Monday, July 29, 2013

Sample Conference-length Paper: Searching the Hoard in _Words like Coins_

Students, please find below a sample of the kind of conference-length paper discussed here.  It derives from the paper proposal assigned earlier in the Summer 2013 term at TCI, working to meet the proposed goals of the project outlined therein.  Accordingly, some of the material in this piece will be familiar to those who have read the previous.

Please note that, as with other examples posted to this blog, the formatting is medium-specific.  The content and pattern are offered as models; the formatting needs to conform to the class standards expressed as "General Paper Formatting Instructions 20130211" here.  When it is formatted appropriately for submission as a paper, it comes out to some six and a half pages, on the shorter end of acceptable length for the assignment.

Note also that it does not use all of the sources suggested as potentially viable in the annotated bibliography composed in support of the research project.  It is frequently the case that not all the information available finds its way into the text--but it is far better to have the information available than not.

An increasing amount of scholarly attention is being paid to fantasy literature, which may be defined as that literature relying upon the enactment of personal will in defiance of the normal constraints of reality, typically through ritual (Elliott, "Manifestations" 2-4).  The most notable work of fantasy literature is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which is abundant on bookstore shelves and enjoyed great commercial success and broad cultural attention in movie form.  Tolkien is far from the only author in the genre, however, and although there are many writers of poor quality who publish fantasy, many others produce works that bear literary critique and analysis no less than the works traditionally valued as part of the literary canon.

One such author is Robin Hobb, whose works are beginning to attract attention by literary scholars.  Much of her fantasy writing depicts a milieu containing the Six Duchies, a fictive kingdom very much in the Tolkienan tradition.  In addition to the novels of the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, which comprise the bulk of the Six Duchies material, she has set several short stories and other works in that fictional nation.  One of them, the novella Words like Coins, serves as a commentary on the craft of writing, noting the perils in sloppiness of language.

The importance of words in the text is signaled in the title itself.  The simile links words--utterances both verbal in encoded in visual symbols--to currency.  Words are thereby equated with money, linked with the primary means of access to material sustenance both within the text and for the early twenty-first century readers of that text.  Accordingly, they are established from the outset as things to be valued, and it follows that if words are to be valued, they are to be treated with care.  They are to be prized, not treated sloppily, an attitude reflecting that expressed by Strunk and White in their seminal work The Elements of Style.  White notes in his introduction to the text that it is in its origin a "summation of the case for cleanness, accuracy, and brevity" in writing (xiii), which tends toward precision and away from sloppiness.  Too, Strunk and White emphasize clarity, explicitly bidding writers to "Be clear" and remarking both that "clarity can only be a virtue" and that "Muddiness [the opposite of clarity] is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope" (79).  While it may be couched in hyperbole, the basic idea is one valued by many writers.  Clarity, the manifestation of precision in the encapsulation of ideas by language, is desirable, and its lack is perilous to writing.  In constructing the simile of her novella's title, Hobb indicates that the text will address the attitude Strunk and White express, both that precision is a boon and its lack a bane.

The attitude is carried on throughout the text.  Lack of precision in the use of language is repeatedly presented badly in the novella.  An early example comes in an exchange between the protagonist, Mirrifen, and a subordinate character, Jami.  The latter, a young, pregnant woman, has asked Mirrifen for a particular favor relating to Mirrifen's training as a hedge-witch.  In Hobb's Six Duchies, hedge-witches are makers of charms and other minor magical items that produce specific effects; Mirrifen had been apprenticed to a drunkard of a hedge-witch, from whom she was able to learn "how much water to mix with her rum" and "six different places to hide from her when she was drunk" rather than the mysteries of art that were supposed to have become hers.  She also learned a cautionary tale regarding the kind of request Jami makes of her, a sleep charm, and she relates it to Jami; a hedge-witch sought to make a sleep charm for herself, succeeding and consequently sleeping so long and so deeply that she died of starvation before being able to wake again.  Jami, who had asked for the charm as a sleep aid in her late pregnancy, reacts badly to the story, shuddering and calling it "'A pleasant tale to sleep on!'"  The reaction to the story and the story itself attest to the negative effects attendant on a lack of consideration for usage.  Jami's reaction suggests an unintended consequence of Mirrifen's story; told initially to explain refusal to comply, the story instead provokes a fear reaction that inhibits the sleep Jami had sought.  The story itself implies that the lack of concern for the outcomes of language--and the system of symbols Hobb's hedge-witches deploy in their charms is very much a language, as Mirrifen repeatedly notes reading specific ideograms in them--can have potentially fatal results.  Both therefore serve as an indictment of sloppy usage.

