While checking some things to do a presentation and to finish off the new series I have been trying to focus on for weeks, I came upon this little bit of interesting information that kind of made me wonder why no one ever tried to implement it. The whole post, thus, will be about reading and writing… in your fantasy world.
What makes the fantasy genre so special is the whole new world feeling. Thousands of writers have focused for decades, even before Tolkien, to create new languages and alphabets. It is just fascinating to try to understand the psyche of your characters through how they write. But then, as far as I have read, I have never seen anyone mention an important factor that defines cultures when it goes to writing and reading; especially reading!
If someone checks out really old documents of the roman era, he will discover that these documents lack of something seemingly basic, which for our modern society is obvious: spaces, punctuation marks, capital letters, etc. This is because they were not necessary: reading had a totally different function. Let us first do a little experiment. Read the following text I just randomly created:
The following example is not impossible to read. It will just take a little more to understand, since you will have to create your sentences as you read. This scripta continua, or just continuous writing, forces you to read slowly, to interpret the text word by word, so you can find the limits of each idea and sentence.
Monks writing in the Middle ages. Notice how there are different functions whe it comes to writing.
This is not a terrible idea. Back in the Roman Empire and in the Middle Ages reading was an oral act of community. Someone usually read a text aloud for everyone, so he had to be sure on how to pronounce the words and speak it correctly. Also, according to some studies, the continuous writing permits the reader to analyze and memorize the text while he decodes it. The aforementioned writing process is a slower one. The monks who copied and wrote texts in the medieval era had to go to a scriptorium, a room where they had a piece of furniture much similar to the one the artists use now for comics, so they could “draw” the book. Yes, you read exactly, the people in the Middle Ages did not write as we conceive it now, but rather drew and copied.
Punctuation and separation is an invention that found its genesis in Ireland, around the VIth-VIIIth centuries. They started to give order to the information. Later on, around the XIth centuries, indexes and other important helping tools were created to finally give the book the form we read it today.
Private and silent reading was invented. Before that, enunciation was extremely important, since it helped the reader to listen to himself and, thus, to separate the words easier. After the separations expanded all throughout Europe, reading out loud or even murmuring a text was not necessary anymore. This led to private reading, which was capable of creating heretics to the church – or science.
One last thing of importance is that the writing as we know it today permits an easier finding of a specific quote or piece of information one may need. Thus, the information stored can be found much easier, making the activity less a memorization act and more an information act. Scholasticism and Nominalism used the new systems to create better understanding of the theories available in that time period and people who did not read centuries before finally had an easier way to learn that skill. With the arrival of printing press, the final blow had been given to exclusive reading groups, making it easier to access information for much less money.
This raises the question: how do the people read in your culture? Is it still a deeply oralized culture that uses continuous writing or is the reading now easier? How do your characters relate to the reading? Is it harder for them because the page is scrambled all over with letters or are they curious about the separated words? Or do they just prefer to hear someone else reading the text for him? At the end, the characters could still be a man of memory and recite the epics he likes, ignoring totally the scripted word. This is now up to you, but the inclusion of this element could change the psychology of your heroes and villains.
Well, I hope this was a useful bit of information. I have still a bit to do for my new series of posts, but I hope this one at least helped the writers to thing about how the writing looks in your far away universes. As for now, I leave you pondering on that. Please comment and ask if you think something is missing.
May they smile upon your way!
For further reference:
Cavallo, Guglielmo & Roger Chartier [Editors](1997), Historia de la Lectura en el mundo occidental [History of Reading in the Western World].
Havelok, Erick (1996), La musa aprende a escribir [The muse learns to read].
Olson, David R. & Torrance, Nancy [Editors](1991), Cultura escrita y oralidad [Written Culture and orality].