The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

*sighs sadly*

Nope.

Oh, it’s not rubbish. But it feels as though another little barrier has just come down between me and so, so many other people.

I didn’t adore it.

I can sort of see why some people might. There are virtues here. Goldman has a great line every now and then, and of course the narrative is geared around Being Awesome, so there’s that. And yet…

Well, let’s backtrack.

The Princess Bride is a strange sort of book. It’s an homage to classic adventure novels – Stevenson, Dumas and so on – perhaps a little bit by way of the pulp Sword and Sorcery tradition, and it’s presented as an abridgement of a genuine old adventure novel. Goldman claims to have simply stripped out the boring bits from the original novel by ‘Morgenstern’, leaving only ‘the good bits’. Those good bits are a classic adventure, with pirates and assassins and evil princes and so on.

I can see the attraction of the narrative. Goldman essentially strips out almost all character, themes, worldbuilding and so on, and just has a cast of very familiar fantasy archetypes – the Spanish fencer, the idiot strongman, the beautiful princess and so on – going through the motions of the usual adventures, but eliding all the bits that aren’t Awesome. This is both a strength – it plucks the notes that it’s hard not to respond to, of True Love and Daring-Do – and also a great weakness, because without any personality behind the clichés (to the extent that these are people at all they’re with only one pitiable exception obnoxious people), or any context in the setting, or any particular themes, it’s hard to particularly care what’s going on, and the lack of slower parts means that the High Drama is sort of exhausting. It’s sort of… oh, people are going to kill me for this, but… it’s sort of like reading someone’s write-up of their D&D campaign. It’s about that level of story. [It’s like someone took those old D&D novels and said these need to be less literary! – and that’s a bold and exciting choice that most authors wouldn’t take! But there are also reasons why most authors wouldn’t take that approach…]

Now, to be fair, this campaign write-up is written up really quite well. Goldman adopts a classic English Flippancy style, and while he doesn’t do it as well as a Chesterton, a Cabell, or in more modern times a Pratchett, he does have some funny lines here and there. He’s clever. He’s witty. He actually writes his villain adeptly (he’s a complete cliché from top to bottom, but he’s done with great elán). And, again, he goes at it at pace and doesn’t leave the reader too much time to get impatient and to start wobbling the cardboard skeptically. But on the other hand, it’s never exactly hilarious, and the jokes… well, they’re all basically the same. And there’s a very broad, predictable feel about them. There’s a strong sense of… well, Monty Python, if Monty Python weren’t actually funny, and weren’t actually ever unexpected. [Not kidding: for one thing, through the whole Miracle Max scene I couldn’t help but imagine him looking like Tim the Enchanter…]. And while the anachronism is part of the ‘joke’ (see, it can’t be real because the places have really silly names and there’s no possible time-period it could fit! see, it’s funny!), it mostly just irritated me. I know, this is a little hypocritical – why should I have a problem with Goldman’s mediaeval characters shouting “time out!” and the like, when I had no problem with Jurgen? I don’t know exactly, but maybe it’s that this isn’t funny enough to count as a comedy for me. It’s neither funny enough on the surface, nor as substantially ironic below, to get that latitude. Instead, it’s a D&D campaign narrated sarcastically.

And then there’s the other stuff. Because Goldman doesn’t just stick his frame story in an introduction and leave it there, oh no. He continually breaks into the text with lines here and pages there inserted by him as an ‘abridger’ commenting on the ‘original’ he’s working from.

The basic joke here isn’t awful. It’s “hey, remember how those classic adventure novels have really boring bits that modern audiences just skip through?” – and that’s a fair point. So he comments on how he’s skipping this description of clothes-packing here, that description of etiquette lessons thee, and so on, and how serious scholars love the complex satire of these passages but he’s bored stiff, and so on, and it’s sort of funny the first few times.

