Wednesday 26 June 2013

Magra, Thela, Bes

You've heard of Magra, Thela, Bes, of course you have; there's no use in denying it.  Everyone has heard of her (or them, as some insist).  She is a tale told to children small and large to keep them good and to keep them quiet.  She's a shiver that appears at night and in storms and even on a midsummer noon, if that should serve the tale-teller's need.

In Erst she is a stealer of crops and a giver of gifts, in Shende a wise young woman who eats all those who seek her wisdom, in Afar they say ... but Afar is Afar is Afar and there's no helping what they think there.  In Otherwhile, where they have been telling tales of her since the fall of the Queens of Day, she is not one but three: a strong-backed, middle-aged woman, a bright-eyed, silver-haired dame and a bent-legged, hunch-shouldered crone.  Where she came from and where she goes no one ever will tell, but in all the tales she is to be found in forests or among mountains, always in her little cottage, from whose base sprout two gigantic, monkey-like arms, on which the cottage walks.

Some have sought her and never found her, some have found her and come away with gifts, some with nothing and some have never come away from her at all.  She is a thing of whim and wiles, never entirely to be trusted and often to be feared.  The gifts she gives come at a price, though no-one will ever know when that price will be exacted.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

What's in a name?

Shakespeare's Juliet famously claimed "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet".  Juliet, of course, was only thirteen and so entitled to say things that seemed really profound to her but don't really hold up under examination.  What's true for roses doesn't necessarily apply elsewhere, it may not even apply to roses: as JBS Haldane pointed out in the wonderful My Friend Mr Leakey, a rose might well not smell as sweet if it were called "the Lesser Stinkwort, or the Fish-and-chips Flower".

Names are important, especially so in fiction.  We know all about a character called Holly Golightly even before we meet her, and we know more about her than she could ever say herself when we discover her name used to be Lula Mae Barnes.  There's an excellent Screenwipe interview in which Graham Linehan makes exactly this point about character names to Charlie Brooker (below at about 5:40 - he's so right about "Pat Mustard").

To be supplied with a great name is to be put on the fast track to characterisation. One of the great joys of working on Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery (the game I've banged on about far too much ... and still available on iOS and PS Vita) was that some of Lucid Games' (wonderful) character designs came with (even more wonderful) names: when you find out that your airfield mechanic character is called Mike Le Bondeuce, or that the fox with the "I Hate Mondays" mug is called Larry Hubbard, you know exactly who you're dealing with and how their dialogue ought to sound.

Unfortunately, as Linehan points out in the interview above, it can be much harder when you're trying to come up with a character name on your own and this is a problem I'm struggling with in the Otherwhile-based novel I'm working on.  A lot of minor characters have rushed forward with their names intact (I think you know pretty much where you are when you meet someone called Frunt, for instance) and months of (largely unconscious) thought recently resulted in a very significant character being renamed Magra, Thela, Bes (she had a cameo in The Mountainherd's Tale) but the main characters are still known as Hero, Heroine and 7th Son, despite my throwing all sorts of different names at them.  Part of the problem may well be that I'm spoiled for choice: in a fantasy world, I can come up with any sort of name I like (like Lemnick or Arbor Vulpa, both of whom will be familiar to my regular reader).  Another is that names in the real world come with a certain amount of freight: a character named Lionel will conjure a very different background in your mind to one named Harry.  And if I subvert your preconceptions a little by telling you that Lionel/Harry is a woman I can get even more bang for my naming buck.  But if I tell you my character is Maeraway or Brawitt, what am I conjuring up then?

Some fantasy authors are brilliant at this, some have useful shortcuts.  JK Rowling dips back into the 19th century and earlier by giving many of her characters type-names - Draco Malfoy isn't so much a monicker as a declaration of evil intent, and as for Severus Snape ...  Again, Tolkien's search for names was aided by decades of immersion in the languages he'd created, not to mention his detailed studies of Germanic languages.  And then there's Ursula le Guin, who pivoted a whole book about two name-related moments: the moment our hero Sparrowhawk is given his true name Ged, a name full of weight and finality, and the moment he names the creature that stalks him; more than thirty years on, I can still remember the shiver of fear and excitement those two passages evoked in me.

I'm sure it's a problem I'll solve (in fact, I think Maeraway, which popped into my head thirty seconds ago, might just do the trick for my heroine) but in the interim, it was a problem I thought worth sharing.  Names are important: be careful how you choose them.


