This was an intriguing idea for a post: how do characters interact with the world around them? After all, not only are these fictional characters, but they inhabit fictional worlds. At the same time, their relationship with the environment and people around them must seem real if the fantasy story is to work.
This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult aspect of world-building. Some of us might have created and developed only a small part of a world, just enough for the purposes of the story. Other writers create an entire world, or even a series of worlds; but if they are to be ‘believed’, they have to work logically. It’s also not just about the world, but how a character interacts with that world is key to making the character three-dimensional and believable. It’s not always easy, I can tell you!
One of the commonest areas where fantasy writers create short cuts is over the issue of language. So often we read of the “common tongue”, or an equivalent, which enables all the characters to converse with each other with seemingly little trouble. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, although it is seen as a bit of a joke in some quarters. (It’s all Tolkien’s fault, anyway: because he worked so hard to create so many different languages, he had to use a Common Tongue to allow his different races to communicate with one another. And if Tolkien did it, then it’s acceptable for everyone to do it.)
I pondered this issue when I wrote The Demon’s Consort, the second book in the Fields of Battle series. I wished to have a hidden land – a sort of Shangri-La – which is apparently unknown to the rest of the world until my hero, Kieldrou, arrives there to face his enemies. Everything went fine, until I reached the point where Kieldrou actually meets the inhabitants (the Ogan) for the first time. Suddenly I had a problem: if the Ogan are unknown to the rest of the world, then surely they won’t speak the same language? Oops!
This is the result of my subsequent, frantic thinking. Fortunately, Kieldrou is a widely travelled adventurer, who has learned other languages in the past; so it is going to be easier for him to pick up the Ogan tongue.
“Mahapta! Mahapta! Come quickly.”
It was Tiala who called him. She was standing at the gate of Asharhu’s house, looking south into the valley.
Mahapta came at a run, leaving Asharhu to follow at a more leisurely pace. The older man was not used to haste, and he tired more quickly at this time in his life. It was raining today, a bleak drizzle that irritated but did not soak, and Mahapta had declined to pull on an over-tunic when he came to discuss plans with his sister’s father-in-law. He sheltered under the gate, brushing rain from his bare arms, and followed where she pointed.
“By Ani,” he breathed. “Who, or what, is that?”
A large, four-legged beast was coming along the road towards them, very much like the asses and donkeys of the Ogan, only bigger, sleeker and more muscular.
A man appeared to be seated on the beast, which was an odd thing to do to a work animal; and the beast was not pulling a plough or a cart.
The man was dressed strangely, not in wool or linen, but in what appeared to be leather, garments made from cured hides, and strangely cut and shaped to wrap his limbs individually. He did not wear sandals or slippers, but instead strange things, also of leather, which rose up his legs to the knees.
“What an odd man, and on that big ass,” said Tiala, excited, and Asharhu, when he arrived to see, echoed her wonder.
The man on the animal saw the three staring, and pulled on the leather bindings that were wrapped around the animal’s head. The beast stopped, and snorted, stamping its hooves, while the man patted its strong neck. Then, nimbly, he swung a leg over the animal’s back, and dropped to the ground. Mahapta winced, and made to move forward to help him up, but pulled up short as the man walked in front of the beast, apparently unhurt.
Leaving the animal standing still, the man walked towards them, his hand resting on the hilt of the very long, and heavy, knife at his side. He was smiling, and was speaking in a strange tongue, a jabbering, unintelligible language.
He was taller than any of the three, much taller; in fact, he was nearly as tall as Telor, though his shoulders were broader, and his limbs and chest thicker than those of their enemy. His eyes were of a clear blue, which drew a gasp of wonder from them all, and his hair was long and almost white. This was the most fantastic aspect of his appearance to the Ogan, for this man was not old, and the hair of the Ogan never grew lighter than a raven’s wing until a man or a woman succumbed to back-bending age.
“What manner of man are you?” Asharhu asked, attempting to keep the tremor from his voice.
