Thoughts on old writing

Three poems now in my writing workshop class have prompted the teacher to say: Writing in an old style, using words like “awry” and “vixen”, writing about old subjects (courtly love, chivalry, witches’ curses), these things are out of date. You have to ask why you’re writing about them or in their style. Is it because you like something about some previous era? Then it’s escapism. Why should you try to bring archaic words or themes like chivalry to a modern audience? You make your readers work to understand what you’re saying or what you mean, he says, as if that’s a bad thing. And the old ideas don’t reflect our times. (Which makes me want to give him Pendragon’s Heir, because if there ever was a book set entirely in the past, and faithful to the time portrayed, yet still good for people living today, that’s it.)

All three times he’s said this I haven’t challenged him, because everything in that paragraph is so wrong I don’t know where to start. I could start with the problem with Postmodernism, but it is after all a writing class, not Philosophy. (But proof that Philosophy is not some useless theoretical thing for wise men in ivory towers, but terribly practical.)

I have some half-formed thoughts on the subject. A quote from Pendragon’s Heir comes to mind, in which Blanchefleur tells Mordred that the laws of Sarras “Tell us not to burn down a house before a better can be built. Tell us not to despise the day of small beginnings, or consider ourselves less fallible than our fathers.”

I could also say that we shouldn’t scorn writing or stories that are hard to understand, because what’s challenging makes us grow, and if we stay in our comfort zones with only the words and idioms and ideas of the day we will never learn. That we build on the foundation the writers before us have laid, and if we kick away that foundation, we fall. That there’s much to learn from old writing. That stories like the Iliad, or Le Morte D’Arthur, have survived to this day because there is something universal in them. That they contain great ideas and are written in noble language, which are things worthy of preserving. That when a culture loses its literature, in many ways it loses its civilization; or at least the loss of books is a sign of the culture no longer valuing what it should, and thus a sign of the culture being far on its way down.

As a writer of historical fiction, I can object to such ideas on the grounds of what it would mean for the genre. If the logical conclusion were not simply to abandon historical fiction entirely, it would result in writing historical fiction imbued, not with the ideas of the time and place it’s set in, but of our own. Which is not only to paint a dishonest picture of the time, but a bad way of presenting current ideas.

I haven’t spoken yet. But I want to have something ready to say, so that when he says these things again, I am able to succinctly and convincingly defend my art.

It would be easy to think of others. What have you to add? (Or subtract, if you like.)


About Nolie Alcarturiel

Creative Writing major and Philosophy minor, contemplating a Master's degree in Medieval History. I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon Era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
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