A thoroughly calqued world

In my previous post, I alluded to a process described as calquing, which I first learned of from Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle Earth. I wish I could recall now exactly what Dr. Shippey said on the subject, but sadly I have left him in America. The long and short of it, though, is that it is a process of borrowing elements and constructing fictional equivalents; not exact copies, nor simply derivatives, but inspired equivalents, built up creatively to have their own substance.

The classic examples of these which I do recall Dr. Shippey giving are that of the Rohirrim and the Shire in <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>The Lord of the Rings. I know there are more than a few fantasy fanatics reading this blog, so I’ll beg your pardons if this is a bit of a retread. In the case of the riders of Rohan, the fictional society bears a strong resemblance to the old English peoples; their language and culture find their font in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with which Tolkien was perhaps both more familiar and enamored of than anyone else at the time. In fact, the language of the Rohirrim is copied almost wholesale from a particular dialect of Old English. But, as Dr. Shippey points out, there is a creative element in all this—the Anglo-Saxons famously did not fight on horseback, the riders’ defining trait. They are not quite a copy, but more of a fictional analogue.

The same thing goes for hobbits, a kind of shrunk-down country English folk, living in Tolkien’s pastoral ideal of the English countryside—but you get the picture, and I don’t want the entirety of this post to consist of me paraphrasing a far superior scholar. My point, though, is that we needn’t feel that borrowing elements from life, or (with nods toward copyright and considerations of originality) other stories constitutes a damning breach of originality—at least, I hope not. These serve as essential sources of inspiration, especially when world-building (though this principle is by no means limited to the traditional, fantastic variety – after all, all fiction involves world-building of some sort or other). The important thing is to not only draw from sources, but to create new beauty by repositioning and rediscovering things that were familiar. In some cases, this creation of equivalents can involve placing the derived element in the same role as its inspiration, but altering it; I can think of numerous fictional (and real) empires that people have compared to Rome, simply because they fit the role. After all, old Rome’s Forum was filled with temples, not a solitary white tree, and it was probably exceptionally rare indeed to see a Senator riding one of his family’s dragons over Vesuvius. But by following the pattern of Rome, we can draw creative energy from the comparison—from thinking of differences to distinguish our fictional creations from the ‘source,’ and by drawing upon the real depth of such sources to fill in backgrounds. This helps make our creations seem real to us before we make them real to others. It is also rewarding to readers to pick up on subtle echoes of history or other beloved texts in a work. I frequently see posts on the subreddit r/askhistorians requesting to know what the closest historical analogue to this or that fictional event was.

Or, one could simply draw an element out of its native context and role and create interest by placing it somewhere new and different. For instance, see my maps, which stole geographic elements from Britain and placed them in other realms. After a certain point, such activity might cease to be proper calquing—placing dreadnoughts in the sky is more remixing history than creating an airborne equivalent. But after all, that distinction doesn’t have to matter a whit, on the creative end.

Obviously it’s possible to take things too far, and thinking just of fantasy alone, I have to force myself to refrain from naming books that have prompted criticism for their heavily derivative nature. Of course, these judgments may be unfair; it is, after all, a largely subjective craft (am I allowed to admit that, as an editor and an aspiring academic? Or is that heretical?). But that’s what developmental edits are for stopping.


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