But it’s just the same joke, again and again and again. We get it, Dumas was long-winded, OK. And it does allow him to skip the ‘boring’ bits in the story, the bits with the character development and the setting-development and whatnot, and just fill us in on the key details in (almost) bullet points. But… after the first time, couldn’t you just put “seventy pages later…” or something, rather than going through the entire sketch again?

Because as it is, instead of a few pages on packing luggage, we get a few pages of a rather pompous author explaining why he’s not giving all those details on packing luggage, and in terms of readability, once you’ve learnt the basic joke, that’s not much of an improvement.

And then there’s the other other bits. In this edition, at least, we get an intro, then another, really long-winded intro, which mostly serves to establish Goldman as a misogynist, adulterous, fat-shaming smirking little creep (and which makes me rather less tolerant of the endless descriptions of how sexy and beautiful Buttercup is; I can go along with parodying the Impossible Beauty of adventure heroines, and I can even maybe go along with Hey There’s Nothing Wrong With Admiring Beauty, reclaiming-beautiful-princesses-and-swashbuckling-adventurers-it’s-a-fairy-tale-OK if it’s done right, but I don’t want to feel that the author’s hands are in his trousers too much). And then the story ends at the end, in an abrupt, I’ve-run-out-of-ideas-so-bye-now way, except in this version it doesn’t end, because we get dozens of pages of interminable rambling about the author again, and now it’s not even funny or well-told like it was at first, and finally, finally, we get a chapter of a book that doesn’t exist. This is a chapter of the non-existant sequel to the novel, and it’s basically a series of random scenes scrunched together in a random order to taunt the audience. Like a magician, showing us the implements of the trick and daring us to work out what he’s going to do with them, only because the book doesn’t exist he never actually does do anything with them. Except, en route, to give us a couple of scenes with more character depth and emotion than the whole of the original novel itself, making us kind of wish he’d put that sort of thing in in the first place (he even taunts us by saying that he wished those scenes had been in the original!).

Perhaps the sins of these later additions, assuming that’s what they are, would have been ameliorated by some sort of indication in the text of what really was part of the ‘book’ and what was just additional stuff thrown into this edition at the publisher’s request. But the problem with meta-ironically erasing the boundary between author and text is that when your author surrounds the text with tedious self-aggrandizement, it looks just like its part of the text.

And yes, I know now that apparently much of the ironically self-critical material of the endless prologues and postlogues is apparently even more fictional than it seems, and that he’s criticising himself mendaciously as some sort of bizarre and probably pathological form of self-promotion, but that doesn’t actually make it much more fun to read.

Now again, I want to take a step back here and say: sure, yes, there are good things here. Readers of these reviews may be angrily pointing out to me that in other reviews – that of The Skylark of Space, for instance – I’ve happily praised books for their enthusiasm, their joy, their naive good fun, despite objective authorial inadequacies far worse than Goldman here possesses. And that’s a very valid objection. If you cut out the stuff at the beginning and the end, and gloss over the boring lecture bits and grit your teeth a little through the repetitive jokes, The Princess Bride is pretty fun. Of course it is, it’s composed of a series of calculated Kickass Moments. And I love the flippant style as much as anybody, if not more – I grew up with Wilde, with Jerome, with Pratchett, with T.H. White, with Wodehouse, and I’ve been struck in adulthood by the brilliance of Chesterton and Cabell and Saki. How could I not enjoy Goldman’s delightfully mannered excesses in that direction?

The problem there is, I’ve just named eight other authors who do the same thing but better.

And I love the clichés of fantasy and adventure. Epic fantasy is, even if I don’t read that much of it today, fundamentally still My Genre, and it still revolves around exactly the same character archetypes and predictable plot beats that Goldman both mocks and celebrates in this novel.

The problem is, sometimes it’s nice to get more than just The Greatest Hits played at full volume, by trumpets. Sometimes it would be nice to have emotional engagement, and characters I can empathise with, and surprises, and complexity, and little things like that.

