As ever, dear readers, welcome.
There is a common expression in writing classes, attributed to William Faulkner (1897-1962)
but the origin of which comes from a much lesser-known figure, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944).
Sir Arthur, if known at all today, is as the editor for the once-famous The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900,
and for being called something like “the rag and bone man of English poetry”
by the American poet, Ezra Pound (1885-1972).
Pound was, of course, trying to redefine the cannon—and insert himself into it–and Sir Arthur was a far more important man in the Victorian/Edwardian literary world than the equivalent of a recycling truck, but what Faulkner is quoted as saying is: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
This has been sometimes taken to mean, “Murder your characters”, and that’s how I understood it long ago, when I had only read that quotation from Faulkner, but what Sir Arthur really said, in a lecture at Cambridge in 1913-14 on literary style was this:
“…if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it —whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.‘ “ (On the Art of Writing, 1916—it’s in the chapter entitled “On Style” and here’s a LINK so that you can read it for yourself: https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/17470/pg17470.html )
So his meaning was that fine writing for the sake of fine writing was a mistake—but, for the sake of this posting, I’m returning to what I had originally thought Faulkner had meant—murder your characters—and, in my recent reading and viewing experience, there has been mayhem everywhere, which has made me wonder about darlings.
Recently, I rewatched Star Wars 7, 8, 9 and, this time, I was more pained than before by the death of Han Solo in 7.
Harrison Ford, in interviews, had long said that he had wanted Han removed back in the days of Star Wars 4, 5, and 6, but I’ve always thought that Han was really at the center of those films: a cheerfully arrogant cynic who brought a certain satiric balance to the otherwise potentially too-serious story of the Force. Although he might wish Luke “May the Force be with you” just before the attack on the first Death Star,
he was still capable of lines like: ” A…Jedi Knight? I–I’m out of it for a little while, everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” (The Return of the Jedi, 1983)
When he and Chewie first appeared in The Force Awakens (2015),
I was hoping that we would see something of this in 7-9, but I was quickly disappointed. It seems, if I understand the plot correctly, that what was intended by Han’s murder was to illustrate graphically just how far down the road to the Dark Side, his son, Ben, in his persona of “Kylo Ren”,
had gone, but, instead, I saw what, for me, was the end of that quietly ironic viewpoint and therefore of part of what gave a special life to the original trilogy.
Polishing off major characters, however, can make a strong dramatic point. Consider the fate of the decent Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean in A Game of Thrones.
The king’s right-hand man, because of his honesty, is removed from office, charged with treason, forced to lie publically that he committed that treason, and then suddenly beheaded, after being told that, with his confession, his life would be spared.
Coming at the end of the first series, his murder sets off a major element of the plot-to-come: the efforts by his family to gain revenge,
as well as underlining the increasingly-sadistic nature of the new king, Joffrey.
(Notice, by the way, that Joffrey’s crown is both too small and often worn at an odd angle, as if to suggest, visually, just how unfit and unbalanced he is mentally.)
George RR Martin and the script-writers, only begin with Ned Stark, however, and, by the end of the final series, large numbers of major characters, both sympathetic and not, have encountered poison,
being shot with a crossbow,
and being pushed from a great height,
among other grisly ends.
At the series’ base is the English “Wars of the Roses” (1455-1485), fought by two large factions, Lancastrians and Yorkists—and, yes, that’s “Lannisters” and “Starks”, isn’t it?
Although lacking in the various religions, cultures, magic, and dragons of A Game of Thrones, it certainly has the violence, particularly in the way major figures, when captured on the battlefield, are simply beheaded there and then, without the bother of trials.
At the same time, we can almost imagine, in A Game of Thrones, that so many of the characters, positive and negative, are like fuel to the plot’s engine: their deaths spurring that engine onward.
In contrast, we come to Tolkien and, in particular, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
If we don’t count goblin kings,
and, of course, the destruction of Lake-town,
the only death of a major character is that of Thorin,
but, because of its serious nature, The Lord of the Rings suffers more serious losses among its protagonists, beginning with, it seems, Gandalf,
and including Boromir,
as well as the mad Denethor.
For a serious book, these are serious deaths: fighting a balrog, overwhelmed by orcs, falling to the chief of the Nazgul, being consumed in a pyre. On the other hand, although we see Sauron as a great shadow passing away,
the only major deaths among the antagonists are those of Gollum, through clumsiness, really,
and Saruman, who, as his spirit is swept away by the wind, like his master, seems to crumble to nothing.
In contrast to the deaths of the protagonists, then, these seem small, almost sordid: a victory dance too close to the lava, a throat cut by a traitorous servant. And, rather than spurring the plot, these deaths put an end to certain strands: the question of whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sharkey’s revenge upon the Shire.
Some darlings, it seems, need to be killed.
Thanks, as always, for reading,
Stay well—and well back from the edge of volcanoes—
And know that, as ever, there’s
In my looking about for illustrations, I happened upon this very interesting view of the death of Theoden—
which was clearly inspired by this scene from one of my favorite medieval pictorial sources, the so-called “Bayeux Tapestry”, which depicts the death of the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, at the battle of Hastings.
Clever, don’t you think?