Category Archives: Writing Form

Simile and metaphor

I am still reading through The Inklings and King Arthur, and in all probability will be doing so for a few months to come (alongside other book, sof course). It is a very rich and stimulating book which touches on all manner of different topics.

Cover - The Inklings and King Arthur (Amazon)
Cover – The Inklings and King Arthur (Amazon)

For today I want to look at several different ways in which word images are used. The standard textbook definitions of simile and metaphor are that a simile is explicitly introduced with a word – usually “like” or “as” – but a metaphor is just presented directly. So it’s comparatively easy to spot a simile – “he ran like the wind“, “his grip was as hard as bell-metal“. But by the same token, a simile is soon over. Once the link is set up, it is pretty clear… so long as you understand the reference, there’s not a lot to add. It might be strikingly effective in its setting, but it’s soon over.

But a metaphor is usually much more open-ended, and often opens up other dimensions for the reader to explore. “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” I wonder what different people take from that metaphor of Romeo’s? That she is bright, warm, life-giving, brings wakefulness after sleep? Or that she is easily hidden behind clouds, and that too much of her tends to burn you?

The Flight of Icarus (Gowy, Wikipedia)
The Flight of Icarus (Gowy, Wikipedia)

We bring our own history into a metaphor as we engage with it. So the person who is at the tail end of a long dark winter will read it differently to the person on a summer beach on holiday. Icarus would certainly have a different opinion!

When an author uses a simile, it is generally low-risk. The likeness is presented in a sentence, or perhaps a paragraph, and then it is gone. About the only thing that can go wrong with it is if people don’t understand the point of reference, or if the comparison is so laughable as to be absurd rather than stimulating. The annual “bad sex scene” writing awards often attract prizes when bizarre similes are used for various body parts.

But a metaphor usually permeates much more of a book. It might shape the whole storyline, or suggest features in the background which the author chooses not to specifically focus on. A common one is to use seasons to suggest emotional content: “Now is the winter of our discontent“. The writer can glide without much effort between the literal meaning of a word or concept, the associations that a reader draws in from experience, and the way that events in the book are playing out. Some authors construct very thorough associations between the two ends of the metaphorical connection.

This can make it what I called high risk – if a reader misses the link (which has never been highlighted explicitly by the author), or does not understand the connection, or finds it implausible, it’s not just an odd paragraph that suffers but potentially the whole plot. Some readers are very concrete, very literal in their approach, and don’t get the point of a metaphor. They want everything to be direct rather than indirect. For such readers, a high metaphorical content is frustrating and pointless. Readers differ, and while some will love a book which constantly points away from itself into other metaphorically connected worlds, others will not.

Cover - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Goodreads)

Now, the Inklings in their own writing used metaphor on lots of levels (as well as simile). Tolkein and Lewis were both highly trained scholars in academia, and it is natural that their knowledge of old source materials informs what they wrote. So their writing can be read on lots of levels. You can certainly come at them just as stories, and when one encounters them as a child or young person that is just how most of us respond. But on rereading, other dimensions come into play. Both of those authors wanted to create a world which seemed to readers to be real, with a deep and rich history behind the events on the page. Metaphor helped them to create such worlds.

Seasonal metaphors are certainly present – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would not be the same story if we didn’t recognise and respond to the nature pictures of ice gripping the land and yielding to the sun. Aslan’s title of Son of the Emperor over the Sea pulls on two millennia of Christian imagery, and also the happy accident of the English language that Son and Sun are so alike. Frodo’s journey out from the Shire in The Lord of the Rings would not have been the same if it had happened in spring or early summer, rather than late autumn turning to winter.

It is not my purpose here to list all of the metaphors used by either author – that would be a prodigiously long task – but to highlight that they both, along with many others, used metaphors to liven and enrich their writing.

Back in the past – the first known use of end-rhyme

Horus in Roman Costume - British Museum picture
Horus in Roman Costume – British Museum picture

I thought for today I would jump back into the past, and in particular writing. I recently visited the British Museum’s “Faith after the Pharaohs” exhibition. This is well worth a trip if you get the opportunity – it is on display until February 7th, so there’s a bit of time left yet.

