider or conjecture. The monstrosity was too awful to permit of even a brief contemplation; also, its intentions were too plainly hostile, and it gave evidence of anthropophagic inclinations; for it slithered toward us with an unbelievable speed and celerity of motion, opening as it came a toothless mouth of amazing capacity.

...like a torrent that descends a long declivity, our flagging limbs were miraculously re-animated, and we plunged from the betraying light of the by-road into the pathless jungle, hoping to evade our pursuer in the labyrinth of boles and vines and gigantic leaves. We stumbled over roots and fallen trees, we tore our raiment and lacerated our skins on the savage brambles, we collided in the gloom with huge trunks and limber saplings that bent before us, we heard the hissing of tree-snakes that spat their venom at us from the boughs above, and the grunting or howling of unseen animals when we trod upon them in our precipitate flight. But we no longer dared to stop or look behind.

We must have continued our headlong peregrinations for hours.

But its final rays, when it sank, were all that saved us from a noisome marsh with mounds and hassocks of bog-concealing grass, amid whose perilous environs and along whose mephitic rim we were compelled to run without pause or hesitation or time to choose our footing, with our damnable pursuer dogging every step.

Far-off and wan, a glimmering twilight grew among the trees—a foreomening of the hidden morn.

...he returned my valediction and climbed into the great bronze basin, which alone could now afford a moment's concealment in the bareness of the fane.

...unlike anything I have ever touched, it was indescribably viscid and slimy and cold...

Not only am I unable to employ such words at will into a story of my own creation, but I am not entirely sure of what some of them mean. But how they add to the atmosphere and beauty of the thing--such a command of words! For a man with only five years of formal education, Clark Ashton Smith had a vocabulary which defies belief. At this point, I am loathe to mention that he also had a similar mastery of French and other languages, such that he was able to effectively translate fantastic poetry into his native tongue.

Lofty marks for an aspiring writer. Good thing for me that reading Smith, Lovecraft, Dunsany, Macdonald, and the other masters is nothing save sheer pleasure...

Cross-posted to Fantastic Fictions.

2 comments:

James Wood said...

It's almost as if the change in language helps to make the fantasy world complete. Through the act of reading this archaic sounding prose I am transported to the world that spawned it.

Though it sounds boastful, I am often regarded as having a large vocabulary. All credit is due my reading of these great novels.

In more recent work I've found glimpses of this linguistic art in Eddings work(primarily the Belgariad/Malorean series). Eddings shows a great affinity for language in all its forms, he can write in high prose or so closely mimic the drawl of a backcountry bumpkin that you can envision their gap-toothed, spittle-filled speaking.

Now I must needs depart and hearken unto the call of foul Academia, that cursed witch who has ensorceled my heart and mind.

Jake Shore said...

I agree with James. For me, fantasy fiction without the right type of archaic prose is almost unreadable (Terry Brooks). Tolkien and Howard are two of my favorites. The only guy past 1980 that did it well was Jordan in his Conan novels, but it was probably an homage to Howard.

Ensorceled....awesome word.