Marie de France, Orality/Mouvance, and “Magical Linguistics”

marie de franceI recently mentioned reading The Lais of Marie de France. Now, I discussed her work specifically in that previous post, but the introduction actually reminded me of a nexus of things that connect in interesting ways: the medieval concept of mouvance, our modern concepts of remixing and the Creative Commons, and the profound difference between oral and literate cultures… and what the implications might be for magical systems in fantasy worlds unlike ours. (Say, those that have predominantly illiterate populations.) 

Obviously there was no “Creative Commons” in the Middle Ages, because there was no copyright at the time. That said, there’s a certain harmony between Medieval conceptions of creativity and the one that’s growing popular these days in terms of Creative Commons materials and Derivative Work, as this snippet from the introduction to Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby’s translation of The Lais of Marie de France makes obvious:

It is important to point out here that the use of familiar material was not regarded in any way as second-rate or plagiaristic in the Middle Ages, rather that it conferred authority on the work, which was thereby sanctioned by it. This is true for both basic material of many medieval works… and the more incidental themes and motifs and stylistic devices such as [the jealous old husband, or the the spring-time as the opening for a poem]. This is a fundamental concept which often proves to be a stumbling-block for the modern reader of medieval literature, accustomed as he is to the esteem in which originality is held. The medieval idea of literary creation was really one of re-creation in which existing material was reworked and elaborated on until something new was produced. Needless to say, poor poets are capable of producing poor poetry at any period.

The introduction, by the translators, dates back to 1986, but it’s already pretty dated. Today, I think this fundamental concept would be much less of a stumbling block… and really, I would also hold that even in 1986 it would have been less of a stumbling block for a reader of any genre of popular fiction, but especially speculative fiction. In 1986, remixes of Tolkien and Heinlein and John Brunner had flooded the genre fiction shelves. (And Lovecraft’s epigones, especially, have been practicing this same sort of approach to creativity since the pulp era.)

That’s not even to get into rediscovering of this aesthetic in other artforms, like in music and the visual arts.

One thing that’s fascinating about this is that Medieval creators actually had differing attitudes towards authorship: some went to great lengths to minimize the inevitable mutations their songs/poems underwent as they spread orally—the technical term for those changes is mouvance, something I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, and in a variety of contexts, from Lovecraft to jazz standards to Ezra Pound—while others embraced the idea of that mutation as a means of improving the poem, to the point of challenging listeners to improve upon their work.

This range of attitudes towards mouvance, and thus towards the whole idea of individual vs. collective authorship, is wonderfully discussed in a book that’s available for free online (by the kindness of the publisher, the University of California Press) Amelia E. Van Vleck’s Memory and Re-Creation in Troubadour Lyric. Here’s the printable version, and here’s a version more nicely-formatted for onscreen reading. It’s one of my favorite books on medieval literature, and I recommend it highly.

In any case, one of the things that hit me, as I considered all this, is that Marie de France, although she was doubtless literate, was writing in a world that was not… and this, mind you, was in the late 1100s. How odd that the pseudo-medieval worlds so often seen in high fantasy fiction don’t take that into account. According to James Baker in The Cunning Man’s Handbook (which I discussed here), even in the 1600s and 1700s in our own world, a certain proportion of professional practitioners of magic were illiterate, though they collected grimoires as stage setting for their place of business… and surely it was at least partly due to that widespread illiteracy that practitioners of magic accepted that there would be what Baker calls “the principle of acceptable variance” in terms of just how exact one’s magical formulae had to be.

This, of course, gets me thinking about how, in a fantasy-magic system set in a world without mechanical reproduction (ie. printing presses) and widespread literacy, mouvance would be an issue. And I don’t mean in the sense that one wrong word would lead to boom! spell failure. That’s not that interesting.

Rather, I mean that the idea of stability and consistency in magical texts is not just silly, but boring. To take a really mundane example from any D&D universe, magic missile scrolls shouldn’t all read the same, or have identical effects; cosmetic as well as more profound differences should occur, within the range of acceptable variance, and regional variations on magic ought to develop along the lines of “regional dialects”; likewise, it’s tantalizing to think of how language barriers might either prevent, slow, or even perhaps by some fluke accelerate the spread of magical innovations between regions, as well as spells that simply cannot be properly “translated” from one language to another—lost Greek magic that the Romans never managed to translate, or how Chinese magic would be utterly different from European Latinate magic, for example. (Perhaps there is one dead language in the world, which has no verb tenses, and only someone who masters it can perform chronomancy (slowing, stopping, reversing, and traversing time); perhaps the metaphorical structures of a language affect the magical assonances available, such as now there are conceptual rhymes between concepts in some languages and not others—a person could be turned into a Frog using magic in one langauge, but not in another, where the common transformation is into a pig, or a dog, or a monkey.

The Explosion in the Alchemist’s Laboratory by Justus Gustav van Bentum (Leiden 1670–1727) Holland, 17th or 18th century
Magic gone wrong: The Explosion in the Alchemist’s Laboratory by Justus Gustav van Bentum (1670–1727)

Inscribed magic being treated and considered as both a linguistic phenomenon and as a literary practice is a very interesting possibility, too: especially in a world where general illiteracy would mean that mouvance in magical texts was likewise inevitable but also accelerated. (Literacy would slow but not stop the slow mutation of magical formulae; predominant illiteracy, though, would likely hasten the shifting of the sands. People learning magic by rote would probably make more minor mistakes like changing the order of phrases (unless some bulwark existed in the text)1, and move things around more, and get a broader range of surprising (mistake) effects than people relying on mass-printed texts, or texts copied by experts at great expense. Of course, there’s also the fun of the risks involved in working through minor variations on the text in the casting of spells. To go back to god old Level 1 magic missile: imagine, instead of an arrow, a “magic missile” that looks like a spear, or a clawed hand, or a flying ghostly child with long vampire teeth and horrific claws sailing through the darkness at one’s target. Or a magic missile that does damage to both the target and the caster, or a magic missile that drains more life energy from the opponent and feeds it into the caster. How about a magic missile that does damage by means other that symbolic piercing, or causes other kinds of “damage” (such as, say, filling enemies with panic, or giving them a disease, or causing temporary blindness or frenzy)… the possibilities are really quite endless.

Of course, maybe this has all be done to death in fantasy literature. I don’t know, because I don’t really read all that much high fantasy. The closest I remember is some wild magic table out of the back of a 2nd edition AD&D hardback from ages ago. (Oh, yeah, this one from FR Adventures though if you need something more comprehensive, there’s always this.) It seems like someone else must have thought of such things by now… But all I know is that I’ve never seen it done. That shouldn’t be surprising, though: I’ve never seen raccoons raid a trash bin… because I’ve never spent much time in those parts of the world where such things are commonplace, just as I don’t read a lot of literature that involves magic or magic spells. But it is an interesting avenue of thought, and I would be interested if anyone knows of any novels or stories where this kind of approach has been taken. Recommendations in the comments are welcome, and encouraged.

  1. Some troubadours welcomed mouvance, inviting listeners to improve on their work; others built their verses so that mouvance was less likely, a practice I’ve discussed before.

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