Now, among other things I noticed a fragment on display from the Cairo Genizah. This is regarded as the world’s most important and comprehensive store of historical Jewish documents, and consists of around 300,000 fragments. It is a vast and perplexing mix of overtly religious material, together with secular works and everyday documents, and so has illuminated many different aspects of Jewish middle eastern life.

Now, some of the fragments – and in particular the one I saw – were written by a Jewish poet called Yannai. He is variously said to have lived in the 5th, 6th or 7th centuries CE (AD) and was a highly creative innovator in the field of piyyut – Hebrew or Aramaic poetry composed either in place of or as adornments to Jewish statutory prayers. His innovations include:

  • He was the first Hebrew poet to sign his works (albeit with an acrostic rather than direct name)
  • He was one of the first to write for regular weekly services rather than specific religious events
  • He took the practice of payyetan from a very broad-based set of loose constraints into a tightly structure art-form in several innovative ways, and

– the thing I found most immediately interesting –

  • he was the first to use end-rhyme as a poetic device.
Lieber on Yannai - Hebrew Union Monograph cover image
Lieber on Yannai – Hebrew Union Monograph cover

So he not only used traditional devices like alliteration, parallel word pairs, and the like, but also introduced end-rhyme to help structure the poem as a whole. His rhymes were frequently not just the final syllable, but extended over complete words at line ends, and added the possibility of word-play in addition to the rhyme. Laura S. Lieber, one of the major authorities on Yannai, says “As literary works, his poems are as dazzling as they are complex, rich with sound and play, allusion and linguistic beauty.”

Unsurprisingly, his work influenced Hebrew poetry for generations after his death, starting in the Middle East but eventually shaping the way Hebrew poets in Spain created their work as well. So it was very pleasing to see this fragment of his writing on display!

Also back in the world of ancient writing, it’s the time of Scenes from a Life and The Flame Before Us to have Goodreads giveaways. At the time of writing they are pending approval by the Goodreads team, but check out the page links above to find out more, or navigate to the Goodreads listings at Scenes from a Life  and The Flame Before Us to enter, once they go live on January 11th.

Scenes from a Life cover The Flame Before Us cover

Covers – Scenes from a Life and The Flame Before Us

Next week – back to the theme of elements necessary for life, and the subject of Air.


Language, active and passive

This is another in my occasional series looking at use of language across different cultures. There is a trend in English to use the active voice: “I had an idea“, “I understood it” and so on. Indeed, in some places, you come across the rather stronger statement that only the active voice is suitable for writing. This is sometimes attributed to George Orwell, though I have also read that he actually meant something entirely different, and I have never actually tracked down his original words!

Delos statues
Delos statues

But this is another of those language constructions which is culturally bound. Some languages, often but not exclusively Asian ones, prefer a passive form here: “An idea came to me“, “Understanding reached me” and so on. If one was speculating on reasons for this, it might be that in modern Europe and America, we like the idea of being agents rather than recipients. Or maybe we like to keep the fiction of absolute self-determination, and rather resent the idea that other things in the universe – especially things we like to think of as abstract qualities – might themselves have agency and intentions towards us.

This casual western assumption (if that is what it is) has come in for some serious knocking in the last few decades, what with quantum mechanical ideas of probability and uncertainty coming in from physics, insights about heredity and genetics from the life sciences, and an appraisal of the effect of the collective unconscious from psychological studies. However, my sense is that these perspectives have a lot of ground to make up before they make any serious inroads into our feelings of being an agent.

What does this mean for writing about other cultures and other times, and especially writing dialogue? Over the past few months I have picked out a number of other ways in which people in the past – or people in various parts of the world today – use language differently. There was repetition, social position, use of personal names, habits of speech, and grammar. It’s certainly a way to differentiate between the thought and word patterns of different people-groups. Some editors, and some reviewers, appear not to like this, and there are certainly big questions as to how far a book written in modern English ought to use constructions like this outside of interpersonal dialogue. I suppose in part it depends on whether the writer wants the internal worlds of his or her characters to impinge onto the main flow of the book.