Other chastisements of sloppy language are more explicit.  At one point in the novella, Mirrifen falls asleep when she is supposed to be guarding a well.  When asked by a pecksie--a fairy-like creature repeatedly noted, if rarely depicted, in Hobb's Six Duchies--what she was doing, Mirrifen replies that she is guarding, prompting the pecksie to exclaim "with disdain.  'You not guard.  You sleep!'"  The lie, an imprecision, is reproved, marking such statements as undesirable.  It is not the only erroneous use the pecksie chastises.  For the pecksie had been the beneficiary of an attempt by Mirrifen to craft a charm against fever--one that was in need of correction, as the pecksie notes with seeming aspersion to Mirrifen, stating that it "Worked.  Just not as good as it could.  Lucky for me, it not do harm" [sic].  Also, as the conversation continues, the pecksie adds (in an authorial reference back to the novella's title) "Words are like coins.  To spend carefully, as they are needed only.  Not to scatter."  A later comment in the conversation between Mirrifen and the pecksie finds the latter ominously asserting that "Careless words are dangerous.  To all."  Here, again, Hobb echoes Strunk and White, who offer writers such advice as "Do not overwrite" (72), "Do not overstate" (73), and "Avoid the use of qualifiers" (73).  When, later, Mirrifen complains of pecksie actions taken in response to her own stated desires, the pecksie replies "You spent the words, and this is what they bought you" returning to the currency comparison and reasserting the peril of poor usage by connecting it to results not wanted or intended.  Linguistic precision and frugality are repeatedly emphasized by the pecksie, and their lack repudiated.  The fact of the repetition, occurring fairly often in a relatively short text, foregrounds in the text of Hobb's novella the idea that sloppiness in language is to be repudiated, suggesting that it is a key discourse of the text.

Hobb's pecksies themselves are much concerned with the effects of language, and therefore with its exactitude.  In discussions with Jami, who fears and loathes the pecksies for much of the novella, Mirrifen learns the power that words have over the pecksies.  Jami notes that pecksies become bound to those from whom they accept assistance, becoming obliged to perform the actions they are bidden by those people.  Jami reinforces the idea, stating explicitly that "Words bind pecksies," an idea that does much to explain the frequency with which the pecksie known to Mirrifen berates those who are sloppy in their usage; as happens in the novella--for Mirrifen had aided the pecksie with whom she speaks before speaking with Jami about pecksies--sloppy wording results in sloppy binding.  While any binding of a sentient being is likely to be objectionable, an inadvertent and careless one is particularly loathsome in its display of lack of concern for the rights of other thinking beings.  And Jami, continuing her conversation with Mirrifen, comments on the need to target commands issued to bound pecksies--and on the potential effects of not targeting them:
You can't just say, 'wash the dishes' or they'll wash the dishes all day long.  You have to say, 'wash the dirty dishes until they're clean, wipe the dishes until they're dry, and then put them in the cupboard.'  They do exactly what you say.  So when my mother told them 'Go away!' they had to go and keep going.  Forever.  Because no one ever gets to 'away', do they?  They had to keep walking until they dropped dead in their tracks. [sic]
The pecksies are themselves aware of such dangers.  The pecksie bound to Mirrifen flatly asks if Mirrifen will issue her the fatal command to "Go away!" and exhibits displeasure at what she perceives as an insulting and ill-considered command.  For pecksies, an accidental word or phrase can result in horrific consequences; a deliberately hateful one can kill off whole families.  They are therefore at pains to ensure that their utterances are exacting, giving no more than is necessary to be clear so as to minimize the possibility of unintended consequences.  Their demonstrated attention to precision in language, their repeated avoidance of sloppiness in it, highlights the perils attendant upon not taking care with utterances--something particularly true for those whose lives depend on the ways words work.

