The Art of Writing Terrain

In 1895, in his essay “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper,” Mark Twain not only assassinated James Fenimore Cooper but also disemboweled him and slowly, painstakingly, drew out his guts and spread them in the bright sun for all to see. The essence of Cooper’s crime was the violation of physical law in his narrative. He characteristically creates a situation in which physical relations are simultaneously invoked and betrayed through studious avoidance of physical probabilities:

If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of “situations” suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting gift. Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a “situation.” In the “Deerslayer” tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook’s outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become “the narrowest part of the stream.” This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were often nine hundred feet long than short of it.
   Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length” — a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say — a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms — each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indian’s never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.
   The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet
long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in the stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.
   There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer. 

The idea of “accuracy” as a standard for narrative might not have been new for Twain, but it was for Cooper, writing over 50 years before Twain. Nowadays we expect it of our writers — that is to say, we demand in our narratives a respect for the physical laws of space and time, such that descriptions of action have to take into account probabilities of spatial relations, specifics of relative location, and the laws of physics. This demand was cultivated over the course of the 19th century — for example, through detective novels and courtroom stories, where temporal and spatial exactitude is crucial; and scientific and exploratory prose, which required detailed maps and diagrams. Contemporary with Cooper and an admirer of his, Balzac would render streets, city neighborhoods, and interiors, with scrupulous grasp of detail. In Père Goriot (1835), the Maison Vauquer is laid out so cogently that as the protagonist Rastignac moves from his room to the kitchen we know exactly which rooms and landings he has to go through and what is around them. In today’s action thrillers we will know the precise distance between two antagonists, what lies between them and around them, what they can see of each other, the makes of gun they each have, how fast the bullets fly, and what the impact will be at that distance. In contrast, when Homer describes a battle, he will say that one warrior threw a very large rock at another, but not how big the rock was, what shape, how far, how high it had to be lifted, whether uphill or downhill, how big the men were. The same vagueness is found in any description of action before about 1830. In the older narratives action took place in “heroic” or mythic space; now, they have to take place in “realistic” space. Everything that Twain criticizes in Cooper can be seen in narratives of action before 1800; the difference is that Cooper, in daring to specify lengths, distances, and times, is pretending to observe natural laws while flouting them. Cooper’s problem is that he falls between old and new, and fails by both mythic and realistic standards. 

   I don’t know when or how the new standards entered literature, but certainly the habit of spatial accuracy was already a feature of Balzac’s treatment of the city and of houses; he did not write much about the countryside. With country landscapes, in particular the wilderness, I suspect the groundbreakers would have been the German Romantics and all those they influenced, including American writers like Charles Brockden Brown. However it developed, this shift in the handling of landscape signified a revolution in the conception of a human being: how we relate to a landscape, how we situate ourselves within a land, tells us what we think about human nature — are we “above” nature, or bound and trapped by it, or are we partners of some kind? There is an analogous revolution in mathematics, when Copernicus turned the Ptolemy’s geocentric planetary model inside out. For Ptolemy, the path of each planet could be rigorously worked out and rendered predictable in relation to the sun — but not in relation to each other. There was no unifying device to make the paths of the planets commensurable; this was partly because Ptolemy was interested in the apparent path of each planet across the sky, not in orbits — and partly because as a polytheist he was fine with the picture of a bunch of different gods with different personalities and agendas, all in tension with one another but not reducible to one scheme. Copernicus on the other hand finds a way to make the radii of the orbits commensurable, so that now the planets all move in one system with sun as center, and the relations between them can be articulated. Accuracy now is based on a unification of spatial relations. In 1845, with regard to narrative, Fenimore Cooper found himself making gestures towards unity of space but unable to understand what that would mean in terms of action in that space.

   Tolkien tends not to calibrate in terms of feet and inches, but on the whole he sees his topographies with uncanny precision. When he lapses, it tends to be in his accounts of heroic warfare, in which his interest has a de rigueur, desultory quality and teeters towards bombast and vagueness:

A broad stairway, climbed from the Deep up to the Rock and the rear-gate of the Hornburg. Near the bottom stood Aragorn. In his hand still Andúril gleamed, and the terror of the sword for a while held back the enemy, as one by one all who could gain the stair passed up towards the gate. Behind on the upper steps knelt Legolas. His bow was bent, but one gleaned arrow was all that he had left, and he peered out now, ready to shoot the first Orc that should dare to approach the stair.

‘All who can have now got safe within, Aragorn,’ he called. ‘Come back!’

Aragorn turned and sped up the stair; but as he ran he stumbled in his weariness. At once his enemies leapt forward. Up came the Orcs, yelling, with their long arms stretched out to seize him. The foremost fell with Legolas’ last arrow in his throat. but the rest sprang over him. Then a great boulder, cast from the outer wall above, crashed down upon the stair, and hurled them back into the Deep. Aragorn gained the door, and swiftly it clanged to behind him. (143)

How long is this stair, how far “behind” is Legolas, how far away are the Orcs and where are they hiding, how many are there, why is no one else ready with a covering arrow, would Orcs seriously be running “with their long arms stretched out to seize him” (like the pursuing monsters in a Scooby-Doo cartoon), how big is the great boulder, what is it doing on the outer wall above, does it come crashing down the stairs or just drop onto the Orcs, how many Orcs again…?  This lack of specificity is characteristic of Tolkien’s combat scenes and is redolent of the old “heroic” manner of describing action. 