Sometimes, I think, The Good Bits mean a little more if we get a few of The Boring Bits along the way. Sometimes it’s nice when our narrator seems to care about the story. Sometimes, frankly, I want more than just all this constant flippancy. Ironic detachment rapidly becomes alienating when it’s the only colour in the palette.

So I’m afraid you’ll all just have to hate me.

I would, however, be interested to see how many adorers of this book came fresh to it in adulthood, free from the nostalgia of childhood readings (because it’s clearly a book that will appeal more to children and teenagers), and without the benefit of having seen the film adaptation (which the book cries out for, not only because many scenes are highly cinematic but also because real live human actors could flesh out the robotic, idealised characters with genuine humanity and specificity).

 

I won’t give a detailed breakdown of ‘scores’ for this novel, because it’s been too long since I read it, having taken this long to force myself to write what will clearly be one of my least popular reviews, but as a general overview I believe this to merit a 4/7: NOT BAD.

Øynduyska – V (Various noun phrase things)

The continuing adventures of Øynduyska.

PRONOUNS
Pronomena

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Øynduyska – IV (Nouns)

The continuing adventures of Øynduyska. Comments welcome!

NOUNS
Nammwyrðer

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Øynduyska – III (Phonology/Orthography 2)

The continuing adventures of Øynduyska. Rounding off phonology/orthography. Comments welcome!

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Øynduyska – II (Phonology/Orthography 1)

The continuing adventures of  Øynduyska. As always, feedback welcome!

 

PHONOLOGY and ORTHOGRAPHY
Fonologi ay Ortografi

Consonants
Consonanter

  Stops Affricates Fricatives Approximants Taps Nasals
Bilabial /p/ p

/b/ b

        /m/ m
Labiodental     /f/ f fh

/v/ v bh f

     
Dental     /þ/ th t

/ð/ ð d

     
Alveolar /t/ t

/d/ d

  /s/ s

/z/ s

/l/ l /ɹ/ r /n/ n
Anterior Post-Alveolar   /tɕ/ tch /ʃ/ sh s
/ʒ/ s
     
Posterior Post-Alveolar     /ɕ/ kj      
Palatal       /j/ y j    
Velar /k/ c k

/g/ g

  /x/ ch /w/ w    
Glottal     /h/ h      

 

The consonant inventory is largely unremarkable and self-explanatory, although it is worth noting that the labiodental fricatives often pronounced as labial fricatives when adjacent to rounded vowels. The most unusual phonemes are those listed here as “dental fricatives”, which may vary between interdental fricatives and dental stops – in general, they are fricatives intervocalically, post-nasally and finally, but they are often stops initially or following another consonant. The stop realisation is particularly common for the voiceless phoneme.

Regarding the orthography, there are a number of ambiguities; in particular, the grapheme s may stand for any of four fricatives: while generally indicating an alveolar, it indicates a postalveolar following u, w, eo, io, or sometimes (but not always) following ø, y or a; it indicates a voiced fricative when initial, when intervocalic, or when following a nasal, or when preceding a voiced consonant, but otherwise indicates a voiceless consonant. The voiced and voiceless alveolar fricatives are not otherwise distinguished in writing, though the distinction is only very rarely distinctive. The same is true of the postalveolar, except that the voiceless postalveolar may also be indicated by means of the digraph sh. So:

sitta /zɪtə/ “to sit”
gressa /gresə/ “to eat lightly; to graze”
más /mas/ “moss”
huss /hʊʃ/ “house”
fleos /fleʃ/ “fleece; rind; mould”
yøsa /jøːʒə/ “to vomit”
másh /maʃ/ “clapshot; colcannon”
shanka /ʃæŋkə/ “leg”

 

