Thursday, September 30, 2010

Conjugating your sonnets and integrating your relations

Caution: HUMOR WARNING. This posting contains Funny Material. Laughing may result. Prolonged laughing has not been observed in lab rats so all those government-acronym places don't know what will happen and don't really care. (Recent studies indicate they have no sense of humor.) But you have been warned. Hee hee.

You get a bonus today: this posting contains a lesson in elementary heraldry. You see, I was thinking again about heraldry, since I am trying to work up a coat-of-arms for one of the organizations in my Saga... Actually I probably need at least two more. Neither are critical to the story, at least as far as I can tell at present, but one never knows. The others I have made are already in play: I built one merely from a certain artistic sense - it actually derives from Chesterton's last words about the battle between light and darkness (See Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 650). This is Joseph Chandler's arms, from my Saga:

Sable, a chevron Or; in chief an antique lamp fired proper, radiated of the second.

But as my writing progressed, this interesting design has proven to fit into the plot in a way which almost shocked me - one rarely expects such minor details as a fictional coat-of-arms for a fictional character to have any significance. Though, as we Chestertonians know, it ought to. We might try an epigram, sort of like this: "There is no such thing as a minor detail". And this is borne out in other authors, if one pays attention. I just finished re-reading Tolkien's The Hobbit, which I had to reference in my own work (it's a GREAT quote, really cool in the context, and connected with the above arms) and if you've been to Middle Earth you know that Tolkien's names are - ah - what verb - perhaps sculpted. He is very careful to provide an entire history and etymology for his roots. No wonder it took him so long to write. I have a similar difficulty, not because I am a philologist but because I am a computer scientist, and have to be sure to arrange every last BIT of things... hee hee. The challenge, whether one writes software or stories, is to be sure that one writes with an END in mind - that is, one must have a purpose, and every word ought to be justified - it should be chosen and placed, as a mosaic artist selects tesserae. Chesterton was aware of this. I would not attempt to argue about Chesterton's choice of words in general, and (since I am not a lit'ry scholar) I would prefer to avoid such criticism of his work. Rather, let's consider how GKC applies this consideration to another great English writer:
There was never a better criticism of Chaucer than that written within a hundred years of his death by old Caxton the printer; nor has this particular aptitude with words been expressed in words so apt. The medieval master printer's estimate is worth libraries of the patronizing pedantry, that has been written in the four hundred years that followed. 'For he writeth no void words; but all his matter is full of high and quick sentence'; that is, sense; sententia. The melodious but monotonous etiquette of much medieval poetry was a perpetual temptation to write void words; like the void words of modern journalese; except that the medieval words at least were graceful and the modern words base.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:319]
Now, any programmers who are reading this (especially those who are familiar with the language called "C") will have to laugh, since in "C" there is a keyword "void" which has a particular meaning and usefulness; hence excellent and efficient programs will often have "void words", hee hee. If you aren't laughing, don't worry, it's not that funny. But then don't expect me to laugh at your horrible 17-line sonnets. Hee hee. (I hope you noticed my title; that's one of the points I'm getting at.)

