Dialogue in High Fantasy: It’s terrible (?)

Here’s a post title that caught my eye: The Trouble With Most High Fantasy Dialogue Is That It’s Terrible

I recoiled at once.

I mean, “most” is a pretty strong term. So is “terrible.” Wait, is this the sort of person who’s going to declare right off the bat that Tolkien was a terrible writer? If not that, then WAIT, is this the sort of person who thinks The Sword of Shannara is representative of high fantasy?

If not that, then what in the world?

Before reading the linked post, I instantly paused to think of (many) counterexamples. High fantasy, let me see:

a) Everything by Guy Gavriel Kay. Dialogue: terrible? No. That claim is not even vaguely sensible.

b) Everything by Jacqueline Carey. Okay, everything except her UF series. Everything else she’s written falls into high fantasy. Dialogue terrible/not terrible? Obviously her dialogue is not terrible. These are beautifully written novels.

c) Everything by Juliet Marillier. Dialogue terrible/not terrible? Emphatically not terrible.

What in heaven’s name could the author of this post possibly have in mind?

“I know this [gun],” my player character intoned weightily. “How came it here?”

How came it here. Really? What a terrible way to ask that question. Now I don’t even care how the gun got here. I care about how our language got here.

It’s a line from a GAME. It’s not even from a MOVIE, far less a NOVEL. We’re going to start THERE and indict the whole subgenre of high fantasy? We’re going to go from that to “MOST high fantasy dialogue is terrible”?


Oh, yes, here’s the anti-Tolkien comment.

The Lord of the Rings is an epic, deliberately written to showcase the history, culture, and language of its fictitious peoples. Its characters rarely just talk; they proclaim. 

Actually, to be fair, I’m not sure this is meant as a critique of Tolkien’s writing. Maybe the author of this post is slapping down other writers who take a stab at aping Tolkien’s style, but can’t quite pull it off. I will just point out that if I can’t quite tell what the author of the linked post means here, maybe their very own language might benefit from a little more attention to precision of meaning.

This person IS making a good point. They’re just using an appallingly over-broad title to make their very limited point:

Using a hundred lengthy words in the place of five simple ones doesn’t make a speaker sound smarter. And using badly mangled vaguely medievalesque language doesn’t make a game sound smarter. There is an art to dialogue, in any kind of game but especially in an RPG. 

Fine, that’s reasonable. Here is a title you might have used for this post:

“Badly mangled vaguely medievalesque language doesn’t add anything great to RPGs.”

Or a zillion other titles that would actually be relevant to the point you’re making.

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15 thoughts on “Dialogue in High Fantasy: It’s terrible (?)”

  1. Sword of Shannara certainly serves a useful function, as *the* fantasy book “not to be set aside lightly.” Even Modessit isn’t in the same league.

  2. Ha, Robert, that’s perfect! I don’t know why I didn’t think of saying that!

    Pete, it sure does.

  3. I have such fond memories of The Sword of Shannara. What other fantasy books were available in the 1970’s?? This was before The Blue Sword, before Ender’s Game, before GGK. Other than MZB and Anne Mccaffrey there was not much out there and it was lovely light adventure reading.
    Does LE Modestit even have dialogue? Just elipses…

  4. I liked The Sword of Shannara a lot … in the seventies. Later, well.

    But let me see. Hmm. Okay, Diana Wynne Jones. Susan Cooper.

    But at the time, I was transitioning from animal stories for kids to SFF. I may still have been reading Kjelgaard’s quite wonderful animal stories at that time. Not sure I really moved into fantasy till the late seventies and perhaps eighties — and the eighties saw such a flowering of great authors. That’s when my taste was set, I believe.

  5. So many wonderful animal stories! Not only Big Red, but Lad, a dog; Lassie Come Home, the Call of the Wild and so on. Do people no longer write these type of books? But I agree. You can’t go back to the Sword of Shannara and like it after reading something like The Summer Tree, or anything by Juliet Marillier, or Sharon Shinn, or you!

  6. Sword was an important book in that it showed that other fantasy could be profitable. It sold like hotcakes for the obvious reason there was little else.

  7. Sudden wave of nostalgia for Kjelgaard’s animal stories, which I gorged on in 3rd grade but haven’t read since. (Whatever it’s other flaws, my elementary school library had a lot of great animal books.)

    I can think of a lot more fantasy books with great dialogue than those that clunk.

