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Excerpt from Jane Yolen's 1996 Lecture
The Bardic Voice

copyright © 1997 Jane Yolen

Writing teachers speak of "finding your voice" as if the damned thing is lost somewhere: behind the desk, under the computer, in back of the commode. Whenever I hear that phrase, I am reminded of the "discovery" of America. Columbus did not discover America, he encountered it and the native people who already lived there. They were not lost, to be found. And neither is the story's voice.

The story's voice. That is what must be uncovered, not discovered. It is not the author's voice, but the true tone of the tale.

Perhaps nowhere can differences in story voice be so readily discernible than in the literature of the fantastic. These voices are like the various sections of an orchestra.

The Bardic voice: Used in High Fantasy, where the battles of good and evil rage across the pages, where Elfland meets the Wild Hunt, these are the sweeping violins, the drum section, the horns. One could sing great operas with this literary voice. The danger is that the careless writer could also do a pratfall where she meant the grand gesture. Here the writer dares the pornography of innocence, using terms like Truth and Honor and Evil without actually gagging on them.

The actual words in the bardic voice are sometimes archaic, Latinate, British, sonorous. The word grey is frequently spelled with an e because it sounds and looks and feels like a different color that way. There is frequent use of metaphor, each exactly felt errors, as John Ciardi called them. They are "errors" only in that a metaphor--like fantasy literature itself--is not isomorphic, i.e. point for point perfect like a map. A metaphor makes us feel more than is actually said on the page.

The bardic voice is full of alliteration, hyperbole. There are chants, lists, spells. Sentences often end in a full stop, the strong stress syllable that reminds the reader of the tolling of a great bell.

However, the bardic voice does not just use big words and overblown expressions. It is only generic writing that tries to get away with catch phrases and no visual details. Failing to understand the connection between a level of detail and vision means the writer has not yet uncovered that particular voice. What is needed is to have two visions: one has to do with what is beyond and above--soul, theme, heart, subtext--and one with muffin specificity.

Do you say simply: The barbarian had tea with the queen? That is reportage of the lowest kind. The Bardic Voice would say it this way:

    He sat on the edge of his chair, that mighty-thewed barbarian, uneasy with the soft cushion at the back, for his people always said that "Comfort is the enemy of the warrior."

    He clutched the porcelain cup with one of his death grips. It was only by chance that he did not break the cup and spill the tea, a special blend of Angoran and Baslien leaves flavored with tasmairn seeds, down the front of his leather pants. They were his best leather trews, sewn by his favorite wife. He did not want to stain them.

Of course there is always a downside to this kind of writing. Remember that pratfall? Well, here it is: overstatement.

How much is too much? Let me rewrite that barbarian and queen opening into too much and then it will be easy to see where it drops over into self-parody.

    He sat on the edge of the rosewood and damask chair, that mightily-thewed Barbarian from the misbegotten East where night and day are but one. He sat uneasily for unease was his mode, or dis-ease as his mother, whom he knew only for as long as it took to be weaned, had said to him.

    "Do not grow comfortable, my child," she had warned. "Comfort is the enemy of the warrior."

    So he leaned forward in the chair, clutching one of the Queen's porcelain cups, painted in a wild rose pattern by ten-year-old virgins in the eastern factories. He clutched it with the same hand that had killed Jarak, son of Jadur and with the same grip that had throttled Malanar, priestess of the Seven Deadly Tribes. It was only by chance that he did not snap the cup in two and spill the tea--that special blend of Angoran and Baslien leaves that his ancestors had only dreamed of, flavored with tasmairn seeds gathered at night by slaves of the sultanas. He would not have been happy doing that. That particular blend of tea could stain his leather pants--made by his second wife out of the inner thigh skin of white does--and he did not want them stained.

Thanks for dropping by!...

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Updated Nov 30, 2002
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