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Damask without Damascus: Duncan, Howard, Eddison and another style of world building

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Last post of the year, and somewhat unexpected – I am suffering from a bout of insomnia, and about one hour ago, while exchanging new years greetings, I suggested to my friend Marina Dave Duncan’s novels in the A Man of His Word series.
This led to a quick search online – are they still available (they are!), are they affordable (more or less, yes), have they a good rating…?

And this leads me to a review of Magic Casement, the first book in the series – and the reviewer writing…

personal and place names, as well as cultural items such as furniture, fabric, dance types are a mishmash, a veneer that cannot make sense naturally in this world…how is there damask without a Damascus? How are there minuettes and ballet without French?

The reviewer notes that Duncan’s secondary word is filled with names pulled straight out of ours, and that puts a strain on their suspension of disbelief.
Fair enough.
It works fine for me, and actually I like it, but to each their own.

I remember Samuel Delany mentioning how Robert E. Howard’s penchant for dodgy names in the Hyborian world as a cause for a similar breach of suspension of disbelief – the obvious references to historical geography (Vendya instead of India, the Kozaki or the lands of Shem and Stygia) bugged young Delany, dragging him back in our own world instead of helping him settle in the Hyborian landscape.

And really, I get it.
I mentioned a few days back how characters using “OK!” while living in a psaeudo-medieval secondary world bugged me.
It’s OK.
Each one of us has a different degree of tolerance for this straining of the worldbuilding, these fractures in the coherence of the creation. What is OK for me may be unacceptable for someone else, causing the world not just to creak and shudder in a pleasantly reassuring way, but to crumble and collapse in dust and ruin.

In all honesty, Dave Duncan’s heterodox approach to his worldbuilding never caused me any stress – sure, it’s weird that he says “faun” and then describes an individual of apparent Celtic ethnicity instead of a guy with goat feet, but it’s OK. Similarly, Imps look Mediterranean and Djinns look Middle-Eastern. It’s strange, for the first five pages. But it’s also fun, actually.
To me, at least.

And I am also reminded of that old E.R. Eddison passage in Mistress of Mistresses, that I often use when discussing worldbuilding…

At least, I am fortunate. For there is peace in these Arctic July nights, where the long sunset scarcely stoops beneath the horizon to kiss awake the long dawn. And on me, sitting in the deep embrasure upon your cushions of cloth of gold and your rugs of Samarkand that break the chill of the granite, something sheds peace, as those great sulphur-coloured lilies in your Ming vase shed their scent on the air. Peace; and power; indoors and out: the peace of the glassy surface of the sound with its strange midnight glory as of pale molten latoun or orichalc; and the peace of the waning moon unnaturally risen, large and pink-coloured, in the midst of the confused region betwixt sunset and sunrise, above the low slate-hued cloud-bank that fills the narrows far up the sound a little east of north, where the Trangstrómmen runs deep and still between mountain and shadowing mountain. That for power: and the Troldtinder, rearing their bare cliffs sheer from the further brink; and, away to the left of them, like pictures I have seen of your Ushba in the Caucasus, the tremendous two-eared Rulten, lifted up against the afterglow above a score of lesser spires and bastions: Rulten, that kept you and me hard at work for nineteen hours, climbing his paltry three thousand feet. Lord! and that was twenty-five years ago, when you were about the age I am to-day, an old man, by common reckoning; yet it taxed not me only in my prime but your own Swiss guides, to keep pace with you.

Mistress of Mistresses takes place, of course, in fabled Zimiamvia, but here we are, with rugs from Samarkand and Ming vases…

For me, it works.
Soon we will leave the mundane behind and travel to the Mezentian Gates, but for the time being this mishmash of references builds anticipation, and wonder.
That’s what I am here for.
More, it is a form of fantasy creation that fascinates me, and that I’d love sometimes to imitate.
It gives me this impression of the secondary world as a sort of strange, dusty attic, in which bits and pieces from different times and places somehow came together, to form something that is new, and different, and still has ties, but weird and unlikely, with the Known World.
This form of continuity is more explicit and straightforward in Howard – his ancient lands and peoples are somewhere in the past of our own past.
In the case of Duncan and Eddison – but also of Lord Dunsany, I dare say – the echoes and the flotsam of our own world and history are less immediate, and come through the veil of fantasy – in the sense of fabulation and faery tale, or fairy story.
Just like in Peter Pan we have pirates and crocodiles and in Alice in Wonderland we have Victorian hatters (but mad) and hookah-smoking caterpillars, so in Duncan’s books Imps are basically your ancient Romans, and in Eddison you can have collections of Earth exotica and Zimiavian magic.
We do not question the provenance of the items contained in Red Riding Hood’s basket.

Pulling such a trick – building a secondary world with explicit bits and pieces of our own, in open disregard for what goes under good and proper practices of worldbuilding as exposed in no end of manuals – is no little feat.
And we are indeed talking great authors, with an immense zest and passion for their creation, a conviction that (usually) manages to grab the average reader, and drag them along in an adventure, but also, I believe, rests at least in part on the will on the part of the reader to go along for the ride without questioning page after page, paragraph after paragraph, the skill or the good faith or the intent of the writer.

And yes, of course there are some kind of stories in which such mishmash, to quote the critic, can grate and feel out of place.
But there are some stories in which it works just fine – if we let it work.

Back in the days of Eddison – but also much more recently, when Dave Duncan set out to write Magic Casement – readers were maybe less interested in the authors’ magic system rules, in the coherent syntax and grammar of their made-up languages, and in the fauxtentication of their worlds through accurate mapping and worldbuilding. They wanted fantastic imagery and high adventure, and as long as those were there on the page, it was fine.
Maybe modern readers are more sophisticated – or they just know more about the theory of the writing practice, and look at the way the pudding was cooked instead of just appreciating the flavor.
Or maybe I am just old, and I am shaking my fist at those pesky kids and their newfangled ways.

I really believe, anyway, that getting distracted by what I perceive as technicalities can often distract us from appreciating what is, basically, a damn good story.

I still believe fantasy has enough freedom to bend the rules – any rule – and as long as the writer gets away with it, be as anarchic and jazz-like in the building of the worlds, the characters and the stories.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

3 thoughts on “Damask without Damascus: Duncan, Howard, Eddison and another style of world building

  1. Well written and food for thought! I do not devise new worlds much except for my comics (which are set in the 1940s or in the 42nd Century) or for my eternal D&D campaign, but its worth thinking about.
    I well remember in RE Howard’s Story “Shadows in Zamboula” where he mentions mesmerism.. and it just spoilt the tale. It seems even the masters of fantasy stumble and fall over these pedantic modern names! How can lesser mortals avoid such pitfalls?

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  2. I understand Delany’s complaint, but there are advantages to Howard style worldbuilding. It allow Conan to be something of the ultimate adventure hero: sometimes a pirate; sometimes a Cossack, sometimes a Knight. Of course, Howard created the Hyborian Age since he had neither the time nor resources to write straight accurate historical fiction.

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    • Absolutely, the Hyborian world has the perfect venue for whatever adventure you can imagine – jungle? Desert? Almost-Roman Empire? Fenimore Cooper-ish? Lost race mystery?
      Just select the appropriate area, and you are all set. For a writer churning out a series, it’s perfect.

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