Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (intro part three)

Creative Commons photo of knight in armor

Marjorie Bowen
The Sword Decides!
Introduction: part three












A Different Kind of Translation, continued:



A Question of Taste
Chapter One, Joris Middelstum’s Strong Points


Joris Middelstum was a bachelor. Do not be angry with him, ladies, on that account. Supposing that it may have been partly his fault, you cannot deny that it was undoubtedly still more his misfortune. He was one of those men who go on being bachelors because they have never been properly compelled to leave off. I do not say, mind you, that he would have surrendered to the very first fair huntress who gave chase to him, but I think he would hardly have eluded the second. For he dreaded, above all things, to give pain.


Novel, Maarten Maartens, 1892



Another character-driven opening. Here the narrator, the I, is of the story; he begins a relationship between himself and you, the reader…

And if you’re not unwilling to be charmed by 19th century ways, you’ll find yourself engaged by a method more direct than Hanshew’s mystery: invited into an imaginary dialogue. The narrator-to-reader device can present in a number of tones: didactic, chatty, epical…

What else makes us want to read further? Retiring characters who are comfortable with their lives’ routines, then find themselves waylaid by love…routines upended…anchor some of the most satisfying romantic stories, especially where romance is also comedy.

(A couple of examples: The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler; the screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby”.)

In the world of novel readers (and people in general), there are many more average than beautiful, more losers than winners, who still, as the (Groucho Marx) joke goes, don’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like them for a member. Duckling becomes swan, mouse becomes lion—makeovers in looks or courage have always appealed.

One more note: chapter titles are a good opportunity to make a quip, or forecast the exciting part; to further sell the work, like the sub-headline in a news story.


Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwartz, 1858-1915, who wrote under the pen name of Maarten Maartens, lived in England, hobnobbed with some famous names, such as George Bernard Shaw, and wrote his novels and stories in English.



Bleak House
Chapter One, In Chancery


London, Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, while tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day every broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating compound interest.


Novel, Charles Dickens, 1853



This beginning, which segues into the famous fog, does all sorts of things, in economical, journalistic language. (Many sentence fragments, in this canonical book of 1853, so thin defenses for anyone in 2020, soon 2021, who inveighs against them.)

This is historical present, but the tense suits the narrative. Whereas, when HP feels precious to readers, it probably doesn’t. HP is like the constantly filling inbox, best when you are not trying to be finished and settled with anything, but want the rush of detail to churn, stack, and overflow. The adventures of the hapless Snagsby are told in HP, and of course Snagsby is just such a person, having nothing memorable in his life until that life mires itself in intrigue.

In this example, setting is also character: London. We have a suggestion of the Lord Chancellor, the high-titled figure in his hall, in the midst of mud and bustle; a light touch of satire upon the Lord Chancellor. Next, we have the dinosaur, after the waters retire, a figmentary mixture of Noah’s ark and Victorian science. We have aspirational city soot, “as big as full-grown snowflakes”; imagined into snowflakes altogether that mourn the sun; we have dogs, horses, angry people with angry umbrellas, tracking and intensifying the mud-cover, that grows into a public fund of mud, compounding in interest.

It may even be arguable whether this makes you want to read on. High style can be a destination in itself, however, and definitely an education.


Charles Dickens doesn’t require introduction in a two-line bio, so I’ll just give his dates: 1812-1870.




(more to come)



The Sword Decides!

Oil painting cameo of 1920s woman curling lipIntroduction: part four
















(2020, Stephanie Foster)




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