Update 20/06/13

I've just realised that I forgot to mention Frances Hardinge in the above post.  This is a pretty criminal omission: as well as having more clever ideas than a boxful of string theorists, her books contain wonderfully evocative names, from Mosca Mye and Eponymous Clent (how could he be anything else but a conman with that name?) in Fly By Night and its sequel to Neverfell, Master Grandible, Madame Simpria et al in A Face Like Glass (a book which, incidentally, everyone should read).

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Some Information Concerning Wandering Mountains, Pt II (or possibly III)

[Rather unjustly, at the end of Some Information Concerning Wandering Mountains, Pt I, I left Lemnick of Carysfort and his friend Merrum about to listen to the tale of the mysterious stranger they had encountered among some wreckage at the edge of a vast natural basin.  At least I say it was natural; Lemnick and Merrum's guide swore that a mountain should have been on the exact spot where the basin stood.  Moreover, the previous night had been witness to the noise of a terrible chase, as if some beast of unimaginable size were being chased through the mountains.  

In any event, I left Lemnick and Merrum where they were and, instead of telling the stranger's tale, went on to tell The Mountainherd's Tale, which, though similar in meaning to the stranger's tale, was rather different in detail.  Let's say it was a tale of Mountainherds and Stonesailors and of craft and of love and of betrayal and leave it at that.  I'm hoping that you, my reader, will make your own mind up as to exactly what the stranger said, and let me continue Lemnick's letter to his King at the point where the stranger's story ends ...]

At last, the misty-eyed fellow fell Silent and Merrum and I were left to contemplate his Words.  I could see from the look in Merrum's Eye that we had both arrived at the same Conclusion: the man was Entirely out of his Senses.  It is all very well to tell Tales of Wandering Mountains and Ships That Sail Over Land, but it is quite another thing to Believe them.  And this fellow clearly Believed, not merely that the Tale was true but that he was the Mountainherd at its heart, and that his actions had caused a Mountain to go gallivanting about The Spine of The World like a lost lamb gambolling over a Field.

Keeping our voices Low and our Movements soft, we did our best to Calm the fellow but he was having None of it.  Instead he continued to Rave about the man he had Wronged and the woman who was Lost to him forever.  We should have had to have left him there had it not been for the sudden appearance of a woman at the top of the same path that Merrum and I had taken some hours before.

"Kukush", she called out, "I have found you at last".  At this, our Misty-Eyed Lunatick looked up towards her and gave a Sigh, of the kind a man gives when a long-expected Moment has finally Arrived.

The woman was soon Among us, making swift apologies for the behaviour of the man she called Kukush.  I could see at once that she was of the Lunatick's tribe, having the same short, though lean and well-muscled, form.  As for the man himself, he waited for our new Friend to finish her words and then gestured to the Wreckage round about him, the Wreckage he claimed was that of his Stone-Sailing ship, before looking Directly at her.  "Your work is already done", he said.

At this the woman nodded, then placed a Hand upon his shoulder.  "Come, Kukush", she said, "you have troubled these people too long".

The man nodded and Rose up and made ready to follow her, first of all taking my hand and then Merrum's in turn and Thanking us for listening to his tale and offering his hope that he had Amused us with its Fancy.  Then the pair turned from us and we watched them walk away in Silence.  When at last they had disappeared beyond a curve in the path, we returned to our mounts, I remarking that it had been a rather Extraordinary day.

"Extraordinary indeed", said Merrum and then he opened his hand, into which it seemed this Kukush had placed a small object as he bade him farewell.  It was a sphere of mountainsbreath, carved with such art that the very thought of it brings a tear to my eye even now.

We heard no more of Kukush and the woman who took him away.  And perhaps we Saw no more of them. I say "perhaps" for, late that same night, in the greying Light, I thought I spied a wooden Craft sailing between the Mountains, with a woman at its tiller and a man, bent and weeping, sat at its prow. But then again, I was tired and it was late.  And, as Your Most High Majesty well knows, there are no boats that can sail over land, save for the boats in Fairytales.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

The Mountainherd's Tale

[For those who have already read Some Information Concerning Wandering Mountains, Part I, I regret to say that the following tale isn't precisely the one that was told by the unnamed stranger to Lemnick of Carysfort and his friend Merrum.  However, it is very similar and - I believe- rather better constructed, so I can only hope that you will forgive its substitution here.]

