Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fantasy, fairy-tales, and diegetic logic (part one)

This is the second installment in my series on contemporary fantasy.

When I teach my introductory course on literary theory and criticism, I always find occasion to talk about varieties of realism—the degrees of mimesis and verisimilitude in narrative, and how we distinguish between a “realistic” text versus genres such as fantasy, SF, or magical realism, and for that matter the differences between social and psychological realism, naturalism, and so on. One of the key points I like to start with is that it tends to be intuitive—we know a story is realistic because it feels realistic, and often our evaluation of a story’s quality proceeds from the basic sense we have of how “realistic” it feels—even when the story’s premise is overtly unrealistic, such as with Dracula or The Shining (to choose two examples more or less at random).

This “feeling” of realism comes down to the unspoken contract between a story and its audience—what we otherwise call the willing suspension of disbelief. When it comes to stories, we’re pretty willing to suspend a lot of disbelief, at least as far as the story’s basic premises go—accepting a whole host of impossibilities from ghosts and vampires, to magic and sorcery, to alien worlds and species. At the same time however, there are certain things we are less inclined to accept; as Aristotle pointed out, probable impossibilities are preferable to improbable possibilities* … and as Oscar Wilde concurred, “Man can believe the impossible, but man can never believe the improbable.” To put it another way: we cheerfully accept the idea of alternative realities, but reject out of hand a character acting contrary to what we’ve come to expect of them—so Aragorn attacking a legion of orcs is consistent with his character, whereas stealing money from the hobbits to support his secret drug addiction, not so much.

"The real question, Greedo? Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya? Punk?"

Or to cite a notorious example that exercises SF dorks like myself like nothing else: when George Lucas re-released Star Wars, the tweaked scene between Han Solo and the bounty hunter Greedo incited nothing less than fury in diehard fans. Why? Because in the original, Han shoots Greedo under the table with the casual insouciance of an amoral, roguish gunslinger. In the re-release, Greedo shoots first, and Han only survives to return fire because the bounty hunter is, apparently, an appallingly bad shot. All of which had fans doing everything short of taking to the barricades with torches and pitchforks.**

So think about this: spaceships, faster-than-light travel, lasers, aliens, and cosmic sorcerers are not the problem here. These are perfectly acceptable impossibilities.*** What is not acceptable are the violations of logic the revised scene perpetrates: the improbability that Greedo would get the drop on Han Solo and that a hard-bitten bounty hunter could miss at that range, but the worst is the violation of our understanding of Han’s character. We’ve only known him about ten minutes at this point, but all of the signs tell us that he is precisely the kind of guy who’d unhesitatingly shoot you under the table to save himself. The film might be SF, but the character is totally Eastwood.

The cognitive dissonance evinced by haters of the revised Han/Greedo scene (among whom I number myself) is an example of a violation of what I’m calling diegetic logic. “Diegesis” refers to the world or sphere of reality established by a given story, and everything that entails—in particular here, the logic and rules governing that world, that which makes it comprehensible. Fidelity to this logic also goes by the more familiar term believability … we believe Han Solo is a spaceship pilot; we do not believe he’d let Greedo get the drop on him. The former is part of the diegetic frame, the latter a flagrant inconsistency in character.****

Of course, the contract between story and audience is not exactly ironclad, and the rigor and consistency of diegetic logic depends on the genre in question. And if we were to apply the logic of realism to fairy-tales, for example, we again arrive in the realm of (often amusing) cognitive dissonance.

When I talk about this in class, the example I always like to give is the song “The Bonny Swans,” by Loreena McKennitt. It’s a ballad, adapted from a recurrent medieval folk tale about a girl murdered by her older sister, who returns as a harp to expose the sister’s crime.

Yep. A harp. Stay with me here. For those who would rather listen to the song itself:

The story has a host of variations, but the basics are as follows: the eldest daughter in a particular family is jealous of her younger, fairer, more beloved sibling. She is also in love with the young man to whom her sister is betrothed. So, one day when out walking beside the river, she pushes her sister in and drowns her (as one does when one is the jealous older sister in a folk tale).

"Seriously, the water's only two feet deep. Stand up, you idiot."

The drowned girl fetches up on shore far downstream, and her body is discovered by a harpist … who proceeds to turn her into a harp (again, as one does). The McKennitt song is not unusual in its macabre description of the process, outlining how the harpist uses her breast bone for the main bow of the harp, her hair for the strings, and her finger bones for the frets. The harpist then takes his new “harp” to the wedding ceremony of the murdered girl’s sister—as she is, of course, marrying the (presumably gormless) man to whom the harp/girl was betrothed. The harpist places the harp/girl in the middle of the hall, and it starts to sing. And in a moment that comes as a shock to no one, the harp’s song reveals the treacherous crime of the would-be bride.