Kumarasambhavam, or, what a pity ancient Egypt and ancient India never got together

I was recommended Kumarasambhavam, “The Origin of the Young God“, by Kalidasa, by a friend who had noticed the reprint of the English translation by Hank Heifetz and alerted me to it. I have read a certain amount of modern Indian literature (in translation) so here was a chance to absorb a Sanskrit epic classic. Kalidasa is thought to have lived around 500AD, but most details of his life have long gone. His work, however, has proved to be enduring, and this is an exceptionally great poem which became part of the standard against which other works might be judged.

Buy Kumarasambhavam from
Buy Kumarasambhavam from

Cover image - KumarasambhavamThe theme of the work is the courtship of Shiva and Parvati, as imagined through their personal interactions, the participation of other individuals, and the rich echoes of their emerging love in the natural world. The 8th section celebrates their sexual union after their wedding. In due course this will lead to the birth of the Young God of the title, who will liberate parts of the natural and divine world from oppression. Over the years, this final section has been sometimes been regarded as an improper subject for poetry, and has often been omitted from published versions. To me this immediately brought to mind the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, which has from time to time only gained acceptance by being read as allegory rather than literal delight.

For the curious, Heifetz explains the different kinds of metrical pattern used by Kalidasa, as well as highlighting other devices used, such as alliteration. He also speaks a little about his own choices in translation – when to be literal, when to add an explanatory phrase, when to try to imitate a pattern of sound. Sanskrit poetry was based on several patterns of long and short syllables, like classical Greek and Latin metres but unlike ancient near eastern or more recent European ones. This means that direct imitation of the variety of metrical forms, and their specific associations, is not possible in English, and Heifetz explores other ways of representing the differences.

But the poem itself can be read and enjoyed without troubling with any of this, so that the reader can immerse him or herself in Parvati’s determined efforts to win Shiva over, followed by Shiva’s gentle and sensitive arousal of Parvati’s desire. One of the outstanding features of the work is the extended use of imagery from the natural world – flowers, birds, animals, mountains, and the cycle of the seasons are all invoked and drawn up into the relationships of the divine couple.

At the end of the book I found myself filled with a great regret that the ancient Egyptians never had the opportunity to interact and cross-fertilise with ancient India. The ways in which both human and natural worlds participate seamlessly and shamelessly with the universe of gods became alien to Europe, but would have found a resonance in Pharaonic Egypt. Conversely, there is a haunting sense in some Egyptian literature that Egypt never really found another deep culture to relate to. I feel that there was a loneliness there that longed for, but never fulfilled, the possibility of being united with another. Perhaps Shiva and Parvati succeeded in marriage, where Egypt and India failed even to meet. But you have to wonder what kind of young god would have been the fruit of their union.

I have to give a star rating to post this review on some sites, even though that feels bizarre for an acknowledged literary pinnacle of its culture. Five stars, of course. The book will not appeal to everybody, but deserves to be better known and more widely read by those many people who cannot do so in Sanskrit.

Historical dialogue and grammar

Over the last couple of months I have looked at how to use dialogue in fiction to portray the meeting of people of different cultures having to use a common language. The shared language is foreign to at least one of the speakers, maybe both, and so they use it in ways that are not strictly accurate.

Speakers' area, Thira (Santorini)
One striking feature of different languages is the way they arrange words in a sentence in different orders. The standard form of the language may put words in a certain order, but a foreign speaker will probably speak in a mixture of the “proper” order and the one familiar from their native tongue. If I am learning a new language, the most obvious thing in the world is to construct the sentence in my head and then work my way along it. I end up with the right words but spoken with a phrasing which is unnatural in the target language.

Now if this is done too simplistically in dialogue you end up with a lot of characters who sound like Yoda from Star Wars – quaint and laughable rather than foreign. But incorrect word order can mean something much more interesting than just reversing the words to end up with “powerful he is“! It can be something as slight as moving an adjective or preposition from before a word to after, or using the wrong personal pronoun, or moving helper words like “both” or “all” into different places.

Many languages, ancient and modern, do not have an equivalent to “the” – the definite article. So this gives two possibilities – overusing the definite article when a native speaker would avoid it, or leaving it out where one ought to use it. This does not always show different cultural origin. For a time in ancient Egyptian history, using the definite article was seen as a sign of lower class, so social issues such as rank can be compactly shown. Languages which lack the definite article usually make good use of the demonstrative particles “this” and “that“, or reflexive expressions such as “itself“.

