Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part one)
The Sword Decides!
The turquoise of a summer sky was fading into evening purple. Golden above the Adriatic Sea glittered the first stars, while the olives below changed from silver to grey. The white foam of the wild cherry dimmed slowly as dusk encroached.
A few late swallows remained abroad. And butterflies, over the meadow faintly seen, still chased about. In this place no distance from the coast were a number of tents, men, horses, and baggage—a small but splendid encampment, lying under a stand of chestnut. The night was that of June 3rd, 1343; the company, the train of Andreas of Hungary, on his way to Naples to join his unseen wife, Giovanna, granddaughter of the King. Many days they had travelled, and now, near the end of their journey, the men took their ease amid surroundings more beautiful than any their sterner land could show.
The Hungarians walked in couples and whispered together, a little overawed by the magnificence of these meadows and the wonder of the sea. The Italians, their guides and escorts, lounged along the grass, laughing and jesting, cursing the increasing heat.
As night closed in, and the scattered groups were lost in the gathering shadows, a man made his way through confusion to a tent pitched at centre. Above this fluttered lazily the royal banner of Hungary, a soldier at the entrance keeping guard. But he saluted and moved aside, for the newcomer was Konrad of Gottif, the Prince’s dearest friend. Brusque and without ceremony, Konrad entered at the tent flap. Two pages sat polishing a gilt–and–steel helmet, while a white hound slept beside them. Heavy curtains concealed the rest.
“Is the Prince within?” demanded Konrad. He was a large, rough man, his voice deep and uncouth. The pages sprang to their feet…the helmet fell, and rolled to Konrad’s.
“Ah, careless!” He pushed on, scowling, not waiting for answer. He parted a curtain, then stared silent a moment at the scene beyond. A tapestry was hung, of peacock-green and gold, and from the centre of the roof a bronze lamp, suspended by a heavy chain, giving a dull yellow light. Coffers and rugs, armour, weapons piled off to the sides—
And a young man, stretched on a low couch covered in lynx and bearskins, resting his head on his hands and gazing at a girl, who sat on a rug of silk. The young man was not above twenty, but of a large, powerful build. Unpitying seemed his habit of expression, although in a commonplace way the face was handsome. His smooth, fair hair lay chopped above his blue eyes, gracing behind the collar of his purple velvet coat. On his head was a gold net cap bearing in front a great tuft of breast plumage, and for a garnish, two of the golden eagle’s tailfeathers. His huge limbs, that lay along the bearskins, were clad in parti-coloured hose, dull pink-and-white. A cluster of wild roses was pinned into the embroidery of his shirt, and the hands that showed above the sumptuous fantasy of sleeves were white and well-shaped.
Under the lamp, this girl of the Marches hugged her knees, slight and slender as a child, and wearing a peasant’s clothes. By her side was a great basket of oranges and lemons. Many had rolled across the floor.
The above is my reedited take on Majorie Bowen’s 1908 novel. My method going forward will be to print less of the original text, only highlighting the changes I’ve made that illustrate principles worth sharing. Today, for the launching into the story proper, I include all of Bowen’s beginning, and my comments. As should be obvious, any writer other than myself would edit differently, having a different ear for what sounds best. The goal of the exercise, aside from fun, is to discuss the minutiae of writing in its greatest depth, taking the problem apart sentence by sentence.
The hard, perfect turquoise of the summer sky was fading into the glowing purple of evening, and the first stars glittered golden above the vast calm of the Adriatic Sea; silver olives were changing into gray, and the white foam of wild cherry trees was slowly dimmed by the encroaching dusk; a few late swallows were abroad, and over the grass and flowers of the meadows faint butterflies chased each other.
Old-time punctuation is not automatically a fault. It was a way of doing things, within a system we no longer employ. So we don’t call the semicoloned opening argument wrong, just a formalism bound to dull what needs to be a little compelling. Besides breaking up the sentences, I dispatch some of the excess adjectives. If the sky is turquoise, that by itself suggests the environs of southern European seas; a hard sky is hard to visualize, and perfect is redundant.
The logical link between the stars and olives is the contrast of gold and silver, an established combo. Reordering these thoughts strengthens the conceit, and adds a little poetic rhythm. (I always spell grey with an e, for synesthesia’s sake, because gray with an a looks yellow to me, so that’s just a personal quirk.)
