Friday, 5 August 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 3)

The theme of conflict between groups provides a fast-moving plot for Bjorn Kurten’s The Dance of the Tiger, but this otherwise convincing storyline is undermined by the use of modern military terminologies that can surely have had no place in the thought processes of hunter-gatherers living 35,000 years ago:

Wolf...described the situation. Shelk had put garrisons at Big Lake, Blue Lake, Swidden Moor, and doubtless other places too...’We have divided into three groups, and we harass Shelk’s lines of communication...He’s sent many troops against us, but we always avoid them. Meanwhile, we’re gathering strength to assault his headquarters at Caribou Lake...There will be an enemy patrol before long’” (The Dance of the Tiger, Part 3).

Kurten also has a lake described as “...a festive mirror for the sun,” the laughter of hyenas described as a “...shrill falsetto,” and a drunken character emptying his “wine-cellar.” We don’t know what language was spoken in Palaeolithic Scandinavia, but it seems unlikely that it would have included words for “mirror,” “falsetto” or “cellar,” let alone “troops,” “headquarters” or “patrols.”

Kurten was a palaeontologist, an expert on fossil bears, and his novel was published to great acclaim by his fellow scientists, Richard Leakey and Stephen Jay Gould. Jean Auel may have had this in mind when she criticised the attempts of scientists to write fiction about their subject material.

“When I have read fiction written by scientists,” she wrote recently, in the Historical Novels Review, “I am often disappointed. Although it is assumed that they do, they don’t always research their fiction as well as they research their own science. After all, it’s only fiction.”

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