Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

With the exception of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), which stemmed from his invention of an entire imaginary language, Elvish, it is hard to think that any actual invented languages can be discovered in a fantasy text, though they are very frequently referred to, and though there are a good number of invented words and epithets and archaisms which are intended to impart a flavour of the otherness and romance of an invented tongue – this latter technique is particularly well employed in the post-Holocaust movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). We use the term "diction" in three main senses:

1. Style As such, this can be examined in ways common to the examination of any prose text.

2. Decorum In much fantasy writing we must also address the question of decorum – or, more properly, decorousness. It is a question to be addressed with some interest: whether or not the chaste, clogged language of much High Fantasy derives solely from marketing decisions extrinsic to its true nature, it is suggestive that Dark Fantasy can almost immediately be recognizable through its violation of that chastity of language.

Decorum also provides an explanation for the ways in which the language of Heroic Fantasy radically differs from one author or book to another. Because this is an impure form, consciously drawing on other genres, it is not felt as an estrangement or an incongruity when a Template fantasy like Glen Cook's Garrett series (from 1987) echoes in its language the private-eye thrillers to which it pays homage, in spite of the fact that the novels are set in a medievalized city full of Elves and trolls. Appropriate decorum here derives from the emotional feel and our reaction to it in terms of other texts, not from the superficial aspects of the Fantasyland setting and magical rationale.

3. Archaism The "forsoothery" of much High Fantasy may be nothing more than a reflection of the tendency – derived from William Morris and J R R Tolkien – to conduct heroic matters in a Germanic tone of voice, and thereby to convey a sense of the dawn of the world. Attempts at the Saga Voice afflict almost all high fantasy, from Morris to Poul Anderson and to most recent writers of Genre Fantasy. Texts in Saga Voice are full of undigested morsels of "language", but often in no way constitute a genuine attempt at conveying otherness. Where they do, as in the best of Anderson's early work, it is because of a conscious attempt to go back to the sagas and make the imitation of their language personal and new.

Other sources for the effect of archaism in fantasy include the cod Orientalism of Lord Dunsany and others of the turn of the century, and even the Bible. Sometimes this is a deliberate piece of what Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) called the alienation effect; Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, Ernest Bramah and others are announcing, not entirely truthfully, that what they are telling us in this particular and peculiar way is a Story, and to be taken on Story's terms. What can make later imitations of their language so silly is the absence of a sense of irony, and of the sense that language can have several meanings at once. [JC/RK]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.