I’d like to discuss with my readers the role of cursing/foul language/swear words in fantasy fiction. I really don’t want to address it generally, as others more qualified than I have done so, and I believe that for other genres, this area is murkier. I know that this is really a matter of personal tolerance for the words or personal preference, but what I would like to do is state my thoughts, explain why I feel this way, and garner your comments on the subject. I’ll admit at the beginning that I am conflicted about this. I have certain Christian beliefs, and a lot of this stems from my inner conflict over enjoying fantasy books that use swearing, but that are otherwise well-written, such as the recently released books by Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself (my review), or The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller.
Let me first say that I know that different people have different tolerances, and that the author has the right, nay the duty, to write as he wants and for his target audience. However, there will always be that person in the audience (i.e., me) uncomfortable with certain words or phrases. For purposes of this post, I will use the first letter or letter and asterisks to denote certain words. (I don’t want the crawlers to pick it up.)
I love fantasy fiction. I have loved it since I was very young and I picked up that first Arthurian fantasy. From there I progressed to epic fantasy, into science fiction, dabbled in some urban fantasy, and have settled on epic and sword and sorcery as my favorite types. Most of the time, these books contain little to no foul language of any kind, not even fanciful, made-up words.
Foul language/swear words and curses are different to my mind. Curses are usually the taking of a god’s name in vain. Curses I see as creative parts of world-building, and are usually in the case of made-up deities. (Forgotten Realms readers will be familiar with curses about Tymora or Mystra.) Neil Gaiman even used this to clever effect in American Gods by having the gods curse on themselves. So, to me, it is acceptable to use a fake deity’s name in vain. This makes sense for an author to do, since some young readers will read these books, and parents will ignore deity curses (other than those of real religions) where they would not ignore d*n or f*k. My belief is that taking a false god’s name in vain allows the author the freedom to come up with creative curses without causing offense. The only line crossing I see between this and swearing is when words like “teats” or other body parts are used.
Swearing, using words like d*n and f*k or b*ch, and c*nt, are offensive to me as a reader. I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I am a Christian, and so my worldview on right and wrong stems from that. But I also like to think of myself as a postmodernist, willing to accept that my values are not necessarily the values of others. I say this only show that while I am a Christian, and there are certain elements within Christianity that read the Ten Commandments and the Bible to include curses and swearing as sins, I view this differently. I understand that the actual words used change from culture to culture and that it is the intent that should be judged not the particular words. Simply put, I believe that cursing and swearing are wrong in their purpose, although I have no problem with the actual words.
However, I have grown up in a Judeo-Christian, Western culture, as most native English speakers have. So within our culture, we have specific words designed to evoke swearing, such as those listed above. I dislike these not for the words themselves, but their intent and the fact that they are in fact our culture’s foul language/swear words. If I were in a different time and place, different words might be offensive to me, but I live now, so I am addressing those words which are used for swearing now.
All right, now let’s move back into why I don’t like swear words/foul language in fantasy fiction in particular.
My primary reason is simple. Because of my background and beliefs, I am often jarred out of enjoyment of a book by particular swear words. While I can gloss over d*n and even b*ch, (I have been known to use those words in anger myself before, something I regret) I am always jarred out of my reading by the word f*k or c*t or some of the less common swear words. Other people might be jarred out of their reading by the words I gloss over. This, I think, is a result of rearing and personality. By jarring I mean that I will be in the flow of the story, and then be thrust back into the real world by the use of a very real and very modern swear word. Fantasy fiction, to me, especially epic or sword and sorcery style fantasy, is about creating another world, one that, while relevant to the culture in which it is published, is also otherworldly and something apart. Good may not always triumph, but the writer is able to tell his story without thrusting me back into the real world. I like to escape, and words that are quintessentially modern prevent that. This true even of non-swear words, but usually only when they come out in the conversation of characters.
My secondary reason is also simple. Young children do read books intended for adults, not matter what categorization or separation we provide to delineate them. Classifications of adult or young adult or children are useful for categorizing, but provide no protection for young minds. I began reading adult fiction at a very young age. (Probably third grade or so.) I had exhausted the children’s fiction, and much of it was babyish and little of it was fantasy. Therefore, I began reading books with very adult themes that I could easily check out at the library. I remember reading The King of YS by Poul Anderson, a story wherein a man has many wives, and his own daughter tries to sleep with him. (Which is, I know, the exact same story as the one about Lot and his daughters from the Bible. I know the Bible is rife with these kinds of stories. However, I did not encounter them in my Children’s Bible, and only tackled them in my teens, after I had already encountered sexuality and swearing elsewhere.) I was probably about 10 years old. The sex scenes were descriptive and used the words we are talking about here. So in essence, I fear some other child doing as I did, and encountering words (and images) that should not be in their vocabulary, were not taught by their parents, and are rare in polite society.
Thirdly, I feel that it is just lazy of the author. If you can’t say it another way, you aren’t really trying very hard. Sometimes it is appropriate, especially in urban fantasy or some of the other subgenres. I can even accept it more so in science fiction since those worlds are built on our own, and we swear with certain words. But it lacks creativity in my opinion.
Sometimes a fantasy novel will use made-up words to denote swearing. Ed Greenwood uses the word “tluin” as a swear word in the Forgotten Realms setting. In all honesty, I am conflicted about this. As an adult reader, I don’t have a problem, I can even think of it as creative, but if I heard a child of mine say it, what would I likely do? Probably punish him, since it is the intent I am punishing not the word itself. I’m reminded of the Friends episode where Ross and Monica made up arm gestures for the bird to try and fool their parents. Parents aren’t stupid, and if it were my kid, I would have caught on and punished the child for the intent, no matter the gesture or word. So should fantasy writers make up swear words? Truth is, I don’t know. I guess I can’t have it both ways. I can’t commend them for creative cursing and then condemn them for creative swearing.
There is another caveat. What if you are writing a book where the characters need to swear as part of their culture? Well, I think that’s okay, and the urban fantasy subgenre is likely to do so. Urban fantasy combines the elements of contemporary fiction and standard Tolkienesque fantasy together. As a result, some characters are likely to swear, if the come from our modern era. That just makes sense. Overuse of swear words is unnecessary and the author will have to determine to what extent he can or should, but I can see why it is used.
Do I think a fantasy story should have no swearing in it? Yes, except in certain subgenres. Do I think it ruins the story completely? No, I can still enjoy it, but I don’t like the occasional jarring that occurs. Does my Christianity affect this? Yes, I’d be a liar if I didn’t say so. Am I something of a prude? Well, yes, most people would think so. But I still would like to think that my reasons are reasonable and something others not of my faith might agree with.
In all honesty though, I’m conflicted. It’s such a grey area, especially where an art like writing is concerned. Please do not think that I am saying a book is bad because of the use of swearing and/or foul language. There are many other factors that come into play in assessing a book, and this is just one of them, but to me it is one worth study.
Do any of ya’ll have an opinion?