Next, I broke this paragraph at the note on swallows (and changed the verb to one better linked to the gist, which is changes between daytime and evening-turning-to-night). My reason is that long descriptive passages boil down to: The sky was like this; the trees were like that…
This was to be seen; that was to be seen…
Even good, evocative stage setting can use a kick. As to the butterflies, it’s normally a sound principle to avoid some of the “ly” adverbs by transferring the emotional quality to the object.
They emerged from the carrier with wary whiskers.
The Cat Who Came to Breakfast, Lilian Jackson Braun, Putnam, 1994.
But faint is a word with more than one meaning. The possibility the butterflies aren’t well makes a distraction; their chasing each other makes an off-kilter image. Butterflies generally mill around…and may seem to chase about.
There, under the shade of the chestnut trees, within close distance of the coast, were a number of tents, men, horses, and baggage; a small but splendid encampment. It was the night of June 3rd, 1343; and this the train of Andreas of Hungary, on his way to Naples to join his unseen wife, Giovanna, granddaughter of the King.
They had been travelling many days, and now, near the end of their journey and among surroundings more beautiful than any their sterner land could show, were taking their ease here on the shores of the Adriatic.
The Hungarians walked under the trees in couples and whispered together, a little overawed by the magnificence of these meadows and the wonder of the sea; and the Italians, their guides and escorts, lounged along the grass, laughing, jesting, and cursing the increasing heat.
Here our author has got her imaginary world a little out of its element. During the day, the men would be camped under the shade of chestnuts, but the hour of the scene makes the shade moot. Then, a minor point, worth attention because it illustrates how writing choices are weighed, and that there are few always/never answers. Most varieties of trees don’t need to be designated as such…we can say chestnuts, maples, oaks, and so forth—but the sparing or including of a word may matter a lot to the stress of syllables that makes a pleasing sentence.
As the night closed in, and the scattered groups became lost in the gathering shadows, a man made his way through the confusion of the camp to the tent lying in the centre, above which the royal banner of Hungary fluttered lazily in the Italian night. A soldier kept guard at the entrance; but he saluted and moved aside, for the newcomer was Konrad of Gottif, and the Prince’s dearest friend. Brusquely and without ceremony, Konrad lifted the tent flap and entered. A couple of pages were polishing a huge gilt–and–steel helmet, and a white hound slept beside them. Beyond this, heavy curtains concealed the rest. “Is the Prince within?” demanded Konrad; he was a large, rough man, and his voice deep and uncouth. The pages sprang up, between them dropping the helmet, which rolled glittering to Konrad’s feet.
“Ah, careless fools!” he scowled, and, pushing past them without waiting for their speech, he raised the curtain at one corner. He stood silent a moment, staring at the scene within. The tent was hung with tapestry of a peacock-green gold, and from the centre of the roof a bronze lamp was suspended by a heavy chain; this gave a dull yellow light, and showed coffers, rugs, armour, and weapons piled against the sides. It showed also a young man lying along a low couch covered with lynx and bear skins, resting his head in his hands and gazing at a girl who sat in the centre of the silk rug spread over the floor. The youth was not above twenty, but of a large, powerful make. His regular features wore an expression cold and haughty; his smooth, heavy, fair hair was cut straight above his hard blue eyes, and hung on to his purple velvet coat behind; on his head was a gold net cap that bore in front a great tuft of the breast plumage and two trailing tail feathers of the golden eagle. His huge limbs, stretched along the bear-skins, were clothed in parti-coloured hose, dull pink-and-white; a cluster of wild roses was pinned into the embroidery at his breast, and the hands that showed above the sumptuous fantasy of his sleeves were singularly well-shaped and white. The girl sitting doubled up under the lamp was slight and slender as a child; she wore the faded clothes of the peasantry of the Marches, and by her side was a great basket of oranges and lemons, many of which had rolled across the floor.
In these paragraphs I’ve excised a lot of words and phrases that add not much to the story: “in the Italian night”; “beyond this”; “spread over the floor”. I removed “fools” from Konrad’s exclamation, because it’s a little Prince Valiant-y for dialogue. “Ah, careless!” gives Konrad a touch of peeve, and personality. I altered the “regular features”, because it hardly makes a picture; and “cold and haughty” because what’s implied by these generic terms (I read a lot of these knightly stories growing up, and there was always a character cold and haughty) could be made more individual. I changed “sitting doubled up” to “hugging her knees” since that sounds like what’s meant. “The faded clothes of the peasantry of the Marches” is just a difficult jamming of information into one phrase, so I used a trick that helps in recasting over-packed sentences: breaking up the string of details, and assigning them here and there.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2020, Stephanie Foster)