Thursday, August 16, 2007

Narrative Patterns in Fantasy

I'm not a reader of fantasy, but the following comments from Patternings, make me wonder if I should expand my reading. Here, I can see how the conventions of the genre can work to make concrete otherwise abstract ideas about memory and identity in narrative--problems very close to me, especially in the novel I'm working on now.

I found this posted on MetaxuCafe.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to be exercising my brain cells again, even if I am only easing my way back into my research tiny step by tiny step at the moment. The best part about it is remembering just why I called my blog ‘Patternings’ in the first place. There is nothing like a bit of brain exercise to get your mind reaching out and creating links between one aspect of your thinking world and another. And, inevitably, once you start making those links you come across ideas that give you pause for thought; ideas that you want to try out against other minds. Here is the first one, accompanied by a cry of “What do you think?”

I’ve probably never explained my research beyond saying that I’m interested in the way in which narratives are organised. But, in order to study that I need to approach it from one theoretical position or another. In my case, my chosen theory is tagmemics. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know anything about tagmemics to go on reading. If you’re a British reader you’ve probably never heard of it anyway. Trust me to choose an American based discipline that practically no one in the UK has ever come across.

What you do need to know is that yesterday I was considering the part of the theory that talks about the way in which we recognise that a unit is still the same unit even if what we are examining is two different variants of that unit. So, to give you a couple of examples, we know that A and B are different units, but that A and a are variants of the same unit. As people working within the system that uses this particular alphabet we know what are different units and what are simply variations on a theme. Another example, larger unit. If when I go to the hairdressers tomorrow I was to get Trina to dye my hair blond (don’t worry, this is an imaginary example!) I will still be the same person, the same unit. You may think I’ve gone completely insane, but you will still recognise me as a variation of the original unit, not a different person/unit.

Well, last night, I got to thinking about this in relation to the more practically based work I’m looking at. Driven by a desire to celebrate the magnificent way in which J K Rowling has organised the narrative structure of the Harry Potter series, I’ve been re-reading other fantasy series to look at what happens there. At the moment, I’m two-thirds of the way through Trudi Canavan’s novel Priestess of the White. One of the strategies Canavan uses is to move between different groups of characters, in different locations, although all in the same time frame. So, at one point I might be reading about the White in Jamire only to jump on the next line to the doings of the Siyee in Si. Eventually, I’m sure, all these characters are going to be interwoven, although at the moment, at least one thread seems very distant from the others. Now, I have no problem here. Each time I move from one location to another I am dealing with different units and when I return to a thread I’ve already visited, I have no difficulty recognising those units I’ve previously encountered as old friends. Auraya may decide to wear her hair differently, but I still recognise her as the same character I was reading about forty pages earlier.

But, (you knew there was going to be a ‘but’ didn’t you) the next series I want to consider is Katharine Kerr’s Deverry novels, starting with Daggerspell. Now, as those of you who’ve read them will know, these are rather more complex in their organisation. While they do follow the same pattern as the Canavan epic there is also a time shift to be taken into account. In the first novel we witness the character we are later to know as Nevyn, taking a wrong decision and, as a result, diverting other characters from the wyrd or fate that the Lords of Wyrd had laid down for them. As a consequence, Nevyn is fated to live on, while those same characters are reborn in other guises, until he is able to bring them to the fate originally decreed. So, as well as moving from location to location we also move from time to time. On one page we might be reading about one specific time frame only to find that on the next we are four hundred years in the future and then, fifty pages further on, back where we started.

In these different time frames the original characters take on very different forms. Brangwyn, for example, surfaces in several other female guises, Lyssa, Gweniver, Jill and once even as a man, Branoic. My dilemma is this: in tagmemic terms, are these different guises different units or variants of the same unit. All that remains the same is the soul. In almost every other way these manifestations are different. But is the constancy of the soul sufficient to claim that each is still a variation of the same unit? There’s the rub.

This, of course, is not simply a question of narrative identity, it has deep theological implications as well. And, as a tagmemisist, I recognise that any individual observer’s response to it will depend on the perspective of that observer. But every time I look at it my perspective seems to shift. So, I throw it open to the wider blogging community. What do you think? I would really love to know.

Posted by Ann on 08/16 at 12:36 PM
technorati tag Narrative Patterns

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