That’s where McKennitt’s song ends. And as should be obvious from the way I related that story, the premise is absurd (I tried to tell it straight, and just couldn’t manage it). But then, that’s the fairy-tale standard. And McKennitt’s orchestration is sublime … but whenever I hear this song, I always imagine an epilogue in which the father of the bride dispenses justice to his murderous daughter, but then beckons over the harpist. The conversation goes something like this:

“So let me get this straight. You found my daughter’s body, and you turned her into a harp.”
“Yes, my lord. And as you saw, she sang of her sister’s—”
“I heard what she sang of. That’s not the problem.”
“I’m sorry … there’s a problem?”
“Yes. You see … you found my daughter’s body.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You found my daughter’s body. And you turned her into a harp.”
“Yes, but she sang and revealed that her sister—”
“That doesn’t change the fact that you turned her into a fucking harp!
[The harpist stares at the father, uncomprehending. The father continues.]
“A fucking harp! What kind of sick fuck comes across the corpse of a beautiful girl and thinks to himself ‘Oh, hey, a drowned girl! You know, I bet she’d make a bitching harp!
[At this point, the father loses the capacity for speech and has his guards drag the harpist off to the dungeons, where he presumably awaits his guest-starring role on an episode of Law & Order SVU.]

This scenario amuses me endlessly, but it’s equally amusing to apply the same logic to, say, “Hansel and Gretel,” in which the titular children pause when they come upon a cottage made of gingerbread and candy in the depths of the forest, and think “Waaaaiiiit a moment.” Or Little Red Riding Hood is a little less credulous about Granny’s explanations for her whiskers and fangs. Or someone alerts the authorities, in exchange for a nice bounty, about the little man with the capability of spinning straw into gold (something I assume any government, modern or medieval, would have great interest in).

"In answer to your question, hate transformed me into a vindictive gremlin when I
realized I was the only Scottish actor not cast in Brave."

But of course that all contravenes the basic contract we make with fairy tales, in which we accept such leaps of physical and behavioural logic without question. Step away from your family cottage into the dark forest, and you have no idea what you’re going to encounter. And whatever you do encounter, however bizarre, you must just accept—that is the understanding we have with the genre. (It’s tempting to suggest that the logic of fairy tales is, in this respect, the logic of children, still open at a young age to all possibilities and bizarre eventualities, but anyone who has attempted to read fairy-tales to a precociously logical child knows that isn’t necessarily the case).

Fairy-tales follow a diegetic logic similar to that of romance—not the romance of Harlequin and Fabio, but traditional medieval romances and quest sagas, in which the departure for uncharted territory entails a departure from, variously, civilization, law, order, and most importantly, rationality. What happens in the white spaces of the map is anyone’s guess. Hence the various Arthurian romances, especially the quest narratives, tend to be populated with bizarre people and creatures, magic, and individuals with inscrutable reasons for what they do … such as, I don’t know, a black-clad knight guarding a river crossing.

"Well technically, one way or another all wounds are flesh wounds."

But Chris, you say … such figures and circumstances, whether it’s a black knight or a gingerbread house, are invariably symbolic. Reading them with any degree of literality completely defeats the purpose, and indeed, the people who wrote these stories and sagas didn’t mean for us to read them as realistic.

Well spotted, hypothetical interlocutor, well spotted. And that is all very true: the modern bias toward verisimilitude often makes it difficult to properly historicize the original intents of such stories. Applying the rules of realism to a fairy-tale is about as misguided as thinking (for example) that the Bible is meant to be taken as literal, historical fact. And really, that’s just silly talk …

There are those who tell me I shouldn't mock Christian fundamentalism.
Actually, wait ... no ... nobody has said that.

OK, I’m ending this post here—I go on from here to talk about the resurgence of fairy-tales in film and television, but given that this is already quite a long post, I will make that the next installment. Until then …

"My name is Tyrion Lannister, and I approve this message. Now, where's that
wine you promised?"

*For once, YouTube has failed me—otherwise I would gleefully be putting up the clip from The West Wing of Sam Seaborn expounding on this very quotation.

**Yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors here. It seems appropriate.

***Perhaps not literally impossible, but so close as to make no difference. Remind me at a later date to do a lengthy post about the difference between speculative and extrapolative SF.

****Responding to angry fans, George Lucas defended the change as simple clarification—he had always meant for Greedo to shoot first, he claimed, and that the original version made that unclear. To which all I can say is that this is further evidence that Lucas is a hack and had little understanding of the signifiers and tropes he was employing. Unfortunately, he seemed determined to prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt with the three prequels.

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