Wednesday, 5 March 2008

By my faith, but you're a bold rascal!

This is Sir Tristram speaking in that great book, Le Morte d’Arthur, finished in 1469 by Sir Thomas Malory:

‘And fair knight, and well proved knight, thou shalt well wit I may not forsake thee in this quarrel, for I am for thy sake made and gotten upon a queen; and such promise I have made at my uncle’s request and mine own seeking that I shall fight with thee unto the uttermost, and deliver Cornwall from the old truage.’

Beautiful; but would a book set in the Middle Ages (or an alternative Middle Ages, as mine are) get away with its characters talking like this? I think the reader would find it hard going. I took the decision to have my characters speak in contemporary language, and sometimes get told off for it. Some readers want what they are used to from films and historical romances; a sort of pastiche, which bears little resemblance to the language used by Malory or Chaucer, but which they feel comfortable with. It's no more authentic than modern speech, of course.

I had a go at writing a bit:

‘Prithee, fair maid…’

‘Unhand me, my lord! Fie, for shame, I am promised to another, as well you know!’

‘Nay, lady, be not so intemperate. What lies, I wonder, beneath that haughty mien? Perchance you are not as cold as you seem…’

‘Sir, if this be jest tis an unseemly one! Take care; my brother rides hither apace, and will wreak vengeance for any affront.’

Hey, that was easy – I wonder if there’s a market for a medieval bodice-ripper?

N.B. I'm sure you all recognized the title as a quote from the Errol Flynn Robin Hood of 1938.


  1. Hi Lexi!

    A week or so ago, the wonderful ladies at the Edittorrent blog had a long discussion about dialect (including medieval). Totally worth checking out (along with the rest of their brilliant blog).

    The gist of their point is that you don't want a reader to have to translate while reading, because it breaks the pacing. Certain terms can be injected into reader-friendly dialogue, and word order (Yoda-isms?) can be adjusted to make phrasing sound more authentic without actually being authentic, ya know?


  2. Ian, I've nipped over to Edittorrent and read the dialect post and comments you refer to. Interesting.

    It confirms my idea that it's difficult to write what will pass for plausible Medieval dialogue without being terribly clichéd; but it's impossible to write it authentically and retain your readers.

    Thank goodness I write about a fantasy Middle Ages, where I can please myself.

  3. Just wanted to say that I agree with what you've both said. Makes for interesting thinking, doesn't it?


  4. Yes. If one travelled back in time, it would be highly frustrating. You wouldn't be able to understand half what they were saying.

    And Latin was the universal language, understood by the educated of all nations, wasn't it?

    No help to most of us...