  However, he is intensely interested in descriptions of journeying, and in these he has two modes, a warrior-mode and a hobbit-mode. The first is sweeping, covering wide expanses both physically and visually.

All day the track of their enemies led straight on, going north-west without a break or turn. As once again the day wore to its end they came to long treeless slopes, where the land rose, swelling up towards a line of low humpbacked downs ahead. The orc-trail grew fainter as it bent north towards them, for the ground became harder and the grass shorter. Far away to the left the river Entwash wound, a silver thread in a green floor. No moving thing could be seen. Often Aragorn wondered that they saw no sign of beast or man. The dwellings of the Rohirrim were for the most part many leagues away to the South, under the wooded eaves of the White Mountains, now hidden in mist and cloud; yet the Horse-lords had formerly kept many herds and studs in the Eastemnet, this easterly region of their realm, and there the herdsmen had wandered much, living in camp and tent, even in winter-time. But now all the land was empty, and there was silence that did not seem to be the quiet of peace.

At dusk they halted again. Now twice twelve leagues they had passed over the plains of Rohan and the wall of the Emyn Muil was lost in the shadows of the East. (29)

Apart from “the ground became harder and the grass shorter,” the dominant impression is of a soaring view of the land, of huge distances covered and eyes roaming far and wide. Among the greatest pleasures of Tolkien are the maps — as engrossing as the fold-out maps in old tomes of history or exploration, but doubly delightful because they conjure up a complete imaginary world, full of corners and possibilities,  which Tolkien holds in his head. This mode of topographical description evokes a whole map, where features of the landscape are seen from heights. The detail of the “wooded eaves of the White Mountains” being “now hidden from mist and cloud” is brilliantly evocative because it summons up not what is seen but what is known to be there: thus the world exists, regardless of what we happen to see. The maps reassure us of that. Moreover we are reminded of the history of places through the absence of the herds and herdsmen. The heroic landscape is brought into being by an aerial view with long range of vision, which in turn evokes things known but not seen — for this landscape is complete, full of known significances, a world worthy of being defended. Warriors “pass over” this land, constantly seeking heights:

The others sprang up, and almost at once they set off again. Slowly the downs drew near. It was still an hour before noon when they reached them: green slopes rising to bare ridges that ran in a line straight towards the North. At their feet the ground was dry and the turf short, but a long strip of sunken land, some ten miles wide, lay between them and the river wandering deep in dim thickets of reed and rush. Just to the West of the southernmost slope there was a great ring, where the turf had been torn and beaten by many trampling feet. From it the orc-trail ran out again, turning north along the dry skirts of the hills. Aragorn halted and examined the tracks closely.

‘They rested here a while,’ he said, ‘but even the outward trail is already old. I fear that your heart spoke truly, Legolas: it is thrice twelve hours, I guess, since the Orcs stood where we now stand. If they held to their pace, then at sundown yesterday they would reach the borders of Fangorn.’

‘I can see nothing away north or west but grass dwindling into mist,’ said Gimli. ‘Could we see the forest, if we climbed the hills?’ (30)

The maps in Tolkien present the substratum of a world that underlies and supports any particular experience in it. Aragorn stares at trampled turf and earth, but from this he infers numbers, times, distances, and directions. In a world, everything has location; and everything in motion has a direction. It is the stranger here, Gimli, who is trapped in the realm of what can be seen: ‘I can see nothing away north or west but grass dwindling into mist,’ said Gimli. ‘Could we see the forest, if we climbed the hills?’

   The second mode of description is characterized by a sense of confinement in the immediate realm of the senses. The map exists somewhere, but for us it has been lost. It is like losing our way in a familiar forest because we took an unaccustomed turn somewhere and now can recognize none of the old landmarks. Presumed knowledge starts to dissolve, and we are uncomfortably thrown back onto the little that our senses can perceive. We guess at where things might be, go around in circles, and often have to go back — and each step of the way the going is difficult, never soaring.

It was the third evening since they had fled from the Company, as far as they could tell: they had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before. Yet on the whole they had worked steadily eastward, keeping as near as they could find a way to the outer edge of this strange twisted knot of hills. But always they found its outward faces sheer, high and impassable, frowning over the plain below; beyond its tumbled skirts lay livid festering marshes where nothing moved and not even a bird was to be seen.

