Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 1)

In her Essay, Tone and Language in Historical Fiction, Marguerite Yourcenar comments on the difficulties of fictionalising the conversation of past epochs, arguing that the representation of speech, “...in all its spontaneity, its disjointed logic, its complex byways, its lacunae, and its unarticulated implications” was, in any case, not attempted by writers before the 19th Century (Tolstoy, Ibsen), “...without passing through tragic or comic stylisation or lyric outburst.” From an Anglophone perspective, I might object that both Shakespeare and Chaucer provide some notable examples, even though both of them (like Tolstoy & Ibsen) were also capable of literary stylisation.

In Memoirs of  Hadrian, Yourcenar deploys her considerable scholarship in an attempt to recreate the oratio togata that would have been used at the Emperor’s Second Century court. When it comes to the fictionalisation of prehistoric periods, however, we have, by definition, no contemporary documents to rely on. The writer can only imagine the metaphors and similes, the jokes, the “verbal exchange and voice” of people living in remote periods, and on the quality of these imagined voices rests the credibility of a large part of his or her narrative.

William Golding, in The Inheritors, goes further than most writers in his attempt to imagine the speech patterns of our early European ancestors (as they now, as once before, appear to have been), the Neanderthals.

“’I shall bring back food in my arms’ – he gestured hugely – ‘so much food that I stagger –so!’

Fa grinned at him.

‘There is not as much food as that in the world.’

He squatted.

‘Now I have a picture in my head. Lok is coming back to the fall. He runs along the side of the mountain. He carries a deer. A cat has killed the deer and sucked its blood, so there is no blame. So. Under this left arm. And under this right one’ – he held it out – ‘the quarters of a cow...’” (The Inheritors, Chapter 2).

The language of the dialogue (the third person narration is another matter) has only simple present, past and future tenses (no conditional, pluperfect, imperfect etc.) and few words of more than two syllables. “I have a picture of...” is used to indicate conditional statements about the past and future. Golding’s Neaderthals clearly have a strong visual imagination.


  1. I'm not sure it's necessary to attempt to recreate the speech of that time - it makes reading a story more difficult. I think a reader would be capable of imagining the characters speaking to each other in whatever the language was, no matter how we render it now. The people who lived then must surely have had ways of communicating the same concepts and how they said it is less important than telling their story in a gripping way IMO. Would you agree?

  2. I suppose it depends on what sort of story one is trying to tell, and for what intended readership. I didn't personally find Yourcenar's or Golding's books difficult to read, but then they both had genius. Certainly I find that using metaphors, similes, expletives etc. appropriate to the time period helps to transport the reader into an alien world (and also helps me, as a writer, to avoid modern cliches (I've even had some fun researching/imagining what ancient cliches might have been).

  3. You're right, a little "flavour" of the speech of whatever historical period one is writing in does help to recreate the time, as long as it's not too much. Your research sounds fascinating - I look forward to reading the result!