The man raised an eyebrow, cocked his head, and jabbered something. His blue eyes fixed each of them in turn, burning into theirs with an icy intensity. But he did not seem inimical. Nor did he appear to be afraid of them. He continued to smile.
Mahapta stepped forward, looking up into the big man’s face. He held out a hand. “I am Mahapta,” he said.
“Mahapta,” The man repeated this a couple of times, then threw back his head and laughed. He had a strong voice, neither rough nor too deep, and he said the name a couple of times more before clasping Mahapta’s hand. Then he placed his other hand on his chest. “Kieldrou.”
“Kieldrou,” repeated Mahapta, then smiled. “Well, strange man, at least we know your name.”
Kieldrou was introduced to Asharhu and to Tiala. When he got to the girl he did the most interesting thing. He lifted her arm, and, stooping down, he kissed the back of her hand. Tiala jumped back in shock, and Mahapta leaped in front of her protectively. Asharhu took her hand and looked at her skin. It was unbroken, un-bruised.
“It does not hurt,” Tiala assured him. “It was just a kiss.”
Kieldrou frowned at their reaction to his gallantry, then realisation dawned on his face, and he laughed again. He spread his arm and gibbered a long sentence, all the time with an amused look on his face.
“Where do you come from?” Mahapta asked, speaking very slowly.
Kieldrou shook his head, saying something else.
“Are you hungry?” Mahapta accompanied this with a mime of eating. Kieldrou nodded vigorously. At least here was a language they could all understand.
By now a crowd had gathered, and two or three people were inspecting the tall animal, pulling at the leather chair on its back with the sandals of metal that hung down on either side. The animal jerked and snorted, sending the inquisitive Ogan running for cover.
Kieldrou looked around, and made a whistling sound with his lips. The beast quietened, and trotted over obediently, nuzzling his shoulder as he gripped the bindings on its head.
“Bring him inside,” said Asharhu. “and the large … ass, though do not get too close.”
The crowd of bystanders pressed in as they passed under the gate, but Mahapta closed the doors against their questions and prying eyes.
Kieldrou was a big man, at least compared with the Ogan, and he had been travelling for a long time, so he ate a lot of food before he was finished. He had taken off the leather clothing that covered his arms, chest and abdomen, and they were relieved to see that there was ordinary flesh underneath, and that he wore a shirt of good linen as well, though this too was cut and sewn to fit his body, albeit loosely. They marvelled at the size of his swordsman’s arms, for they were like the arms of the Ogan blacksmiths, covered in bulging muscle. Mahapta fancied himself to be well-shaped, but his arms were like sticks by comparison. Of course, there was a great difference in height as well.
Tiala was fascinated, especially when the stranger stretched his arms out and she saw the expanse of his deep, broad chest. The man was a giant against her own people.
“I wish we could talk with you,” Asharhu said.
Kieldrou made a pretence at writing something, and Mahapta grabbed Tiala’s arm. “A pen, and vellum. Quick!”
She understood, and ran off, returning a few minutes later with a large strip of vellum and a stick of charcoal, the best she could find. These she handed sheepishly to Kieldrou, who took them in his large, calloused hands with a nod of thanks, a smile, and a short burst of nonsensical speech.
He thought for a while, then muttered to himself and smiled. He began to scribble on the parchment, pausing now and again to scratch his head and think.
He held up the vellum, and they looked at a hurriedly, yet well-drawn pictogram of a man. “Kieldrou,” he said, pointing at the man.
“Yes, yes,” said Mahapta. “Look, there are the funny things on his legs and feet.”
Kieldrou drew again and the picture he now held up made them start, for it was clearly one of the devil-priests.
“The priests of Sheoleth,” Mahapta said.
Kieldrou nodded vigorously, pointing at the picture. “Sheoleth,” he affirmed. Then he said something else, pointing to the floor.
“He wants to know if they are here,” Asharhu mused, grasping the concept of this game. “Have a care, Mahapta,” he warned.