The “dental fricatives” may be indicated by th and ð, but may also be indicated simply by t and d when preceding a u, w, y, o or ó, or when morpheme-final following the same letters – or, sometimes but not always, following a, ø or y. Thus:

cweða /kweːðə/ “to declare”
beseod ech /bəzeɞð ex/ “I boil (sth.)”
bątha /bɑːþə/ “to beat”
besleot ech /bəzleɞþ ex/ “I close (sth.)”
duylom /ðʊɪlɞm/ “creator”

 

The velar stop /k/ may be indicated with either c or k; c is found as the first element of clusters within a root, and, within a morpheme, before any vowels other than i, í, or e; k is found morpheme-finally, as the final element of clusters, and before the vowels i, í and e. So:

cweða /kweːðə/ “to declare”
cnafa /knæːvə/ “child; boy; youth”
cutta /kʊtə/ “bodice; jacket”
kerm /kɛrəm/ “wail; shriek; lament”
yðank /ɪðænk/ “thought”
busk /bʊʃk/ “bush”

 

Regarding the labiodentals: in initial or final position, or adjacent to a voiceless stop or a fricative, f generally indicates /f/, but in intervocalic position f indicates /v/. Morpheme-final /v/ is typically shown by bh, while initial /v/ is shown by v; v is also found in many loanwords. Intervocalic /f/ may be shown by vh. Thus:

foto /foːtoː/ “photograph”
far? /fær/ “where?”
hröf /hrəf/ “stomach; fortitude”
vilsfin /vɪlsfɪn/ “wild boar”
wǫlf /wʌlf/ “wolf”
wylfer /wylvər/ “wolves”
cnafa /knæːvə/ “child; boy; youth”
cøbh /kev/ “jaw”
cøbhs /køːvz/ “of the jaw”
advocat /ædvɞkət/ “attorney”
sevha /seːfa/ “to see”

 

The palatal glide /j/ is shown with y when morpheme-initial or following a vowel, but with j when following a consonant within a morpheme. So:

yøsa /jøːʒə/ “to vomit”
bjóding /bjɔːðəŋg/ “social invitation”

 

A further complication of orthography is the practice of writing orthographic ‘geminates’ to indicate preceding short vowels. Sometimes, the ‘geminate’ is not merely a duplication of the letter or grapheme. In any case, other than across morpheme boundaries in compounds, ‘geminates’ do not indicate a phonetic doubling of the consonant, but merely a change in the preceding vowel.

The fricative geminates ff and ss only ever indicate voiceles consonants; voiced /v/ may be written in geminate form as bhf, but there is no geminate form available for /z/. The geminate form of ð is ðh.

The geminate form of c/k is written as ck, when morpheme-internal, but as kk when the gemination results from the addition of a suffix. The geminate form of kj is kkj.

The geminate forms of th and ch are tth and cch.

The polygraphs sh and tch are regarded as automatically ‘geminate’, in the sense of shortening preceding vowels.

In this way:

máshr /maʃr/ “colcannons”
flycker /flʏkər/ “flocks; groups”
ąka /ɑːkə/ “to make bigger”
akkar /ækar/ “increaser”
mikkjel /mɪɕəl/ “big”
yøbha /yøːvə/ “to give”
yøbhfað wi /yevað wi/ “we give”

 

Next Up: Phonology and Orthography 2: Vowels!
Nu ta vylga: Fonologi ay Ortografi 2: Vocala

Øynduyska – I (intro/context)

It’s been a while since I’ve put up any conlanging here (I did do a huge tranche of stuff on Rawàng Ata but never got around to posting most of it). So, here, enjoy (if you can!) a brief sketch of a Germanic language from the North Atlantic. I’ll post it in sections to buoy your suspense (and because I haven’t finished it yet – still got a few more syntax sections to wade through). Any questions or comments gratefully received!

