Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Theory Meets Narrative: Classical vs Modern Writing Styles (part one)

When I write in general can choose one of two options when working with stylistic approaches to fiction. One is a Classical writing style and, the other, Modern. These categories should be taken not too seriously as they can be blended with certain emphasis on either one side or the other. If you've ever read the Sandman by Neil Gaiman, he does an excellent job combining a Classical Dante Alighieri Christian Mythology with other supernatural cosmologies, ranging from Nordic Mythology to African Oral Tradition,s and then combining it all into a modern day setting. It's brilliant work, but an example of fusing both styles into one. I guess you could say that I am a little more "old school," as the cliche goes. I like leaving the two apart, because on their own I think a greater statement can be made. Just my opinion. Take it or leave it. 

Classical Styles

Due to the multifaceted nature of the Classical style I think it best to focus on two aspects of this category: "Period" setting prose and "Early Modern" setting prose. The best way to conceive the difference between these two styles is that one follows a formula rooted in the classical traditions (think Dante's inferno, Utopia, Jane Eyre, Silas Marner, The Rise of Silas Lapham, etc), and seeks to emulate characters bound by the hand of Fate or some guiding force of justice that will bring to rights the primary conflict of the book. "Period" setting prose serves to espouse a culture or isolated  world that is lost to history, and can be found in such works as Beowulf and the Lais of Marie de France. Arthurian myth would also fit for this as well, along with the Prose Edda, the Gesta Danorum, and other medieval histories. I particularly enjoy the Early Modern setting prose because of it's ideals rooted in the enlightenment, but also because the characters posses strong understandings of the ramifications of their actions. This gives you a lot of power in the writing process. Like many things where the approach is formulaic, like classical music, potential writers often feel restricted by the rules one has to follow when writing in the Early Modern style, but I think the end product is very dense and very involved, like Beethoven or Bach.  Period setting is tougher because it requires extensive research, something I already alluded to a few weeks ago. Though if you have ever read the Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the fruits of your labors will be worth your while.

This week I've split up the lessons into two groups. Today we shall focus solely on the Classical narrative example. Thursday I will discuss the Modern style.


There is a road that runs south, south east across a brook in Pathhead, East Ayrshire, in the highlands of Scotland that I find dear to my heart, Brother Barnabas. For on that sturdy Scottish road lives Mary Brockwell, my companion and betrothed to be. Upon first meeting her, my heart lifted, beating fiercely in my breast, a woman of no earthy compare. She was my darling to be, and I could not be more delighted over the fruits of my father's intervention into my affairs, that I so desperately at the time detested. His shrewd dealings had, to that point, left a taste in my mouth most unbearable. But Oh, how wrong was I, when I first met Mary Brockwell. 
The Lord was kind to me that day, when mass adjourned and I was finally free of that solitary prison that solemnly interred my passions. The parson was dreadful, not without honor to speak each passage of scripture with dire verbosity, alerting his fellow kin to our foul natures. He was a brother visiting from Glasgow, and a peddler of pamphlets. I had no love for him, or his trade, for he was a silver tongued devil, leading me astray from my love of Hume and A. Smith. I pray with all my heart that you would draw near to me that we may walk among the abbey gardens in Monmouthshire once more before my stay as a Bachelor completes itself. My sincere hope is that you find this letter, that I have penned with extra care, for I know your vision has fallen to shambles since our last visit together. Give my love to your Francesca, inform her of my dealings how you see fit. I pray that you only spare her our devilish cavortings in London. Heaven forbid it! 
With love,
Geroge Bailey.


This is what I would consider an Early Modern styled prose. It's a sprawling pastoral letter of masculine affection that could date as early as the mid 18th century, perhaps even spanning to the mid 19th century. What helps to bring out this style is to mimic the verbose nature of the English writers of this period.
She was my darling to be, and I could not be more delighted over the fruits of my father's intervention into my affairs, that I so desperately at the time detested.
The trick is to really playing with syntax and fleshing out fully articulated thoughts that help internalize the characters. Usually English protagonists have a strong sense of will and agency, that must take charge and accomplish tasks given to them. Here, George Bailey is undertaking an arranged marriage between himself and Mary but is doing so only because his father has finally done something to his favor. Also Early Modern prose has a heavy emphasis on the pastoral qualities in the setting, for when Christendom began to waver in the UK, an intellectual, pseudo spiritual panentheism overtook the people, which led to the Romanticism era in the early 19th century. There intellectualism and poetry bred together to create an environmental conscious atmosphere of mutual brotherhood and self expression. I mean, it's hard to illustrate the potency of Early Modern prose in such a short section, but generally the main thing to understand is that Early Modern styles connect the main narratives together in a story to weave an outstanding moral lesson. In the Rise of Silas Lapham, Silas becomes more powerful over the course of the book, as his moral authority deteriorates in tandem, ultimately leading to the ruining of Silas and his family. Its a very good book, and does well to illustrate how to compose a very Classical piece.  

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