f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of <em>Godric</em> - Is Swearing in Arcane English Still Swearing?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Day 2 of Godric - Is Swearing in Arcane English Still Swearing?

I don’t understand all of Shakespeare. I know stuff goes over my head. That said, I guarantee I understand about 95% more at the end of Act I than I do within the first few lines. The same thing even happens if I see a movie spoken in English but with a heavy accent or dialect. It simply takes me time to adjust, time to get into the rhythm and flow of the language. This pattern holds for Godric.

I’ve no idea where Buechner derived his “voice” in the story. I’d think manuscripts written in the 12th-century would be well-near unintelligible to us at this point. Instead, he concocts his own parlance for Godric, mimicking the complicated syntax and throwing in a parcel of unusual idioms to make it sound authentic. For me, it works. It was intelligible but you had to work at it enough that it didn’t seem anachronistically modern. So many of our historical novels fall into that trap. We have Bible characters speaking with 21st-Century voices. Drives me nuts.

All that to say, I spun my wheels at the beginning of the story and missed, the first time around, the fact that Mr. Buechner makes it quite clear on the first page that he has not written a CBA novel. Yes, we’ve entered the dread realm of “appropriate language” again. It’s an argument without foreseeable resolution, its two camps entrenched firmly across from one another, stalemated.

The book begins with Godric talking of his friends, of which two, he claims, were snakes named Tune and Fairweather. I admit to getting stuck on these two friends, thinking them to be actual friends who turn out, later in the story, to be the villains or betrayers. Nope. They’re actual snakes. The hissing kind. And while they may have some historical or symbolic significance, my time trying to turn them into humans distracted me greatly from the fact that Mr. Godric doesn’t mince words much, especially around topics we might otherwise be coy about today.

Seinfeld, which mastered the art of talking about something without actually saying the words, once tackled the topic of cold water and “shrinkage” and Godric is more direct.

“I spied [the snakes] now and then, puddling my way home like a drowned man from dark Wear with my ballocks shriveled to beansize in their sack and old One-eye scarce a barnacle’s length clear of my belly and crying a-mercy. It was him as I sought in freezing Wear to teach a lesson that he never learned nor has to this day learned….
My point here isn’t to titter over anatomy descriptions (although this passage brings back terrible memories of falling through the ice of a stream into water up to my chest) it’s to merely point and show how one Christian artist took his stand.

Buechner’s Godric is living in a time, assumably, immune to today’s FCC-upheld prudishness. There’s no disassociation from our bodies that we’re able to achieve today. In fact, for a holy hermit living in the woods, the very functioning of the body is #2 on the list of topics, right under the thought life that may very well cause said body to betray you. (Hence poor Godric trying to shock his privates into submission.) Buechner creates a setting, creates a character and the language follows. It’s natural, it’s not overly done, and it’s usually wrapped in enough idiom that you can simply ignore should you choose.

We typically don’t have such a luxury, especially if we’re writing contemporary stories. Sure we can wrap sex up in innuendo, but that might be worse or more prudish than refusing to mention it at all. In the end, the choice really shouldn’t even be yours. Your characters should speak for themselves. The language they use should emerge from who they are. That said, you’ll need to be prepared for the consequences should what they say run to blue. There’s a good chance an editor will ask you to change or strike such language. And then it’ll be your turn to choose a camp. And the long stalemate will claim another pointless victim.