The primary textual example through which Hobb imparts the notion that inattention to the specifics of language use is a danger is in the birth of Jami's child.  That the danger proceeds from inattention to the details of usage is made obvious well in advance of the peril presenting itself; at Jami's request, Mirrifen attempts to make a charm to keep the pecksies out of the room in which Jami is to give birth.  As she does so, however, she realizes the limits of her understanding, but arrogantly pushes on anyway.  Hobb writes of Mirrifen that "She didn't know the charm symbol for 'pecksie.'  No matter.  She knew 'person' and 'small' and the warding words that prevented creatures from passing through.  Those would work well enough."  Mirrifen recognizes her incapacity, her lack of specific understanding, yet proceeds ahead with magic she knows from experience to be potentially dangerous, as her early comments about the sleep-charm-slain hedge-witch indicate.  She also knows that, in matters involving pecksies, specificity of language is of overriding importance; both Jami and the pecksie bound to Mirrifen repeatedly emphasize the point.  That Mirrifen disregards both concerns, and fairly blithely, does much to indicate that danger resulting from sloppy language is forthcoming.
That danger manifests in short order.  Birth is always perilous in a milieu such as that of the Six Duchies.  As remarked upon earlier, Hobb's fantasy kingdom is one very much in the Tolkienan tradition, which means that it is "loosely evocative of romanticized notions of Continental Europe in the High Middle Ages" (Elliott, "Divergent" 1).  The medieval period was hardly the height of obstetric practice, and even in glossed-over, sanitized versions of such narratives, mothers frequently die in childbirth--as do their children.  "Grittier" iterations of the Tolkienan tradition--such as the main line of Hobb's Six Duchies narratives--imply even more risk of death in childbirth.  Mirrifen is well aware of the already-existing potential risk; she "longed for the birth [of Jami's child] as much as she dreaded it....the closest midwife was a half-day's walk away," suggesting the danger in the event and the lack of access to convenient help for it.  The inherent risks of childbirth contribute to the sense of foreboding that Mirrifen's overconfidence fosters, making it no surprise that Jami's accouchement goes as it does.

How it goes is poorly, and all as a result of Mirrifen's lack of specificity.  Jami's delivery is long and arduous; it lasts from near dawn well into the night, wracking Jami's body without ceasing for hours on end without producing the child.  Mirrifen realizes that the delivery has gone dangerously, fatally wrong, leaving Jami weakened almost to the point of death by exhaustion, noting at length that "Jamie [sic] would die, painfully, the child dying within her."  The pecksies eventually are able to intervene, and their own skills leave Mirrifen deep in slumber--and Jami and her child alive and well.  The pecksie bound to Mirrifen notes that it was Mirrifen's charm that had held the baby--a "small person"--inside of Jami before the pecksies could intervene, and Mirrifen realizes that it was through her lack of specificity in language that the near-fatality of the delivery came to be.  It is through sloppy usage that Jami's child is imperiled, and as a direct result of it, Jami is herself imperiled.  Two lives are risked through an arrogant misuse of systems of symbols, making such misuse, such inattention to the details of language, something Hobb uses the novella to argue is very much to be avoided.

For a writer to be concerned with language is to be expected; language is the means through which writers seek to sustain themselves, so that words are very much like coins for them.  That Hobb's novella is preoccupied with pointing out the perils in poor use of language, then, is accordant with her identity as a writer.  Even for those who do not identify as writers, however, the message that exactitude in language is desirable is worth noting.  Those who have had to handle legally binding documents such as contracts and the texts of laws can easily be made aware of what dangers lurk in unclear wording and phrasing.  Those who have been given directions know that precision in them is vitally important.  And for all people, attention to the details of words is of a piece with attention to the details of all things.  In such attention is mastery, and in its lack, a path to potential ruin.

Works Cited
~Elliott, Geoffrey B. "A Divergent Medievalism in Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies." 2013. TS.
~---."Manifestations of English Arthurian Legend in the Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies of Robin Hobb." MA thesis. U of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2007. Print.
~Hobb, Robin. Words like Coins. Burton, MI: Subterranean P, 2012. E-book.
~Strunk, William, Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Pearson, 2009. Print.

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