Everyone knows the tale of How The Planets Were Tamed. But few know the tale of the mountains, how they roamed across the faces of the planets, feeding from them and causing great destruction as they fed. Fewer still know the tale of those that tracked and trapped the mountains and brought them to heel, those who watch over them to this day.

What they call themselves they have never told. To the common people, to you and to me, they are the Mountainherds or the Stonesailors. They sail their wooden ships over the land, their keels cutting the earth beneath them as they chase and chivvy the mountains themselves, keeping them huddled in their ranges, unmoving. They are an old tribe and long-lived, strong-armed and weatherbeaten, with eyes that can outstare the sun. When the ground trembles or the mountain smokes and groans a mountain herd has failed in her task. And then her ship is broken and she is sent from her people, to wander alone or to fall among outsiders, flotsam from her own wreck.

The work of the Mountainherds is hard. They ride their ships through the ranges and along the valleys, watching, always watching, for the least sign of a mountain’s stirring. When a mountain is restless they will set a guard upon it, never sleeping, for days, for weeks, for months on end, until the stone quiets once more. And while they are at guard, they will occupy themselves, their thoughts, their hands, with craft. And this, they say, is the great pride of the Mountainherds, for among them there are men who can break a heart with a word and women who can capture a sigh in clay.

Every two years, at the festival of The Brother and The Sister, there is a great meeting of the Mountainherds and all those who are free to go ride their ships over the earth to a secret place known only to them, where they compete against each other in their displays of skill, and drink much and eat much and award a carved crown to those with the greatest skill in each craft.

Now there were two Mountainherds, Cherrak and Churst, who had long been rivals. Cherrak was a worker of wood. In every tree, in every branch, in every twig, he could see the forms of birds and animals and his skill was such that, working only with his hands, he could draw out their shapes, guiding the leaping lion and the scuttering mouse from out of the wood and into the net of his art. His works were prized the world over and sat in pride of place among the collections of the mighty.

But, for all Cherrak’s skill, Churst was the true master. He worked the stone known as mountainsbreath, exhaled by the mountains each morning, the Stonesailors say, just as the earth exhales the dew. Where Cherrak’s art could net beasts and birds, Churst could enmesh thoughts. A single carving, no larger than a child’s fist, could move a man to tears or a woman to laughter. Though given away freely by their creator, his works were sold in distant lands for the price of armies and of empires. All who saw Churst’s carvings were moved by them, all except for Cherrak, though Cherrak was Churst’s brother.

Churst and Cherrak spent most of their lives apart, Cherrak having care over some of the lofty peaks of the Tail Massif, in far-off Erst, while Churst had the honour of guarding two great summits within The Spine of the World itself. But every two years they would meet at The Festival of The Brother and The Sister, where each would offer up their finest work for judgment. And every two years Cherrak would stand and watch and murmur in a voice so low only he could hear, while Churst took up the carved crown and placed it on his own brow, as was his right as victor.

It was at one of these festivals that Cherrak met Fraiyke, long-necked and wise-smiling. Her craft was bow-making and her skill large1. Never before had Fraiyke competed at the Feast, for the peaks she guarded were often restless and there were few she could trust to watch them in her place. But this year the mountains were quiet and Fraiyke had come at last to display her skill before the gathered Mountainherds. And, at the same time, all unconscious, she displayed her wisdom and her laughing voice and her strength and her beauty.

And so fortune sat Fraiyke beside Cherrak and soon they were talking easily with each other, sharing their knowledge of the working of wood, of its strengths and subtleties, of the way it warms to a skilful hand. And as they talked, Cherrak began to think not of wood but of flesh and the fire-crackle touch of skin against skin. The flames of his thought flashed in his eyes but in the eyes of Fraiyke he saw only the warmth of friendship. And at this Cherrak was greatly pained.

His pain was only to worsen, for that same night, the Mountainherds awarded the carved crowns that mark out those whose craft exceeded all others, and among those crowned were Churst and Fraiyke, and the pair of them were sat beside each other and as they sat they turned to each other and smiled and their eyes flamed. And, when all the days of the Feast were ended, and all the Mountainherds made their way back to the mountains, the ship of Churst and the ship of Fraiyke sailed side by side.