I’ll start with a brief explanation of what the language is…

INTRODUCTION and CONTEXT
VOORCANT ay SAMMENHANG

Internal
Intern

Øynduyska is a minor Germanic language spoken by somewhat under 200,000 people on the Wentharian Islands (located northwest of Ireland and southwest of Iceland and the Faroes), by small numbers of expatriates around the world (with particular concentrations in the UK, US, Canada, Norway, and Argentina; there is a very small multigenerational community surviving in western Canada, while other speakers abroad are mostly first- or second-generation immigrants). There are also several tens of thousands of second-language speakers in the Islands.

Øynduyska belongs to the Northwest Germanic subfamily. Early philologists generally assumed it to be an Ingvaeonic, or even specifically Anglo-Frisian language, as it shares some prominent features with English and Frisian. However, modern linguists believe that these are parallel evolutions, probably suggesting extensive early contact and sprachbund effects; it is not even clear whether Øynduyska can accurately be called a West Germanic language, thanks to its delayed rhotacisation (a feature shared with North Germanic but not with West Germanic). However, as the language is in other regards close to West Germanic, and shares few early developments with North Germanic, the general tendency appears to be to overlook this difference and to consider it a somewhat ‘anomalous’ West Germanic language.

Considerable perplexity surrounds the early history of the language, and in particular how the language could have arrived in such a remote location. It is possible that the ancestors of the modern Øynduyar (English: ‘Onthoyers’ or ‘Wenthers’) may have participated in the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, crossed the island rapidly, and then spread to the west via the Hebrides. It seems more likely, however, that they reached their current location either following a coastal path along the east coast of Britain, and thence via the Hebrides, or else following a coastal path along the west coast of Norway, prior to Norse settlement there, and then travelling to the west via the Faroes. The latter suggestion has always been more politically popular in the Islands, but the former would seem more probable, given the shorter distances required to be travelled, and the absence of any clear connexion between the Øynduyar and the Faroes.

In any event, the Islands were subsequently subjugated under Norse (and later variously Danish and Norwegian) rule, from the 9th century through to the 20th, and this contact has had a considerable effect on the superficial appearance of the language, and a more subtle influence upon other aspects of the tongue.

External
Ecstern

In reality, of course, there is no Øynduyska, nor any Wentharian Islands (or at least, in our world there is only one such island, and it’s very, very small).

I’ve toyed on and off, over the years, with some sort of a sister or cousin to English, retaining a more archaic feel – a common enough conceit. Those ideas never really went anywhere, however, until I saw and borrowed the idea of placing some more dry land on our Rockall Plateau. What would the inhabitants of such islands speak? Well, realistically they’d speak a sister to Icelandic and to Faroese, but that didn’t interest me much, so instead… Øynduyska. Not actually a descendent of Old English, but similarities in vocabulary and (over-enthusiastic!) participation in the Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant Law hopefully make it feel strangely familiar to English speakers. It retains some features suggestive of Old English – it has not undergone Modern English’s Great Vowel Shift, for instance, and continues to use the distinctive ‘eo’ digraph lost in Modern English – while following Modern English in some other respects (it has eliminated or reduced many of its unstressed vowels, for instance, and dramatically simplified its morphology). At the same time, for both aesthetic and historical reasons, I wanted to give the language a slightly ‘Northern’ feel, a touch of cold crispness that seemed to suit both its windswept locale and its long association with the Nordic nations. This is most obvious in the orthography, with its inclusion of such letters as ø and ð, and in a number of Norse loanwords.

Next Up: Phonology and Orthography!
Nu ta vylga: Fonologi ay Ortografi!

The Skylark of Space, by E.E. (“Doc”) Smith

It’s Vintage Science Fiction Month [well it was, back when I started this review…] And what could be more vintage than The Skylark of Space?

This is it. This is novel Asimov called the first classic of science fiction; that Pohl ranked as the single most influential SF novel not by Wells or Verne. First written – or at least begun – almost exactly a century ago, how does The First Space Opera hold up today?

…well, I’m honestly not entirely sure how to answer that question.

I could probably just leave the review at that picture…

But first things first. What is it?

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