One of the interesting challenges in building a story, as in building a computer program, is the selection of names. I have used several different mechanisms, depending on my mood, or the particulars of the person (or data item) at hand... but this isn't a "meet the author" (or programmer) column, and I am NOT telling my very cool secrets here! But I bring up the issue since Chesterton talks about it in at least two places I can recall even without consulting the texts. The one is the exceedingly famous encomium in Heretics of the great and awesome name "SMITH" and if you EVER want to write fiction or anything where you will need names - including software, I must add - you ought to know this excerpt, and keep it near you as you work:
I remember a long time ago a sensible sub-editor coming up to me with a book in his hand, called "Mr. Smith," or "The Smith Family," or some such thing. He said, "Well, you won't get any of your damned mysticism out of this," or words to that effect. I am happy to say that I undeceived him; but the victory was too obvious and easy. In most cases the name is unpoetical, although the fact is poetical. In the case of Smith, the name is so poetical that it must be an arduous and heroic matter for the man to live up to it. The name of Smith is the name of the one trade that even kings respected, it could claim half the glory of that arma virumque which all epics acclaimed. The spirit of the smithy is so close to the spirit of song that it has mixed in a million poems, and every blacksmith is a harmonious blacksmith.
Even the village children feel that in some dim way the smith is poetic, as the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic, when they feast on the dancing sparks and deafening blows in the cavern of that creative violence. The brute repose of Nature, the passionate cunning of man, the strongest of earthly metals, the wierdest of earthly elements, the unconquerable iron subdued by its only conqueror, the wheel and the ploughshare, the sword and the steam-hammer, the arraying of armies and the whole legend of arms, all these things are written, briefly indeed, but quite legibly, on the visiting-card of Mr. Smith. Yet our novelists call their hero "Aylmer Valence," which means nothing, or "Vernon Raymond," which means nothing, when it is in their power to give him this sacred name of Smith - this name made of iron and flame. It would be very natural if a certain hauteur, a certain carriage of the head, a certain curl of the lip, distinguished every one whose name is Smith. Perhaps it does; I trust so. Whoever else are parvenus, the Smiths are not parvenus. From the darkest dawn of history this clan has gone forth to battle; its trophies are on every hand; its name is everywhere; it is older than the nations, and its sign is the Hammer of Thor.
[GKC Heretics CW1:54-5]
(By the way, if you don't know what arma virumque means, check back next Tuesday and you'll find out.) Gosh it's almost enough to make me want to change my name!

The second instance where GKC discusses the selection of names for fiction is quite funny, and comes up in a notable setting. His brother's wife Ada, was also a writer and (gasp!) undercover reporter. She got sued because she had used a name in one of her fictional stories - and there happened to be a real person with that name. You really need to read two essays, but I don't have room to quote them all. But... be forewarned! This one is REALLY funny. It has some of GKC's best creative stunts, where he approaches (asymtotically, perhaps) to the mathematical stuntmanship of that famous mathematician, Professor Dodgson.. but you don't care. I just want you to realize I laughed VERY loud when I first read this, and I expect you may also. So finish your food and drink before you read this next excerpt:
Legal decisions lately made bring this tomfoolery to the point of the intolerable. It is the judges' business to explain the law; and the law may be as the judges said: in those cases the law is what Mr. Bumble said it was. But it is not only an ass, but a wild ass; one capable of kicking down whole cities and civilisations. The cases to which I refer are those in which gentlemen obtained damages from newspapers because articles in them contained characters with their names. It was not alleged that the characters specially recalled or suggested the plaintiffs; it was not alleged that the characters were specially unpleasant. But it was laid down by the judges that damages for libel were due. Well, if that is the law, let us alter it. But, indeed, it is not properly a law, but one of the accidents of an anarchy.

I need not point out the insanely perilous position in which it places that already harassed and emaciated person, the author. He must take names for his tales; and if he takes natural or possible names, he must know that there are probably many real people who bear them. In fact, some of the most famous and isolated figures in fiction bear names that are common and general in reality. On this principle many a mild Welsh dissenting minister may consider himself saddled with the private life of Tom Jones. On this principle, every person bearing two other ordinary names may be found nervously consulting his own character in "Tom Brown at Oxford." For the matter of that Iago is a very common name in Spanish; and if we only pushed this legal logic a little further, the translation of such names might be included, and we might have a man forbidding the performance of "Othello" on the ground that his name was James. These cases seem to me no crazier than the actual cases as settled.