Finally for today, lots of languages use verbs differently. English tends to be focused on whether an action is in the past or the future, and can express that quite accurately. The Semitic family of languages, in contrast, is built around whether actions are complete or incomplete. This is not quite the same as past and future, since the choice also draws in questions of whether the action is regular or habitual, or how confident the speaker is that something in progress will ever be finished. So again, the natural expectations and assumptions of a speaker may be thwarted by the different structure of the target language – they will sound slightly off the mark.

Now, none of these things need to make the dialogue incomprehensible. Rather, they can enrich it. There is of course the original purpose of signalling differences in ethnic or social background. But also they can give an added depth to the conversation by showing how much – or how little – the speakers want to communicate with one another despite these obstacles.

Historical dialogue and habits of speech

Today I want to continue the exploration of historical narrative with a scattering of ways in which a common speech is used differently by different speakers, depending on their background and upbringing. We all trail personal history into our conversation, in ways which can be very illuminating.

Statues - Delos
The phenomenon can be easily heard in modern English. Regional differences within the United Kingdom and other countries whose major language is English provide a rich source of examples, but real diversity appears where English is a widespread second language. Chinglish and Hinglish, living creations of Chinese (Mandarin) and Hindi speakers, are vibrant and fascinating arrivals on the world stage. They are not random free-for-all inventions: they follow a set of grammatical and structural patterns derived from a fusion of both sources. The flow goes both ways as English absorbs habits of speech from elsewhere. “Long time no see” is pure Mandarin, converted word for word into English and now completely understood.

An eye opener for me, brought up in the south of England, was hearing how people from the north of the country spoke. I don’t mean different vocalisation of vowel sounds, like saying cassle instead of carsel for castle, but something more deeply built in to the thought process.

For example, one thing which struck me early on was the regular use of similes in everyday speech – “as hard as bell metal” was one that I heard pretty much at first exposure. But the more I listened, the more I heard this regular, unconscious use of simile to enrich dialogue, in ways which (at the time, at least) were not common down south. Now, rather later on I learned all about the historical division of the country between Dane and Saxon, and the various ways this is found in placenames and the like. But this early recognition that the differences showed up not just in atomic fragments of words, but in a whole way of imagining the world, has stayed with me.

Another regional difference which some readers will recognise appears in how we verbally contract a negation. In some parts of England we say “they won’t” whereas in other parts we say “they’ll not“. Both are valid, there is no difficulty in understanding each of them, and I cannot see any real difference in meaning of emphasis between the two: they simply reflect preference and habit.

Coined words are another good example. You can have a word which obeys perfectly logical patterns in English, but simply (for whatever reason) did not exist. When I was young the word “somewhen” as a parallel to “somewhere” did not exist, but sometime between then and now it has entered common circulation – it is even accepted by the spell check as I write this! Recently I heard “everywhen” being used – again a logical parallel to “everywhere” but not yet in use (and not recognised by my spellcheck). Asimov coined words like this in a few places, including in “The End of Eternity” where the technicians used the words “upwhen” and “downwhen” to describe temporal direction.

Now sometimes such words are a logical deduction from pre-existing ones, as above, but other times they are a direct carry-over from a real word in a person’s mother tongue into a presumed one in a target language. German is particularly good at simply coining new words by adding together existing ones in order to establish a specific shade of meaning. So a speaker of a second language may simply assume that a parallel exists to one in his or her native language, and coin the word fresh.

So all these ideas – and more – suggest ways to indicate conversational difference between speakers sharing language. More to follow next time, looking at use of verbs and word order…

Historical dialogue and personal names

Last time ( I wrote about the use of formality in dialogue, and some of the ways that modern English could and could not reflect that.

Statue, Delos, Cyclades islands
Today I am thinking about an easier area to capture – the use of personal names. In the UK (and I believe also in other countries such as the US), once you have said “hello Richard” as we start to talk, it would be rare to use it again in the same conversation unless you wanted to emphasise something. “Don’t be ridiculous, Richard“, perhaps, or maybe “were you listening, Richard“, or even “Richard! You won’t forget this time, will you?“.