  8. Oh, I’m really pleased some of you also have fond memories of Kjelgaard! Big Red is about the best known, I suppose, but not at all my favorite. I loved Snow Dog and Wild Trek and most particularly Desert Dog. I also loved Rutherford Montgomery’s animal stories — not the ones with human protagonists or even human characters. The ones where the animals were closely based on real animals and had nothing to do with anthropomorphized animals. Wapiti the Elk, Carcajou, I think some other titles.

  9. I loved what Kjelgaard I could find and acquired my own copies (which I still own) of Snow Dog and Wild Trek. I also gobbled Lassie and Terhune, and still remember some bits of Terhune, aside from the puzzlement over ‘mad dogs’. (eventually I figured out it was rabies.) He sure loved his dogs.

    I remember back in the 70s reading the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series output. And more SF (Simak, Zelazny, some LeGuin) than I read now. There was a lot less of everything. Oh, historical novels, I read a lot of those, too.

    As the Teen plays assorted games I certainly occasionally hear some wildly contorted fake high language dialogue. The worst I can recall came from Hollow Knight, which is a very interesting game and the offending dialogue is only from one character.. If anyone’s interested I’ll ask for a sample. OTOH, it’s the sort of thing that gets Teen thinking about how to write better, and why is this language failing, which is worthwhile in its own right. Recently worked on why do some public challenges work – of the come out & fight/I’m going to kill you variety – and some flop? Taking the good example from JRRT, Lay of Leithian

    The original post is still wrong about Tolkien, though. I swear it’s like ‘the Problem of Susan’ in Narnia, someone says it in public and it gets taken up into the cultural osmosis.

  10. I didn’t realize Kjelgaard was so widely remembered! Maybe it’s just commenters here, who obviously have superior taste and always did, even as children.

    Yes, I remember Terhune’s stories very well too. He did, though one can certainly see a shift in attitudes toward dogs from that time to this. You know, I remember now — first time I’ve thought of this in ages — how one of Terhune’s stories involved a dog show judge who experienced a moral crisis over putting a (slightly better) younger dog over a related much older dog who had been better in his prime, but was not quite as good any longer — I believe he put up the older dog. I know he was furious at the owner for putting him, the judge, in that situation. I bet that still informs some of my feelings about how judges should view their responsibilities. Though I think they should put up the younger dog, but I get the moral outrage the judge experienced in that story.

    Yes, it’s very much worthwhile to read something that doesn’t work and think, “Well, why not? What’s wrong here?”

    I remember the first time I heard someone say, offhandedly, that of course Tolkien’s actual writing was pretty bad. I was absolutely stunned.

  11. I loved Kjelgaard! I read everything our library had of his. I believe that Wild Trek was my favorite. Sadly, I went back to reread them a few years ago, and our library had gotten rid of them all, making room for newer books (not better, in my opinion).
    You know what other author I loved? Marguerite Henry. Her King of the Wind remains a classic, and helped me to realize that everyone, even the silent, have their own loves and loyalties.
    A bad example of fantasy dialogue would be the Belgariad. I devoured all of them, then abruptly realized that I hated almost everything about the series, from the non-descriptions to the generically stereotyped characters to the incredibly bad medieval-ish-but-sometimes-modern dialogue. Which spurred me to figure out why those things were bad, and when I’d seen them done well, and led me to eventually want to write my own, but better.
    You can’t convince me that Tolkien’s writing is bad. He was a philologist and loved words, and understood better than most authors what writing is *for*. All of his words mean something; they aren’t there just to look or sound pretty. Of course, if you are looking for Hemingway and get Tolkien, I imagine that yes, you would be disappointed.

  12. Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander. Narnia. That’s where my childhood was spent. George MacDonald. Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, Lucy Boston, The Borrowers, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Island of the Blue Dolphins, all the Oz books … oh, there was some lovely stuff! *falls into the nostalgia wave*

    I missed out on Kjelgaard! I reread Black Beauty until it fell apart, and progressed to The Black Stallion and all its sequels. I guess I was all about horses!

    Also Arthur Ransome, who was as good as fantasy for a land-locked child!

  13. I was trying to think of what I read in the 1970s, beyond the obvious. Plenty of Boy’s adventure stories, revolutionary War stories, and maybe some WEB Griffin. I still do like Griffin.

  14. Kim, yes, nearly all of those! Mrs. Frisby is such a classic, or at least it should be and I hope everyone is still reading it. All of E Nesbit and Edward Eager — what a shame you never tripped over Kjelgaard! I loved Black Beauty — and the novel Bambi, so different from the Disney version.

    I STILL have not read anything by Ransome, but I DO have at least one, maybe two, on my TBR pile. Which I should rename the “hope to someday read this” pile.

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