The question, of course, is simple enough: what is a novelist supposed to do? Is he to leave blanks for the names, or number them? Should he advertise first for all the claimants to a title and square them moderately beforehand? The only other way I can think of would be to give the characters names that no one of ordinary strength could possess, pronounce, or endure - say, "Quinchbootlepump" or "Pottlehartipips." One might cherish a hope that few prosecutors could establish a claim to these. How far they would enrich or weaken the style of the author it would, of course, be more difficult to say. One must think mainly of the average romantic novel; one must imagine some paragraph like this: "As Bunchoosa Blutterspangle lingered in the lovely garden a voice said 'Bunchi' behind her, in tones that recalled the old glad days at the Quoodlesnakes'. It was, it was indeed the deep, melodious voice of Splitcat Chintzibobs." It seems to me that this method would ruffle, as it were, the smooth surface of the softer and more simply pathetic passages.
[GKC ILN Feb 11 1911 CW29:36-7; the law case is discussed in ILN Dec 9 1911, CW 29:201]
Several times at Chesterton Conferences I have considered altering my name tag to read "Hello my name is Doctor Splitcat Chintzibobs" - except that Dale would probably expect me to change it to something else. I would, too - except those name tags are too small to fit "Hello my name is Doctor Plakkopytrixophylisperambulantiobatrix". Ah, well. So I don't. And besides, people would wonder if I had a twin brother. (I do, but I am the evil twin. Hee hee. Gosh I wish you could hear what "hee hee" actually sounds like when I do it; I had a whole course in grad school on how to do that sinister doctoral laugh. It's very effective.)

You can also find a very good commentary by GKC on Dodgson's use of fantasy words - no, I don't mean those like Tolkien's. I mean "brillig" and the Bandersnatch and the Jubjub bird and that sort of thing, as well as "uglification". You may think this is crazy - but then you weren't in the assembly language class (which I taught while I was doing my doctorate) when I read to them from Dodgson's text. People still think I am crazy, but what do they know. If you want to understand the first and most important technical aspect of flow-of-control in computer programming, you can find no better text than Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (I was going to quote it, but I think this time I will let you do some research.)

I was going to talk some more about this, and relate it to my title, but I decided to do it another time. Instead I want to talk about heraldry a little more, since heraldry really is both art and science at once, and ought to be more widely known. I've seen some exceedingly HORRID web sites which would be greatly and easily improved if their designers knew that very first rule of heraldry. I've seen commercial trucks and advertising banners and even license plates which break the rule as well, so perhaps it will be worth our consideration. Besides, it's fun, and really very easy, and you can do it with kids if you have any around. Be sure to get some crayons and nice white paper if you don't have any. You can probably find kids at the store too, if you don't already have some at home. If not, you will have to act like a kid for a little while; it doesn't hurt. Even if you are at work, or perhaps at some unfortunate "institute of higher learning" you ought to keep a box of crayons and some clean paper with you. It is very helpful, and also people will wonder what that smell is (ah the good smell of a crayon!) and then they will want to work on heraldry too, and they will improve their web sites... who knows how much good may result!

All right, so let us begin. I won't give the usual introduction today - another day perhaps - but leap right to the chapter about colors.

In heraldry we use just SIX different pigments - generally. There are two or three others but they are rarely used, and there a few other oddities, one of which is extremely high-tech, but we're just starting out today, and we'll come back to those special things later. Since heraldry is an ancient art, we use some very interesting terms for the hues we already know, and we group them into two main classes. (This is not hard, it just takes getting used to; it's a technical language like any science or art.) Here are the six:

There are TWO "metals":

1. "Or" which is gold or yellow. Note: we always capitalize this word; it comes from the Latin aurum = gold. You can use a yellow crayon or paint when you make yours; if you have money and work out your own arms, perhaps someday you might buy gold leaf and use that... but see what GKC says about gold first, as you may be disappointed.)
2. "Argent" which is silver or white. Note: that's like the Latin for silver. When you make yours, you can just leave the paper blank, unless you are painting and have some of that fantastic Titanium White, or can buy some silver leaf.

Then there are four "colors":

1. "Gules" which is red. You can use any bright red, though perhaps sometimes you'll make it deeper. Remember, it is an ART; you must do it RIGHT.