Cherrak sailed alone and bitterly, discovering only harsh land and foul weather in his long path home to Erst. One night, so violent was the storm that he was forced to anchor within a forest’s depths. As he was making his ship secure, he was disturbed by the sound of something crashing through the trees. Turning, he saw amid the lightning, the shape of a cottage, gliding among the tops of the trees, borne on two enormous, shaggy arms, like the arms of monkeys. And there, framed in the doorway by a thunderbolt, was a shape at once of one woman and of three. And now Cherrak remembered the old tales and knew that he had seen the home of Magra, Thela, Bes. And now the great arms ceased to move, and the cottage became still and the woman in the doorway looked towards Cherrak in the lightning-silvered rain and beckoned towards him.

What occurred between Cherrak and Magra, Thela, Bes none have ever said, but at the end of their time together Cherrak sailed not for Erst but for The Spine of The World, in pursuit of Churst and Fraiyke. This time his journeying was harsher even than before. Great winds battered Cherrak’s ship, heavy rains beat upon its deck and wild tremors rocked the secret ways that it sailed. And such was Cherrak’s constant struggle against the elements that he had no time to think upon the path on which he had resolved, nor to repent of it.

At last, tired, windlashed and rainbeaten, Cherrak came upon the valley where he knew his brother to dwell, and there he found the sun high and the grass green and the breeze soft, and there he saw Churst’s ship and Fraiyke’s ship moored together and he heard the sound of twinned laughter. And such was Cherrak’s exhaustion and such his anger at this pleasant sight that he acted without thought, whispering the secret words that Magra, Thela, Bes had taught him while he resided with her. And then a mount began to stir, and then one more, and soon all the five peaks that surrounded that happy valley and the many peaks beyond them were awaking from their long slumber, intent on wreck and ruin.

And then Cherrak saw Churst and Fraiyke run each to their own ship and set them to sail and heard them call the ancient words of the Mountainherds that can calm the greatest peaks. But the mountains did not heed them, instead they set the earth shivering around them and the ships of Churst and Fraiyke and even Cherrak were tossed as if on a wild sea.

Yet Churst and Fraiyke were unbowed. They set their craft sailing once more, sweeping hither and thither among the angry peaks, their voices ringing ever louder amid the roaring of the mountains’ movement. But, for all the power of the Mountainherds’ secret words, the words of Magra, Thela, Bes were stronger yet and the peaks would not be stilled.

And now, at last, Cherrak began to see what he had done, and that in his jealousy he had doomed not merely Churst but Fraiyke too, and much of the world beyond. And so he too set his ship to sailing that churning valley and he too called out the Mountainherds’ secret words and sought to still that which he had set in motion. And seeing him at last, Churst and Fraiyke called to him in desperation and in thanks and Cherrak knew a great pain in his heart.

Some say they fought the mountains for hours, some for days, some for the turning of seasons into years. All know that in the middle of the struggle, Fraiyke’s ship was swallowed and smashed and Fraiyke herself was dashed between the rocks. And at this both Churst and Cherrak cried out so loud that their voices echoed to each other even amongst the roar of the battle. And such was Cherrak’s cry that Churst knew at once his brother’s feelings for Fraiyke. And it is here that shadow falls over the tale.

How long it was before the other Mountainherds came I do not know. Yet at last they made their way to the roiling sea of rock that had risen at the words of Magra, Thela, Bes and brought all their force and all their voices together and calmed the mountains and set them once more in their proper place. And in the middle of the mountains, in the valley at their very heart, they found much wreckage and, in the middle of the wreckage, a single ship, battered and near broken.

On the ship was a man, cradling a bow and a wooden lion and a sliver of mountainsbreath, carved in such a manner as to make the heart sing. And beside him were two bodies, one of a man and one of a woman, and each was bound in a tapestry new-woven from mountain flowers with a skill beyond even the Mountainherds’ imagining. And the man did not speak when they found him but simply delivered the things which he held into their hands and stepped down from his ship and walked off alone along a path none had seen before nor ever would see again. And whether the man was Churst or Cherrak none can say, for Churst and Cherrak were twins.

1. Even to this day, one of the great prides of the House of Vulpa is one of Fraiyke’s bows, handed down to the eldest child of the line and as strong and true today as it was when Fraiyke’s hand first made it.