Moving from Lyric Poetry to Epic Fantasy

A Sonnet is not a Martini: The Art of the Narrative Turn

This is the third installment in a series of posts focusing on points of connection between poetry and epic fantasy, the previous two can be found here and here.

Like the martini, the sonnet has been around long enough that it sometimes seems like everyone has her own version. Forget about the days with limited options—shaken or stirred, Petrarchan or Shakespearean. For quite a while now, even those features once deemed essential—fourteen lines, for instance—have been tested. A world in which you can order a martini without any gin is a bleak, dystopian hellscape, but I feel more sanguine about our centuries of experimentation with the sonnet. The curtal sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, strike me as brilliant, as do Robert Lowell’s mostly unrhymed sonnets. I used to teach these, and my frustrated students always had the same question: If you can do any of this, what makes a sonnet a sonnet? To my mind, there’s still a clear answer: the turn.

The turn is that moment in the sonnet (between the eight and ninth lines in a Petrarchan sonnet, the twelfth and thirteenth for a Shakespearean) when something fundamental shifts. The description is necessarily general. That “something fundamental” could be the logical proposition put forward by the poem, the voice, the rhetorical mode or strategy, the scene described, the prosody, or nearly anything else. In rhymed sonnets, this shift is usually accompanied by an alteration of the rhyme scheme.

A couple sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay will illustrate the point nicely. Millay, who died in 1950, is to my mind one of the most underrated poets in English. To be sure, she wrote pages of schlock, but I’d put her best sonnets, and she wrote dozens of brilliant ones, against anything by Spenser or Shakespeare. We can start with an old chestnut:

Sonnet XLIII

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

The turn, even if it weren’t indicated by the gap, is impossible to miss. We move in a single bold step from the world of abstract reflection to concrete metaphor and we stay there to the poem’s end. Here’s another:

Sonnet XXX

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

I relish this poem because it has a sort of double-turn. The first one comes predictably on schedule, moving from the general consideration of love to the specifics of a given relationship. And that should be it. The brinksmanship of the poem, however, is in the second turn. For thirteen and a half lines we hear that love isn’t all that great, that it can’t do much, that there are other far more important considerations. Then, in six words, St. Vincent Millay turns the entire poem on its head.

There’s an important lesson here for the writer of epic fantasy. It’s easy to think of plot in terms of that undying and infuriating graph, the one that looks like a mountain peak, showing rising action, climax, and falling action. One of the many things that chart leaves out, of course, is the possibility of a turn. There are many stories that make do without a turn. It’s possible to fight one orc on page one, ten orcs on page ten, and twenty orcs on page twenty: all escalating action, no turn. These stories, to my mind, almost always fail.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that our minds habituate too quickly to mere escalation. We adjust too readily to the simple addition of orcs. Plenty of films seem not to realize this, relying on faster car chases and more elaborate fight scenes to keep us engaged. Far more effective is a narrative turn.

In A Game of Thrones (I’m referring here to Martin’s first book, not the entirety of the eponymous HBO series), the turn takes place at the moment Ned Stark’s head is parted from his shoulders. The world that we (and the characters) thought we inhabited is utterly and irreparably altered. Any strategies that existed before the turn are suddenly useless or wrongheaded. As in a sonnet, the very ground of the piece had shifted and it cannot be put back.

In Mad Max, Fury Road, the turn is literal as well as emotional: Furiosa, Max, and their allies actually turn around. At the same moment, the story stops being one of flight and escape. It’s not enough to get away from the bad guys: the new goal is to confront them and defeat them, to transform the fortress at the heart of their evil into a verdant paradise. The movie, of course, saves its best action for the final sequence, but notice that the movie doesn’t succeed only by turning the dial marked “BADASS” up to eleven. The meaning of all those pyrotechnics, and the satisfaction we derive from them, hinges on the turn that comes before.

Like all good lessons, this one is old as the hills. The Iliad turns at Patroklos’s death. Hamlet turns between acts IV and V, during his voyage at sea. Like all good lessons, however, this one bears regular reexamination, and the study of a fourteen-line sonnet can help to clarify and underline a formal movement that can be more obscure in a story of three hundred thousand words.

And of course, here, too, there’s room for experimentation. The turns in both the Iliad and Hamlet are fundamentally psychological (Hamlet realizes “the readiness is all” while Achilleus is willing to fight once more). The turn in Game of Thrones is political, even factual, although, naturally, the characters who survive have psychological responses to it. A turn can involve a change in POV or narrative style, a shift in psychic distance or a fundamental shake-up of the cast of characters. As with the sonnet, the possibilities are limitless. Go nuts.

Just please, please, please, stop screwing around with my martinis.

After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian Staveley began writing epic fantasy. The Providence of Fire, the second installment in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, is available now from Tor and Tor UK. He lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on Twitter at @brianstaveley and also on his blog.

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