2. "Vert" which is green. You can use any bright green - again paying attention to what it is that you are making.

3. "Azure" which is blue. The same, but this time any bright blue.
4. "Sable" which is black. This is black. You may think the term "bright black" is sheer lunacy - but the Romans didn't think so! Oh yes: Latin has two words for black: niger which is bright or "shining black", and ater which is dull or "dead black"; the dictionary also just translates it "dark". Very interesting, but let's get back to heraldry.

All right. There are the six heraldic pigments: the metals Or and argent, the colors gules vert, azure and sable. Now, you need to know the RULE. It is very simple:

Never place metal upon metal, or color upon color.
Do you understand? For example, don't use anything white against a yellow blackground, or red against green, or blue against black (and so forth).

Why? you ask.

Well... remember that business - I must have quoted it a hundred times - about reverting to the doctrinal principles of the 13th century in order to get things done? Heraldry was NOT just fun art. It was something of extreme importance... but I will give you that explanation in my introduction some other time. (Have you caught on? I'm breaking the flow of control rule, just to demonstrate how one conjugates a sonnet. Hee hee.)

The quick reason is this: the purpose of a coat-of-arms - or of any real piece of art - is to get a message across. For example:

If you write yellow letters on a white background, it will be hard to read.

Could you read that? That is (in heraldic terms) placing metal on metal, "Or upon argent". It's difficult to read. Here's what I wrote, but obeying the rule, and placing "sable upon argent" (color on metal):

If you write yellow letters on a white background, it will be hard to read.

It's true. It's not impossible - but it's not as clear. However, metal on color, or color on metal is quite easily seen and grasped. But let us see some example coats-of-arms - just simple ones which will demonstrate the rule. You can try drawing these for practice. All three are from Chesterton:

Argent, a cross gules.
The national flag of England is the Cross of St. George, and that, oddly enough, was splashed from one end of Dublin to the other; it was mostly displayed on shield-shaped banners, and may have been regarded by many as merely religious; but it was the authentic St. George's Cross; gules on a field argent, with the four arms of the cross meeting the edges of the flag.
[GKC Christendom in Dublin 9]

"Our bearings," continued Syme calmly, "are 'argent a chevron gules charged with three cross crosslets of the field'."
[GKC The Man Who Was Thursday CW6:565]

The arms borne by the great Border family of Scrope, in popular language a blue shield with a gold band across it (I can say 'azure a bend or' quite as prettily as anybody else) was found to have been also adopted by a certain Sir Thomas Grosvenor, then presumably the newer name of the two.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:214]

Now that you have learned the first rule of heraldry, you are in a position to understand a curious little line in one of GKC's essays. I will just give it to you - see what you make of it:

The alphabet is one set of arbitrary symbols. The figures of heraldry are another set of arbitrary symbols. In the fourteenth century every gentleman knew one: in the twentieth century every gentleman knows the other. The first gentleman was just precisely as ignorant for not knowing that c-a-t spells "cat," as the second gentleman is for not knowing that a St. Andrew's Cross is called a cross saltire, or that vert on gules is bad heraldry.
[GKC ILN Dec 2 1905 CW27:70-71]
I would like to say more about that powerful bit about how the alphabet is a set of arbitrary symbols - recently I tried (with both hands I tried) to tell you a little of that mystery. But of course this is one of those odd little Traditions "liberals" require - just as "Free Speech" is one of those little Liberties "conservatives" demand. The challenge to us is to recall what Chesterton said in his book on Browning: "Free speech is a paradox". So, in many ways, is heraldry.


  1. Hm, even before I met you, I thought your name was incredibly poetic. Reminds me of flowers and a certain great saint. :)

  2. Did I miss something? What's happening to the blog?

  3. Dominic,
    This blog will remain here, but we're moving the conversation over to an all-new Chesterton and Gilbert Magazine website/blog combo. I'll let you know when it goes live, which should be very soon.


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