The hobbits stood now on the brink of a tall cliff, bare and bleak, its feet wrapped in mist; and behind them rose the broken highlands crowned with drifting cloud. A chill wind` blew from the East. Night was gathering over the shapeless lands before them; the sickly green of them was fading to a sullen brown. Far away to the right the Anduin, that had gleamed fitfully in sun-breaks during the day, was now hidden in shadow. But their eyes did not look beyond the River, back to Gondor, to their friends, to the lands of Men. South and east they stared to where, at the edge of the oncoming night, a dark line hung, like distant mountains of motionless smoke. (209)

It takes smaller creatures than traditional heroes to experience the landscape like this: nothing is easy, and the way is crowded with obstructions. Notice how much more alive Tolkien’s writing is in these passages than in the descriptions of heroic action. If you read it aloud carefully, you will notice a perfection in his control of cadence — for example, in the last sentence hear how “South and east they stared to” is in trochaic meter that shades to dactylic “where at the edge of the oncoming night” (or anapestic, depending on how you take the pivot where) before stabilizing into a classical iambic tetrameter “a dark line hung, like distant mountains of motionless smoke.” These sentences sing. As before, the precision of the narrative perception here depends on what is not seen: the Anduin is “hidden in shadow,” the hobbits do not look back to Gondor, and the powers of vision are bounded by “the oncoming night.” A dark line hung, like distant mountains of motionless smoke is a potently concise evocation of what lies ahead of them.

   The hobbits’ journey is stubborn struggle and ceaseless exhaustion. In the following passage, what Frodo and Sam go through is probably like something we have all experienced, possibly in the rocky hills near our own homes:

But that day wore on, and when afternoon faded towards evening they were still scrambling along the ridge and had found no way of escape.

Sometimes in the silence of that barren country they fancied that they heard faint sounds behind them, a stone falling, or the imagined step of flapping feet on the rock. But if they halted and stood still listening, they heard no more, nothing but the wind sighing over the edges of the stones – yet even that reminded them of breath softly hissing through sharp teeth.

All that day the outer ridge of the Emyn Muil had been bending gradually northward, as they struggled on. Along its brink there now stretched a wide tumbled flat of scored and weathered rock, cut every now and again by trench-like gullies that sloped steeply down to deep notches in the cliff-face. To find a path in these clefts, which were becoming deeper and more frequent, Frodo and Sam were driven to their left, well away from the edge, and they did not notice that for several miles they had been going slowly but steadily downhill: the cliff-top was sinking towards the level of the lowlands.

At last they were brought to a halt. The ridge took a sharper bend northward and was gashed by a deeper ravine. On the further side it reared up again, many fathoms at a single leap: a great grey cliff loomed before them, cut sheer down as if by a knife stroke. They could go no further forwards, and must turn now either west or east. But west would lead them only into more labour and delay, back towards the heart of the hills; east would take them to the outer precipice.

`There’s nothing for it but to scramble down this gully, Sam,’ said Frodo. `Let’s see what it leads to!’ (211)

Passages like this need to be read slowly if we are to feel the journey. Too often, under the compulsion of plot, we speed through them and do not notice how carefully, how beautifully, Tolkien brings terrain to life. We do not wander across a map, but across a land — which is a being of cliffs and gullies, not lines and white spaces. The hobbits’ adventure is through and in a landscape, not over it. In this respect Tolkien surpasses most other writers, because his world is not just a map but a terrain with a life of its own. He is like the Japanese poet Basho, who, in travel journals much shorter than any book by Tolkien, lovingly renders not just the high points of a journey but also the hardships, agonies, aches, and sicknesses — all of which are essential constituents of any adventure or pilgrimage. They make up what it is for a fragile mortal body to move through a landscape — and to love travel, one must also love its frustrations, obstacles, fatigue, and discomfort. It is not simply that the struggling of the hobbits have to be described to make the adventure more realistic; they are not just a literary device for creating plausibility. Rather, the slow progress over rocks, and the decisions made in fatigue, are of the very essence of the journey. This is why Tolkien is so minutely interested not just in where the hobbits go but how they think about where they go: They could go no further forwards, and must turn now either west or east. But west would lead them only into more labour and delay, back towards the heart of the hills; east would take them to the outer precipice.

   Sometimes I find myself wondering if the Lord of the Rings would be a better book if I put the plot on the back burner and concentrated more on what to me are the real beauties of the book. It is like hiking with small kids: you can spend a whole day and get no further than a hundred yards, because they want to stop and look at things, like rocks, streams, and insects. And when we stop with them and witness how spectacularly individual each pebble is, how no two slopes are the same, how the breeze on our faces is subtly different in different spots on the same stream bank, is it not a richer experience than marching to a destination? Some books blossom when read like this. 



One thought on “The Art of Writing Terrain

  1. Krishnan,

    That is why you are the teacher and Master!

    That is why literary writing or literature is an art and a talent like the composing of classical music. You do not want the reader to be ‘lost’ in the details but the narration must also not be out of key or out of tune with the story line or the sense of emotion, urgency, time and space and the suspense and unpredictability of the chase or plot or outcome – the reader must be baited and enticed and remain enthralled and hooked line and sinker!

    I enjoyed it.


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