Sunday, April 08, 2007

Finding the Words

Shakespeare flirts with Martha as the
Doctor makes an interesting discovery

The second episode of the new series of Doctor Who aired today in the U.K. I've now watched "The Shakespeare Code" several times - never mind how - and it definitely has its moments as well as its shortcomings. The production is gorgeous with its use of the rebuilt Globe Theatre, other locations and period costume, and the Shakespeare character is a wonderful, charismatic figure who holds his own with the Doctor and his new companion, Martha Jones. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to read plot details, and then we'll get on with a quick discussion of the power of words - and the problems in coming up with them.

William Shakespeare saves the world with words.

The episode concerns Shakespeare's run-in with the Three Witches. They are actually Carrionites, expelled from the universe near the dawn of time. The premise is that the witches' "magic" is actually a form of science based on the power of words. They try to use Shakespeare, the ultimate wordsmith, to invade our universe and destroy the world. Shakespeare, in turn, must improvise the right words to kick them out again.

They are all delighted when Queen Elizabeth I arrives -
but the Queen has a completely different reaction.

The episode uses an idea commonly found in fictional systems of magic, based on the old belief that words, and especially names, have power. In A Wizard of Earthsea, for example, a wizard's true name is hidden from others, so that an enemy cannot gain power over him by using the name against him. In the Harry Potter books, people are afraid to use Voldemort's name, although Harry and Dumbledore consider this taboo a foolish one. But even in that universe, words are important. They are a huge part of the spells that the characters cast. J.K. Rowling coins a bunch of magical words from Latin roots for her characters to use in this way. And I've done the same, sort of: the Mages of Mâvarin and Mâton use an arcane language, Lopartin, for their spells. Mâvarin is in a different world, where the English language and Latin do not exist as such; but I've had a lot of fun over the years warping words from our languages into theirs.

The Doctor advises Will to let a lost play stay lost.

Writers love the idea of the power of words; after all, it is their stock in trade. I can't use words to ride a broom, banish a monster or save the world, but I can use them to bring a fictional character to life, or help someone to see the whole world differently. Other words can destroy a marriage or start a war.
Yes, even in the real world, words have power.

But first you have to find the right ones. I was stuck on a particular paragraph in The
Mâvarin Revolutions for a month, because I couldn't get King Jor to come up with a sentence to bridge two related ideas. And in Chapter One of Mages, I've struggled for years with a sentence about Darma not wanting her father to know how many magical specialties she's mastered, because she's worried that he'll cut her off from further studies. She wants to learn it all, everything there is to know. But I only have half a sentence to convey all that, in the middle of a scene in which Sunestri does indeed cut off Darma's education. As of tonight, it says,

Portal magic was her eleventh specialty, but Darma never admitted such things to Sunestri.

Best I can do for now, and even that is an improvement over what I had before. The reader just has to guess from the context why Darma downplays her proficiency to her father. But this is an example of an ongoing struggle to find the right words to do the right things. Sometimes I feel ham-fisted around language, unable to make the words fit my intent.

Ah, but when it works, it's magic.

No comments: