The Salt and Fresh Water Tongue: Writing the Sacred, Writing the Profane

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Over the weekend, I read some of the more recent reviews of my Knight of Eldaran trilogy on Goodreads. More than other genres, fantasy has a bit of a marmite thing going on – you love it or you hate it; it’s difficult to be anywhere in between. Consequently, some reviews will be good, others not so encouraging. Whilst I was expecting this, what I was not expecting was specific criticism for use of profanity and graphic content.

Now, some context before I go further: I absolutely respect the opinions of those who find profanity, blasphemy, or sexual content in literature unpleasant or outright abhorrent, and the point of this post is not to ridicule or belittle those views. Indeed, I myself have a low tolerance of these things in what I watch, read – and even write. Many of those reviewers who have commented negatively on graphic content in ‘The Knight of Eldaran’ have been from North America, and it is true that what we in the UK consider ‘swearing’ seems to start from a slightly different baseline than our compatriots across the puddle. Even so, the comments I read got me thinking.

If you are someone who finds swearing uncomfortable, be aware that the following paragraphs will reproduce some of the langauge that has been criticised in the novels.

The Knight of Eldaran‘ is what I might call historical fantasy. It seeks, to put a Tolkienian term on it, to create an ‘inner consistency of reality’. That means that characters are going to make choices that we as readers aren’t comfortable with. As a writer, I genuinely struggled with whether or not to have characters use words like ‘bastard’ or ‘bloody’, because these are words that I would not use myself, and gratuitous swearing – so ubiqutous in so many parts of our culture – pains, irks and disgusts me. I considered coming up with some in-world equivalents, but in the end made the call to include this language.

Perhaps you’re reading this and wondering what objections readers could have to swearing. If they’re a parent, they may just want to guard their children from exposure to such language and concepts – and the argument ‘kids know far worse’ in no way invalidates parental desire to protect their children. Linguistic theory also clearly shows that we copy and emulate what we are exposed to and, whether for children or for ourselves, we may decide that we don’t want to use those kinds of words, and that therefore limiting our exposure to them is prudent.

For people of faith, purity of word can be a vital outward sign of their reverence for God – and so they eschew profanity. Indeed, for Christians, there is guidance in James to this effect, in James 3. Exhorting his readers to beware of their tongues, which can both praise God and curse their brothers, James exclaims: ‘Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?’ (NIV James 3:11). The purpose of the striking imagery is clear: purity of language can be a signal of inward purity, and we should aim to be holy as our Father is holy. Indeed, given the Johanine declaration ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, human words – which are creative, just as that first Word – have a sacred quality that we should be in awe of. So to misuse words – or to use ‘evil’ words – is a bad idea. (What exactly constitutes good and evil words probably needs to wait for another time, and for those with more philosophical or theological gumption than myself!).

So, as a Christian… how do I justify the language that I use, when others consider some of it to fall in that ‘evil words’ category?

The profanity in my novels – which, to my mind, consists of the two words I’ve already mentioned, with the possible addition of ‘whore’ (which one reviewer also objected to) – is as far as swearing in my books goes. While it is language that I am uncomfortable with, it is infrequent and never used gratuitously. It always serves the purpose of building character – and it goes without saying that none of the characters who use it are framed as morally virtuous at the time that they do. In this way, the swearing in the novels demarks characters who are morally skewed: command over their language reflects their command over their moral compass.

Perhaps the most notable example comes part-way through ‘The Traitor’s Heir’, when Eamon (who is in the middle of what I call his ‘evil montage’) attacks Giles, furiously screaming “Bastard!” at him. There is no way that the reader is called on to applaud Eamon here, either in his action of his verbal expression of rage. Indeed, in the third novel, Eamon himself recognises his brokenness in language that would  be familiar to readers of James:

“You speak with a measured tongue.”

“A measured tongue? My tongue is a fountain that pours out saltwater one moment and fresh the next,” Eamon answered passionately. It had sworn him to the throned and to the King. What two things could be more different?

Ultimately, it could be argued that swearing in this fantasy trilogy serves to highlight the moral choices of its users.

Similarly, the sexual content of the novels – in this case, the extra-marital liaison between Eamon and Alessia (which is never described graphically or at length, but is certainly hinted at figuratively) – cannot be considered to be framed in a morally positive way. It is clear that both Eamon and Alessia are in some measure deceiving and abusing each other at first. While I do think that they come to genuine feelings for each other and, in the trilogy’s epilogue, a committed long-term relationship, it is not until they have learnt to respect each other and each other’s brokenness that their relationship becomes truly meaningful and mutually edifying.

I understand why some readers would have reservations about story-telling with swearing and sexual  content – especialy Christian readers coming to a trilogy by a Christian writer. I didn’t want to use either element gratuitously – and don’t feel that I did. I decided to walk a tricky line down the middle (and I’m open to the idea that I have stumbled en route). I’m sure I’m not the only writer – whether of faith or secular – who has grappled with the same decision.

So why did I take the risk? Because I didn’t want readers to reject the novels’ heart  – which is a story about the complex moral maze that we all navigate, and the way that we can be sustained in it by grace and redemption, whatever we have said or done, as long as we accept the call on our lives and dedicate ourselves to following it as truly as we can – on a technicality. Because if God is giving you a nudge to say that he’s there, it’s far easier, and more comfortable, to nit-pick your way out than to listen.

I’m not claiming, by the way, that my novels masterfully proclaim the great truths of eternity. But I will tell you this: I’m a great proponent of what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe (indeed, I’m working on a book of critical essays on it right now, and it is my favourite word to play in Hangman). Eucatastrophe essentially posits that stories in general – and fantasy in particular – can serve as startlingly clear connections to higher truths. Being, like Tolkien, a Christian and writer of fantasy, it is my hope that any such revelatory moments that come from reading my work point in the same direction.

