The Dragon Slayer :: Franz von Stuck
In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.
Ursula Le Guin, Some Thoughts on Narrative in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989, p. 44
I have been reading Le Guin again, and it is always a heady experience. Her stories and her essays are mazes of thought that can lead to unexpected places. In particular, I want to jot down some of my own thoughts after reading the short essay, Some Thoughts on Narrative, in the 1989 collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World.
Le Guin points out that when a person is awoken from Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, they do not report dreams exactly, but rather, a collection of disjointed images that are simply coming and going. REM sleep is interspersed with periods of calmer non-REM sleep in which the eyes are not moving about behind the eyelids. If a person is woken at this point instead, they report a sequence of events. So, instead of, There was a steep hill I was climbing. I think there was a house too. My aunt was in the dream for some reason, we get connective tissue forming between the dreaming events. A sort of post-hoc after the fact application of a story to the images. I was climbing a hill, but the hill got steeper and steeper until it was terrifying. When I got to the top I found a house, and although it didn’t look anything at all like my Aunt Millicent’s house, I somehow knew it was, and she wanted to talk to me, so I went inside.
Narrative, then, is perhaps most simply viewed as a series of events connected by a string of causal explanations. We use this in our lives in two fundamental ways. The first is to explain what has happened in the past. I did such-and-such a thing, and then this other thing happened, and then that happened, and I responded like so, and the result is where I am now. The other way we use narrative is to anticipate. If I am ever faced with a situation like that, I shall do this thing, and if that does not work, then I shall try this other thing instead. The first mode of narrative is, I think, in the spirit of the indicative mood. The second is more in the spirit of the subjunctive mood.
The essay as a whole got me thinking about very simple stories. Here’s a very simple story. A dragon abducts a princess, and so a brave knight rides out, slays the dragon and marries the princess.
The story has events and elements that are connected causally. We could just state a jumble of events. A princess is abducted by a dragon. A brave knight goes riding. A knight slays a dragon. A knight and a princess marry. You will notice, as I have noticed, that I’ve slipped into a staccato rendition of the story without its connective tissue. Causality can still be filled in, but mostly because we are already familiar with the chain of events. Consider this set of events. A knight and a princess marry. A knight slays a dragon. A brave knight goes riding. A princess is abducted by a dragon. Perhaps you can still inset sufficient causal tissue to turn this into a story. Maybe the princess is abducted by a second dragon, who is getting revenge for the slaying of the first dragon. Maybe the princess finds that she prefers the company of the abducting dragon to her boorish knight, and so that is the end of the tale. But there is no natural sense of time progressing in this sort of machine gun rendering of events. I want to now consider what it is that makes stories interesting. One immediate possibility, is that novelty can play a part. At the most superficial level, our simple story is made up of three characters and a series of events. We can create novelty, especially if the story is well known, by just swapping characters around.
A dragon abducts a knight, and so a brave princess rides out, slays the dragon and marries the knight. A knight abducts a princess, and so a brave dragon rides out, slays the knight and marries the princess. A princess abducts a dragon, and so a brave knight rides out, slays the princess and marries the dragon.
But the story is also made up of events, and these events can be transposed onto different characters. A crooked police officer abducts a circus acrobat, and so a brave girlfriend rides out on her Harley, slays the officer and marries the circus acrobat. There’s nothing to stop the story taking place entirely in one character. A woman afraid of the outside world abducts herself into her own home, unable to leave, and so a brave thought rides out, slays the fear and marries itself into the life of the woman, who can now leave her house.
And of course, there is the causality that can be played with. Why did the dragon abduct the princess? Was there a reason? What is motivating the knight to ride out and risk his life? Did the princess allow herself to be abducted? How does the knight find the dragon’s lair? How does he kill the dragon? Does the princess want to marry the knight, or is it simply expected of her?
Where a story takes an unexpected turn, or a reveal changes everything in a tale, or there is a sting in the tail sort of twist at the end, the story is playing about with the causal tissue.
Finally, I wanted to visit the emotion of the story, because at the heart of it, stories events and characters really do boil down to emotion. The fear of being taken away from a safe home by force. The feeling of being threatened with violence, captivity or forced service. The feeling of being removed from everyone you love. The feeling of hoping or dreaming that somehow, we might be rescued from a terrible situation. The feeling of joy when you realise that someone else values you enough that they would risk their own safety to try and help you and save you.
Now, of course, there’s a whole plethora of other things that can make a story entertaining to read: humour, clever word-play, poetical or beautiful language, a sense of menace, a mystery to solve, fun or cool characters, titillation, romantic stimulation, horror, the satisfaction of seeing natural justice done. I think though, that these features of a story may be relatively shallow. I think when a story does these things really well, serves up some romance and cool characters in great excellent dollops, but then fails to do much that is interesting with the causal connections or the emotions, then the story is fun to read but leaves the reader feeling a little empty afterwards. Fun, but not fulfilling.
This will do for now. I will leave this here, and maybe, hopefully stirred up some thoughts on your part.