Re: Paradise Lost: What an old book can teach about describing cool fantasy armaments

#1

Although you and I may be very different in our taste in genres and things we like, we probably have one thing in common: A taste for badass fantasy weapons.

I'll admit, I'm a sucker for cool swords, spears, and shields. Even more of one for a good description of one. So, here's what I'm going to do in this thread: I am going to show you how John Milton describes a spear and a shield, and I am going to talk about why I think they are effective and evocative descriptions of a badass weapon. I am also going to differentiate between a weapon that is plain badass and a weapon that is badass through description.

plain badass vs badass through description

Let's talk definitions here. By "plain badass" I mean a weapon that is cool simply from the concept. For example, a giant scythe that is also a gun is just plain badass. Even without a description it's a unique weapon. What I'm about to show you next, is a "weapon" (it's a shield) that is badass through description. Not every weapon can be plain badass, but every weapon can be badass through description. A weapon that is badass though description, imo, consists of a few things that we see in Milton's example: an initial description, a more detailed description (often with metaphor), and relation to the character wielding it. Note, I don't mean that all badass weapons do this, nor should they do it in this way. This is just what I find particularly effective about Milton's descriptions for myself, and hopefully they can help you too. 

Why these three criteria? Well, first, not every weapon should be badass, especially if the relationship to the character is not as relevant/important than other weapons they might later wield. "If everyone is super, then no one is." If you save the badass descriptions for the weapons that matter, then they come off as important to the story. The first sword your protagonist receives is probably not their coolest sword, or their most important. It's probably just a training weapon that was mass produced. Just tell us it's an iron sword and move on. Second, plain description is usually just there to tell us what the weapon actually is/give us a more grounded description. This can either be "this is a spear" or "this is a shield" or "this is a wooden spear" or "this is a wooden shield." Finally, the third criterion for a weapon that is badass through description is that they extrapolate upon the nature of the weapon itself. The narrative conception of time literally slows down to have you appreciate the weapon, because its badassery is so powerful that time but cannot help to stop and gaze at its majesty.

So, with all of this said, on to Milton. In the following passage, Satan (who has just been cast down to hell) is standing on a lake of pure darkness and Milton describes the armaments he bears. First, the shield, which is both badass through description and just plain badass, and his spear which is badass through description.

Paradise Lost, Book 1, LN. 283-296


Quote:the superior Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield,
Ethereal temper, massy, large, and round,
Behind him cast. The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening, from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,
Rivers, or mountains, in her spotty globe.
(End of Shield Description)
His spear — to equal which the tallest pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast
Of some great ammiral, were but a wand —
He walked with, to support uneasy steps
Over the burning marl....



The shield

Milton starts off with plainer description of the shield, and also the shield's relation to Satan. He tells us the shield is large, round, and heavy. He also tells as that it is upon Satan's back. This is a fine description, but what really makes the shield badass is that it is described beyond what is, strictly speaking, necessary for an image to be painted. It is here where the shield becomes badass through description

The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb

Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views

At evening, from the top of Fesole,

Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,
Rivers, or mountains, in her spotty globe.



Milton emphasizes how large and broad the circular shield is. It is almost literally like the moon, with its detailed etchings (this also tells us that the shield is a pale white and glows!) and spattering of hammerings from the meteors that crash into the moons surfaces. He is telling us it is battle-marred without telling us (straight-up) that it is battle-marred, but he also gives us room to imagine the what other etchings and patterns might be upon his glowing shield. The shield, rather than a minor detail, is brought to the center of the attention with a badass description. He could have just said the shield glowed, and was battle-marred, but this makes it more badass because he slows down time to give us really cool details about the shield.


The Spear
The spear, imo, is a little less badass. There's poetic significance to Milton's emphasis on the shield being like the moon, but I'm not going to go there right now. Still, I think it's a good example of a plain weapon (it's literally just a spear) made badass through description.

His spear — to equal which the tallest pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast
Of some great ammiral, were but a wand —
He walked with, to support uneasy steps
Over the burning marl....