But Kieldrou was absorbed in a third picture, which took longer, and he laughed to himself many times as he scribbled. This third picture was more detailed, and Kieldrou looked at them earnestly as he handed over the vellum to Mahapta.
There were two characters: one was a devil-priest, lying on the ground, with a long knife sticking up from his chest; the other was clearly Kieldrou again, standing over the priest and wearing a smile.
Mahapta passed the vellum to Asharhu. The older man studied it, looked long at the stranger, then turned to his friend. “You know,” he said with a smile. “I think that prayer of yours to Ani might have worked.”
By the end of the day, Mahapta had learned that Kieldrou’s animal was called a ‘horse’, and that it was, indeed, similar to an ass. The chair on its back was called a ‘saddle’ and the things on Kieldrou’s legs were called ‘boots’. Kieldrou took out his very long knife, or ‘sword’, and let the Ogan hold it. It was longer and wider than the knives carried by the priests, and it was heavy, although Kieldrou swung it about as if it were a stick. They exchanged vocabulary, and after they had mastered all manner of disconnected nouns, they began the slow, comical task of tackling verbs. As they walked, ran, picked up, carried and dropped things around the courtyard, they shouted verb forms at each other, until they could construct rudimentary sentences in each other’s language. It was an interesting exercise, which Kieldrou initiated and led; he also seemed quicker at grasping the Ogan language than Mahapta was at learning his. However, Mahapta had never considered that there might be people in the world who spoke anything other than the Ogan tongue; Kieldrou, on the other hand, must have done this a few times before.
Asharhu drew Mahapta aside at dinner that night, while Kieldrou was busy devouring a loaf of bread and a bowl of stew. Tiala and her husband were away from the house, dining with Mahapta’s other sister and her husband. Only the three men remained in the dining hall.
“Kieldrou can sleep here tonight, but at daybreak we must find him somewhere else to stay. He is on our side, but Telor has eyes everywhere, and we cannot lose our plans for the stranger.”
“We sacrifice him to preserve ourselves?”
“We will not sacrifice him at all, if we can help it,” urged Asharhu. “But without him we can still succeed. We must not allow his arrival to destroy our plans. Which is why we have to get him away from us.”
“I understand. I will take him to the temple. Few go there now, and the priest of Ani will rejoice in some company until we can deliver his congregations once more.”
“Good. Go early, so that you are not seen.”
“This is good,” mumbled Kieldrou through a mouthful of stew. “My thanks.” He did not get the words quite right, but he was understood.
“He has learned quickly,” Asharhu said, with due appreciation. “How much of his tongue have you learned?”
“A little, but not as much as he has of ours. I intend to work on it.”
“Do so. When we control the Kinishtu I wish to seek contact with the world that we know exists. We will need ambassadors who can speak with the foreigners.”
Mahapta beamed, knowing that his talents were to be appreciated.
“Eat,” he commanded Kieldrou in the stranger’s language. Then in his own he added, “Then we can talk some more. I want to learn more of your language.” Kieldrou looked puzzled, but after two or three repetitions he understood. He searched for the words he wanted.
“Speak I you … more,” he tried, looking for Mahapta’s encouragement. “Speak you me …” he struggled.
“You teach me more, and I teach you more, also.”
Kieldrou repeated the words, nodded, and gave a big grin. He was enjoying this!
It is not necessary that Kieldrou and Mahapta should have long conversations. They need just enough to get by, and to recognise that they share an enemy. A little later in the story, Kieldrou’s friends also arrive at the Ogan city. There is no time for them to sit around learning the language; so every interaction at that point must be done with sign language and actions, unless Kieldrou is on hand to help with translation.
It was an interesting exercise; and it has led me to do much more background work for a future book. At some point I intend to write of Kieldrou’s youthful adventures in the desert lands of Azzawa, and for that I have been creating the Azzawan language (at least in part). That, in itself, has been an intriguing intellectual exercise!