But this is not the case globally. Even when English is used as a common language, some cultures use personal names very much more. Several years ago, when I first came across this, I found it a bit disconcerting; now I really like it, and enjoy the way it reestablishes the person-to-person link periodically in the conversation.

There is, I think, something satisfyingly engaging about using a personal name. It might signal intimacy in some situations, but does not have to, and can easily be blended with formal terms of address in those many languages that use them. It’s not just a way to identify who you are speaking to in a group, which could easily happen in English too. There is something affirmatory about the use of a name which, now I am used to it, is very satisfying.

Now, we have very limited access into casual speech in the ancient world, since most of the written records are necessarily formal. Where speech is included, it is probably representative of the occasion rather than a realistic attempt to capture it. So, in the kind of situation which I deal with a lot, where people are meeting casually and often cross-culturally, the field is open.

Varying the use of personal names between groups, and perhaps showing different reactions to this, helps these different groups to have their own identity. Not all groups have to use language – or personal names – the same way that we do in contemporary Europe or the USA!

Historical dialogue and social position

I thought I’d go back today to the subject of handling conversation in historical fiction. In my own books, and many others I read, several different groups intersect, each with different culture or ethnicity. They have to communicate in a shared language: how should one write about this? Some months ago I wrote a post called Historical dialogue and translation which looked at this from one angle: here is a different angle.

Speaker's area on Santorini (Thira)
Some writers make effective use of dialect – rural English vs London in the 19th century, for example, which I came across in Sue Millard’s Coachman. So long as the author can handle the differences confidently, and the end result is comprehensible, this can work. However, I have met some readers who just don’t like this in principle. In any case, for me (and many others) the original languages my characters speak are nothing to do with English. Sure, I could imagine someone from Gedjet (Gaza) speaking in a West Country accent, or someone from Hatsor sounding like a Yorkshireman, but those ideas would be pretty much unconnected to reality.

So today I am thinking about less obvious patterns. Take, for example, how we signal relative rank. Modern English is quite sparing in this. If we want to indicate hierarchy in speech, we have to include special words to do so – “Your Majesty“, “my lady“, “sir“, “boss” and so on. But many languages have this built in at a much deeper level. Across most of Asia, it is not possible to address somebody without making a deliberate choice about using formal or informal terms of address.

English lost most of these language signals in the years after the Norman Conquest, as Norman French and Saxon English wore each other down into a single thing. The last remnants were probably variations of the old pronoun “thou“, which through lack of use dwindled into an archaic sounding, formal way to address deity. It is a rather sad decline for a word which once indicated intimacy. Its living parallels such as French tu and Hindi tum still convey closeness and familiarity today.

In some places, however, using proper modes of address is not just a sign of respect, but an acknowledgement of absolute place in a social hierarchy. Get it wrong, and you don’t just make a grammatical slip, but potentially destroy a relationship before it ever starts. It is essentially impossible to mirror this in written English, and the most that can be done is, positively, by including specific terms of respect, or negatively, by showing the reaction of the hearers.

That’s it for today. Next time I will be talking about something we can control more easily in writing – the use of personal names in conversation.

Review – The Elder Edda, translated by Andy Orchard

I decided to classify The Elder Edda as historical fiction, on the grounds that the tales within it probably served a similar function in Icelandic culture – and general Norse culture – as that genre serves in ours. Certainly the content moves progressively from more obviously mythical, where the main focus is on the doings of gods and supernatural beings, towards history, where specific leaders and their followers are vying for political and military supremacy in a recognisable world. As such, it provides a rationale for particular clan allegiances or rivalries which are active in the authors’ time.

Buy The Elder Edda from
Buy The Elder Edda from

Cover - The Elder Edda
Andy’s translation seeks to be fluid but faithful, seeking also to preserve the stylistic differences between the various sections. This does mean that some of the poems read more fluently than others, depending on the style and form chosen by the original author. He also discusses the probable route by which the collection has reached us, via a Christian cleric who preserved it out of respect for his people’s lore. The myth and religion of the Norse world is carefully presented to us, but with the clear message that its day has long gone, and that even at its most noble it was heading unerringly towards its own destruction.