So, immediately he tells us it's a spear. We all know what spears look like, so he doesn't feel the need to tell us if the tip is white, or if it glowed. It doesn't matter. It's a spear. It's wooden, and it has a pointy bit. What makes this spear badass is the metaphor by which Milton uses to give us an idea of the force and size of the thing. It is literally larger than the great mast of a ship (many times larger). So through this metaphor we also get an idea Satan's strength, as we understand how it is related to him as well (he is using it to hold himself up on the fiery lake of darkness, because he's been injured). So, despite battle injuries, the dude is literally carrying a spear larger than any mast of any ship or any trunk of any tree you have ever seem, and leaning on it. All three points of a badass description are there, and suddenly a plain-old spear is much cooler

To wrap up: I'm not saying you need to describe things in the same anachronistic language as Milton. But, what I am saying is that you can learn to slow down and emphasize the important weapons (and make them more badass) if you spend just a little bit more time describing them and how they physically relate to what the character is doing. 

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

Re: Paradise Lost: What an old book can teach about describing cool fantasy armaments

#3

Theo Wrote: Well, Milton himself was pretty badass. He railed against the government because of their censorship, and then wrote an epic poem that is celebrated as the greatest written work in the English language.

I love the analysis, and I think you're onto something. I will keep this in mind when writing about weapons in my stories.

Thanks!



Not to mention he was blinded, and continued to rail against the government while effectively writing the modern mind's backstory for the Christian narrative.

Paradise Lost is RIFE with excellent ideas expressed in narrative and poetic metaphor. The ten thousand spears gathered to hear Satan speak always stood out to me. Milton's description of sin, and her son, and how they came to be is so twisted it screams heavy metal.

For what it's worth, those looking to learn about how to describe weapons in epic terms without tempting the ridiculous should also look into The Iliad. Homer's middle and later books are full of feet in the mud verb phrases describing the mayhem outside the gates of Troy, particularly when Achilles is moved to wrath after the death of Patroclus.

Shameless self-plug here, but this topic is bang-on my target. Over the last five years I studied the epics and classics closely to dive into what makes a hero a hero, in classical terms. RE Howard, Milton, Homer, the unknown poet-authors of Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Hercules, Horus, Marthuuk, Arthur, Jason and a gang of others have been my teachers. If you want to see how it's expressed in a classic hero's tale, check out my fiction, The Trials of the Lion. It's a growing collection of heroic short fiction.

Re: Paradise Lost: What an old book can teach about describing cool fantasy armaments

#4

L.R. Wrote:
Theo Wrote: Well, Milton himself was pretty badass. He railed against the government because of their censorship, and then wrote an epic poem that is celebrated as the greatest written work in the English language.

I love the analysis, and I think you're onto something. I will keep this in mind when writing about weapons in my stories.

Thanks!



Not to mention he was blinded, and continued to rail against the government while effectively writing the modern mind's backstory for the Christian narrative.

Paradise Lost is RIFE with excellent ideas expressed in narrative and poetic metaphor. The ten thousand spears gathered to hear Satan speak always stood out to me. Milton's description of sin, and her son, and how they came to be is so twisted it screams heavy metal.

For what it's worth, those looking to learn about how to describe weapons in epic terms without tempting the ridiculous should also look into The Iliad. Homer's middle and later books are full of feet in the mud verb phrases describing the mayhem outside the gates of Troy, particularly when Achilles is moved to wrath after the death of Patroclus.


First, thanks for the positive response Theo.

L.R: Milton might be one of the coolest people to ever live. He was so weird, and so intelligent. Sin and her son made me react viscerally the first time I read it. It's definitely NOT safe for this forum, otherwise I would definitely share it here. 

I've added your book to me "read later" list. Also to shameless self-plug: You might like my book, if you like Milton. The prose is heavily-inspired by his. 

Re: Paradise Lost: What an old book can teach about describing cool fantasy armaments

#6
Milton does this quite a lot, if I recall. I don't remember the passage verbatim, but he describes Eve among the flowers in Eden, and herself, the fairest of them. He describes indirectly, basically, which is a neat way of describing the indescribable. Eve's beauty is beyond description, so he describes flowers instead and places her as superlative to them.

Re: Paradise Lost: What an old book can teach about describing cool fantasy armaments

#8
Absolutely amazing work, and I think you touch on a point that's universal to all kinds of story telling. I heard it described by comedians first and internalized it with that, but writers do it more often and more importantly: Specificity. 