Comments, thoughts, or quibbles? Are you a writer, of faith or none at all, who has had similar choices to make? Leave a comment or get in touch!

This post is also published on www.thayerthoughts.wordpress.com. I’m experimenting with posting blog posts in both places!

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Hello, Anna. Fascinating piece. For my part, I dislike, really quite a lot, the strand of Christian appreciation of the arts that reduces it to a check list of offensive items to be avoided – I suspect that some of the proponents of such an approach would really rather strike out some aspects of David’s and Solomon’s characters, to name but two. Mind you, I have as little patience with that most lazy and tired of modern artistic goals: to challenge (which of course normally translates to some half-baked blasphemy or unusual sexual practice). But, really, this modern Christian hypersensitivity is ahistorical (read some of the insults hurled about by Church Fathers and, a millennium later, Reformers) and would leave people like Dante and Shakespeare out of the circle of approval.

    It’s probably even more of an issue with me, as I’m dealing with the transition between paganism and Christianity in 7th-century Britain – a violent and brutal time. I don’t dwell on it, but it would be impossible to write about the time without dealing with this.

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  2. I saw those reviews before I read the book. Personally, niether of those elements bothered me especially, and the sex references, well, let’s say they were not nearly as graphic as I expected. As far as swearing goes, I think very few of us are self-controlled enough to limit our langauge to ‘oh my goodness, you’re such a jerk!’ and, to be honest, some situations to warrant stronger langauage. From what I recall, Giles was an extremely unpleasant individual in places, and I don’t blame Eamon for calling him what he did. In our culture, we would see it as deserved.

    It may be controversial, but I think that misleading and inaccurate representations of history are more henious in historical fiction then bad langauge. So many people base their knowledge of history on novels, they are likely to be misled. Whereas langauge well, not so likely most adults will repeat words they already know as ‘bad langauge’.
    I think there are Christian books out there that tick the ‘no profanity’ box, but absurdly misrepresent history, even to the point of racism in some cases (presenting one nationality as the devil incarnate, whereas the other is whitewashed.) That’s why I tend to steer clear of novels written by Americans set during the era of the Revolutionary War etc.

    Or else, the authors do not seem to have taken much care to research the languistic and other details of the place and time when a story is set. Potatoes, tomatos and Turkey in Medieval Europe , and British characters using Americanisms in Regency novels are some of my pet peeves. Most of which I have encountered in at least one fictional novel at some point or another (with the exception of the tomatos- none yet). It makes Christian authors look lazy, provincial and uninformed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. annathayer says:

      Love these observations! A story with what Tolkien calls ‘inner consistency of reality’ seems to be the best method for storytellers, whatever their faith.

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  3. I really related to what you had to say. I am in the process of publishing the second book of my series now, and my friend and I have discussed swearing and sexuality in books at length. I am also a Christian writer of historical fiction, but my setting is medieval and two of my characters are questionable sort of people. One in particular a pretty nasty guy. It just seemed logical that he would swear on occasion when he was angry or frustrated, but I found myself wondering if I’d turn off my audience. There is a rape in the second book… Not explicit or described but again I wondered what people would think. But Because of the time period, I felt this would be a very likely occurrance. I keep it in prayer and keep up the conversation with people. Have received no real criticism yet but am not well known yet, so perhaps it will come. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. annathayer says:

      Thanks for your comment – I shall be looking up your books! I honestly believe that good storytelling will be internally consistent and believable. How else can we speak truth? Sugar coating the world helps nobody; unnecessary sex and violence helps nobody. Balance and edification have to be the watch words.

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      1. I think another pet peeve of mine is stories which depict Medieval nobles doing unspeakable things to one another like ravaging one another’s lands, raping or abusing and torturing family members etc, and there does not seem to be any kind of centralized control or government. Its just totally unrealistic. The only time you really found things like that happening (at least in places like England and France) was during times of civil war when centralized government was weakened and broken down, or when the King was in some way incapacitated.
        Usually, the authority of the central government and the King were supposed to be able to keep that kind of thing in check.
        Also, one think I am learning about Medieval nobles is that they were very touchy about not just thier honour, but thier rights and priveleges. They simply would not have tolerated that type of thing being done to them, if they had, they’d have probably raised thier own soldiers in a revenge attack, or sought redress from a higher authority- and taken the law into thier own hands, if nothing was done.

        Anyway that’s enough from me.

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    2. I shared this post on my Facebook page, where I Venessa saw it. Sorry to break in, but I think her comment raises some interesting points. I read a lot of Christian Historical Fiction, and it seems to be that very often it is taken for granted that casual violence and sexual violence against women were ‘normal’ and accepted in the general pre-modern past. Indeed, in some cases pretty much the whole of recorded human history before about the 20th century is treated as some quagmire of lawlessless and violence. (European History normally, though not exclusively).

      Personally, I have a problem with such depictions. There was law and order in past societies, there was a very complex court and justice system in Medieval England, which was not much different in a lot of ways to that which exists in Britain today. Also, people in the past did have a sense of morality and right and wrong- even those who weren’t Christians. Of course, things like that vary even today, but just because a novel is set in the Middle Ages, I don’t think that needs to be an excuse for moral nihlism and anarchy with characters constantly being subjected to unpunished acts of violence.
      Even in the Middle Ages it was believed that rape was wrong, and it was regarded as a crime, even if it wasn’t always sucessfully prosecuted.

      Liked by 1 person

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