Monday, July 1, 2013
To Brush or not to Brush?
I suppose it’s because I’m a modern girl who dearly loves her running water, toothbrushes and toilets, but I’ve always spent more than an average amount of time thinking about how basic hygienic needs are met in fantasy settings. How do the characters brush their teeth? What happens when someone gets a toothache or an opponent sends a molar flying? Naturally, some things don’t need to be mentioned. Most readers don’t need to know every time a character ducks into the woods for a poo. We can all assume, as the famous book title suggests, that Everybody Poops. But sometimes, knowing the hows and whys of hygiene can not only be of interest, but important to the story.
While reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy through for the first time, I actually noted how many official baths Aragorn took (three). In fact, in Fellowship of the Ring, it’s even noted that Frodo doesn’t even recognize him at first because he’s all cleaned up. Imagine how dirty the future King of Gondor must have been to be virtually unrecognizable to his traveling companion after scraping off layers of grime! In Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion saga, the main character is a female soldier in a co-ed army, a situation that
provokes a variety of intriguing questions about privacy, sex, and birth control. Moon also includes a lot of interesting—and important—detail about army life, including the need to dig privies when the army first sets up camp. All of these seemingly insignificant details enhance the world and the story, enriching the experience for the reader.
Considering a world’s hygiene can also lead to larger, more important worldbuilding issues, such as improper sanitation and its link to illness and disease. When does a rotting tooth lead to fever? What can we infer about the diet or habits of a people based on the condition of their teeth? Where the privies end up may have a direct impact on where the rich and the poor dwell in the city and increase the likelihood of the downwind folk succumbing to disease. The transition between dirty and clean can also serve as a metaphor of transformation. That first bath of Aragorn’s is a revelation, and represents more than just a good scrubbing: it is the first time Frodo—and the readers—see him not as who he is, but as who he may become. Such moments are often not just important, but essential to the story.
On the other hand, NOT paying attention to these little details can often poke holes in a writer’s worldbuilding. I would love to think that Peter Jackson, whose attention to detail is stellar throughout the trilogy, deliberately decided not to make Karl Urban’s teeth suitably yucky for the movie. Perhaps they are our first indication that, like Aragorn, Eomer is more than he first appears. Or perhaps it’s just a cinematic crime to make such beautiful teeth look bad. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that they stand out a little too much, and for a brief time, throw the viewer out of the story. If I’m spending my time wondering how, how often and with what he brushes, then I’m not worrying about how Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are going to extricate themselves from their current predicament.
So here’s today’s question: how much do you want to know about characters’ hygiene? How much do you need to know? At what point does it either enhance or detract from the story?