You have to paint a detailed and descriptive portrait in your readers mind, and the more specific you get the more important it gets. In comedy, the more specific the situation the funnier. For weapons, the more specific the more badass. Etc. 

Re: Paradise Lost: What an old book can teach about describing cool fantasy armaments

#12

JMWebb Wrote: Honestly poetry has helped me so much. Can't agree more!



Though I'm no poet,
The classics have taught me much.
They live in my work.

I would never have believed it as a high school, or even undergraduate college student, but the classics have become inseparably critical to my writing. Achilles' rage in The Iliad, Beowulf's cold, murderous determination in his poem; Ulysses' grim determination in The Odyssey, Hercules' unwavering determination to redeem himself in his own trials; Gilgamesh' outrage and hearbreak over the death of Enkidu and the shatter of his own sense of immortality. I could go on. These are so foundational to what I'm trying to build that I feel like an absolute fool for not paying more attention when I was a younger aspiring writer.

Re: Paradise Lost: What an old book can teach about describing cool fantasy armaments

#13
This is a good post, but just a couple of cautions re: Milton.

Firstly, Milton's descriptive style in PL is based on extensive use of mythological allusion, in a way that was more conventional at the time due to the role of the classics and the esteem they were held in. For instance, he foreshadows Satan's role as serpent with several early comparisons to mythical serpents. However, modern readers are often less patient with this kind of approach in contemporary writing, and aren't always as familiar or interested in classical or mythological material. As such, tread carefully.

Further, there is a case made by several literary critics that Milton's descriptions of Satan weren't simply written to be 'badass,' because Satan is the antagonist and incarnation of evil. Instead, they may seem 'temptingly' grandiose, but also problematise this impression. Stanley Fish is one of the best-known representatives of this kind of view, and has remarked on Milton's ambiguous grammar in describing Satan's spear, where 'was but a wand' could also describe Satan's spear. While I think that Fish's analysis is often suspect, it has an influential part in the history of modern Milton criticism, and it might at least be worth keeping in mind on this topic. While Milton's Satan might seem 'badass' in some sense, he is also portrayed as a character who cannot fundamentally fight against or challenge God, one who is beating in the void his luminous wings in vain. His seeming grandeur quickly gives way to the resolve to use 'guile' to troll God, as it were, and Milton characterises his past attempt to overthrow God as hopeless and vain. As such, it is worth bearing in mind that Milton problematises Satan to the extent where his descriptions should be seen as ambiguous and complex, and if writers wish to take influence from them then it should be with care.

That said, this is still a good explanation of some basic things that people could incorporate into their descriptions, and Milton was playing with several conventions of epic poetry. Perhaps writers who are interested in this could expand to look into the rest of traditional epic poetry, to find out how things were described and conveyed there. In genres like fantasy, this already had an influence on many of the early writers formulating the modern conventions of the gwnre.

Re: Paradise Lost: What an old book can teach about describing cool fantasy armaments

#14

MOROSE Wrote: This is a good post, but just a couple of cautions re: Milton.

[sic]

Further, there is a case made by several literary critics that Milton's descriptions of Satan weren't simply written to be 'badass,' because Satan is the antagonist and incarnation of evil. Instead, they may seem 'temptingly' grandiose, but also problematise this impression. Stanley Fish is one of the best-known representatives of this kind of view, and has remarked on Milton's ambiguous grammar in describing Satan's spear, where 'was but a wand' could also describe Satan's spear...[sic]

That said, this is still a good explanation of some basic things that people could incorporate into their descriptions, and Milton was playing with several conventions of epic poetry. Perhaps writers who are interested in this could expand to look into the rest of traditional epic poetry, to find out how things were described and conveyed there. In genres like fantasy, this already had an influence on many of the early writers formulating the modern conventions of the gwnre.


I am pretty well aware of this interpretation, in-fact it's one I subscribe to, although I think Milton is more trying to make a point about temptation being alluring, while often doing good is boring and confining. The forum didn't feel like a good place to bring it up, since it's not really directly-related to Milton's penchant for imagery and description, but rather a result of his intentionality that went into writing the book.