Norse poets, like their Anglo-Saxon contemporaries, took great delight in punning or riddling descriptions and names: Andy has recognised that no single tactic will solve this. Instead he has chosen several routes ranging from leaving names untranslated in some cases, using marginal notes of explanation in others, and converting into an English pun in others. He has also been flexible with issues of form, keeping remnants of the original alliterative style in many places without feeling constrained to maintain it everywhere. As well as very brief marginal comments, there is a much longer notes section at the end which gives contextual explanations into the background and subsequent use of the poems as well as translational points.

Readers even slightly familiar with Wagner’s operas will recognise names and stories here. But in addition, these same stories emerge in slightly changed form in Tolkien’s Silmarillion, especially in the long and tragic account of Turin. It is clear that Tolkien had enormous respect for The Elder Edda, and enough skill and confidence to creatively rework it into his own world.

How can one rate a classic piece of world literature? For me, this is a four star book. I intend to dip into it again, especially a few of the more accessible pieces, and I am very glad to have read it. In a few places I felt that the poetry faltered – translating poetry is extremely hard, especially when, as here, the translator is seeking to faithfully represent a selection of different voices. On balance Andy has done a good job.

The Elder Edda will not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly is a milestone in the development of northern European culture and identity.

Repetition and historical writing 2

Well, a post on repetition simply had to have a follow-up… Actually though some really interesting ideas have come out of conversations around this blog post, so a second one seemed called for. And maybe a third?

Statues at Delos, Cyclades, Greece
Some of the connections which emerged were:

  • Links to Mesopotamian writing, especially in the areas of magic and medicine
  • The fact that much ancient writing was intended to be read aloud rather than silently
  • The Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
  • A human tendency to use repetition as a calming influence over disturbance: “there, there”
  • Mantras which are specifically intended to be repeated many times

A couple of things before going back to another ancient source. Firstly, the William Wordsworth link can be found in later editions of Lyrical Ballads in his notes to The Thorn. Among many other things, he says:

There is a numerous class of readers who imagine that the same words cannot be repeated without tautology: this is a great error: virtual tautology is much oftener produced by using different words when the meaning is exactly the same… There are also various other reasons why repetition and apparent tautology are frequently beauties of the highest kind. Among the chief of these reasons is the interest which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion. And further, from a spirit of fondness, exultation, and gratitude, the mind luxuriates in the repetition of words which appear successfully to communicate its feelings…


Secondly, I have been reading a book set in the Punjab area of what was then north-west India, now Pakistan, in which the author deliberately mirrors the Hindi/Urdu pattern of repeating words for emphasis, for example “good-good, nice-nice” or similar. Many languages in the Semitic family do the same. This is a level of reflecting a source language which I have not attempted in my own writing.

So, back to the ancient world, and in particular the mythic poetry from the city of Ugarit (on the coast of modern Syria). There is a very common pattern used here where a series of lines is repeated several times over – for example they might appear first in a dream, then in the morning when the dreamer recounts the dream to another, then a days later when the action itself occurs. For example, in the Tale of King Keret we have this pattern:

  1. The chief god El appears in a dream to Keret and after a brief series of questions gives him a series of instructions for obtaining a wife
  2. Keret wakes up and carries out the first stages of the required actions
  3. He goes to the required city and issues demands which recapitulate the dream again and gets the ride he wants (Hurriy)

But… in the second stage there is a crucial change where Keret goes beyond the requirements El set up, and while en route to the city makes a rash vow to the goddess Athirat if the quest turns out well – rash firstly because the scale of the vow would probably have bankrupted a real king of Ugarit, and secondly because it shows a certain lack of faith in El’s declarations!

By the time Keret comes back successfully from the final stage with Hurriy, either he has forgotten the vow, or else he decides that since things turned out well it was not necessary to fulfil it. Either way, the departure from strict repetition is noted by the gods and things start to go wrong.

This sort of pattern, where departures from exact repetition signal looming disaster for the party concerned, can be found in a wide variety of ancient literature. One can easily imagine an eager audience listening out for the crucial action left out or put in, and being alerted to expect some serious consequences. The basic principle can be found in a number of fairy tales and folk stories, often where the third time of asking brings about the change.

So let’s see what comes out of this particular repeat – nothing disastrous, I hope…