bonny_kate: (narnia)
[personal profile] bonny_kate
One thing that appeals to me in books is a sense of place. This is more subtle than other elements such as voice or characterization, and harder to define. However, I shall attempt to give a basic definition of what a sense of place is in a book.

For some reason, this came up in one of our Dante discussions. Dante manages to give a very good sense of place within his Divine Comedy. How does he do this? Let us take Purgatory as an example, although either of the other two books would work equally well. He gives a very clear organization of Purgatory. It is quite possible to draw maps. Further, the geography of Purgatory is loaded with significance. It really matters which cornice is on top of which other cornice. If he had stacked them just any which way, it would not have been nearly as compelling, or interesting. But he also doesn't spend pages and pages explaining the arrangement of Purgatory; that would be dull. He gives enough of an outline for the reader to understand the basic significance, and leaves the reader to discover the further meaning if they are so inclined.

Another author who is particularly good at giving a sense of place is C.S. Lewis, specifically with the Narnia Chronicles. While the geography is not nearly so significant as in Purgatory, it is still important. Cair Paravel is by the sea, on the East, because it is royal, and associated with the Emperor over the Sea, and Aslan, who is depicted as coming from the East.

So, in order for there to be a sense of place, the geography must matter, and must not merely be a place for things to happen.


Purgatory is also very dependent on time. It is almost unusually dependent on time, in that one can only move upwards during the day, and every day has a specific significance. Because it is so important, it is easier to see the connection. It takes Dante (the character) measurable amounts of time to climb the cornices. It feels like it took him a while to climb Purgatory, rather than just being pushed along to see the particular attractions. It feels kind of like an amusement park. If I want to describe, for instance, Knott's Berry Farm, I shall probably tell you about the rides ("Ghostrider is the best, but Excelerator was cool too"). But this actually gives you a very poor understanding of what the park is actually like. If I want to give you a true understanding of what the park is like, I will give you a rough idea of how it is arranged ("the best rides aren't together, but are kind of spread around, but that let's you go on different sorts of rides, and there are also loosely themed areas, although not nearly as clearly defined as Disneyland"), what the good parts were ("it was a warm day, so we went on the water ride, but I didn't get drenched, even though I wanted to"), the bad bits ("there was a really boring and weird show that we went to, and I don't know why we went to it, except to dry off after that water ride"), and even what the lines were like ("mostly not too bad, and there were some interesting people in line, but there were also those annoying couples who insisted on making out while standing in line, and I was glad when we were no longer in line with them"). This sort of thing gives a much better sense of what Knott's is like.

Tolkien does this particularly well in the Lord of the Rings. The characters seem to go on walking forever. You don't lose the journey for all the exciting bits. It may (or may not) make the journey seem less exciting, but it does make it seem like it actually happened somewhere, instead of just jumping between places (and really missing out on the places in between places). It is really easy to underestimate the signficance of all the walking bits. But I think that we wouldn't appreciate Rivendell, and the Last Homely House, if there wasn't that entire journey from Hobbiton. We wouldn't have a sense of what it means to be the last Homely House, if we felt that there were other houses quite close by on one side, and Lothlorien merely a jaunt away on the other side.

In other words, the journey must take time, and must include all the bits that are like waiting in line for a ride. Sometimes you can just hop right onto the ride, without a wait at all, but most of the time you are in line for much longer than the actual ride. (Of course, a good author makes it just as interesting to wait in line, although in a different sort of way.)


There is more, of course, to what creates a sense of place. But these two ideas, that it must really matter where the story takes place, and that it must take time to get places, are essential. It doesn't fully explain why Narnia is what she is, though, so I shall have to try again in another post, I think, and continue to think about it.

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Kate Saunders Britton

October 2017

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