Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Tavern: Just a trope or something more?


Hello world! As the banner on the site will tell you, the wonderful ladies of Heroines of Fantasy have decided to add a male voice to the blog.  I am humbled by the generosity of my sister authors from Hadley Rille Books.  I hope I can add one or two bits and pieces to this experience.  Thanks in advance for all who visit this site.  All of us here on HoF are dedicated to the idea of ‘story’, and the MOST important element in that equation is the READER.  Thanks for coming!

When I considered what I might do for my first post, I was neck-deep in edits for novel number two, and I realized I had a number of important scenes taking place in taverns and inns. I don’t feel too uneasy about that because two of my main characters are poets forced to make their way as entertainers of sorts. I see a role for the ale-house-wine-shop-village watering hole in my stories, but I am still forced to confront the questionable use of what many consider an over-used scenario.

In other words, what is the deal with all the inns and taverns in fantasy?

I have read quite a few blog posts and critical articles decrying the “trope”: those elements that get so overused that they become hackneyed and stale to the point of being crutches for bad writers to cling to when they need help with a story.  Others have exhaustingly catalogued these tropes (just word itself suggests tired and misdirected), so I won’t add any more invective to the pile. I get it. Certain images and situations seem to get overused in fantasy more than in other genres.  Why that happens is perhaps a topic for another entry, and I am sure there are some who visit this blog who can ably direct you to those more expansive examinations. The tavern or inn has a place at the head of that list, but I wonder if we haven’t been a bit harsh and dismissive.

Today I want to talk about taverns or inns and make an apology of sorts for their frequent use in fantasy novels.  I come by my affliction by inclination because I’ve been addicted to Middle Earth and all its incarnations since I first heard about Bilbo’s mad dash down the hill to meet the dwarves at the Green Dragon in Bywater.  In fact, Tolkien probably did more to cement the idea of the tavern/inn as a staple of fantasy than anyone else.  We could blame him for all the copy-cat crutch use since, or we could take another look at the role taverns have played and temper our judgement.

The simple truth is we love our taverns. We frequent them. We take ownership of them (rugby gangs, anyone?). We leave bits and pieces of ourselves in them (my initials are still legible on a brick in the inner wall of the Tav in Ellensburg, Washington). We name our chat rooms after them! I know this because I was the one back in the early days of who won the contest to name the chatroom. “Barliman’s” seemed appropriate. I wish I had figured out how to use the snazzy email they gave as the prize. I was too much a hobbit to figure out how to incorporate into my non-techie email universe.  The tavern is part of our cultural identity, so it stands to reason that it should enter our fiction as well. And it is when we ill-use the tavern in our fiction that we create the trope argument so pervasive in the genre criticism. They can’t just be set pieces placed to allow a writer to move characters around and create chaos and conflict. They work best when they serve their deeper purpose in the world the writer creates.

 In Tolkien’s world, the tavern stood for civility in a wild world, a gathering place for locals and travelers to interact and share news of the road. They helped knit Tolkien’s pre-industrial, not-everyone-has-a-palantir environment together. For the professor, the inn helped define part of the human experience in middle earth. Anyone ever come across a Dwarfish tavern? An Elvish waystation? Nope. Taverns show up in Middle Earth in places where Men and their near cousins the Hobbits settled. Man built the roads in Middle Earth. Everybody else built really interesting things, kingdoms and enclaves and refuges and such, but Man is the one who knit all the various places together by a system of roads, villages and towns.  There are wonderful hints of how widespread the Numenorean culture was throughout The Lord of the Rings.  In fact, some of the earliest writings Tolkien put together were the tales and poems that take pace in the ‘cottage of lost play’…nice euphemism for a tavern from my so-very-temporary-human perspective. Let’s face it, Tolkien liked his pipes and his pints. The Inklings were vital to his creative genius, so it should come as no surprise that taverns in all their convivial glory appear in his writing where it dealt with the world of Man/Hobbits. 

For JRRT, the tavern was a sign of elevated culture. Where are the references to ale-houses in Rohan? Laketown? I can’t find any (although Tolkien does give hints to trade—wine barrels down the river, etc, that is suggestive). All the references seem to point to the Shire, Bree, Tharbad, and Minas Tirith. Settled places. Places where people collected for pints and news. Places where trade occurs.

Do we give the professor a pass on his use of the trope? I think we should because he avoids the kinds of mistakes that so many others make. I point to several instances where his use of the tavern serves an important moment in LOTR.  Sam’s early interaction at the Green Dragon prefigures the reality of the Ents and also illustrates his romantic, sensitive nature that will bear such wonderful fruit later on in the story. The other, of course, is how he uses The Prancing Pony at Bree.  In his letters and other writings, he tells us the story stalled at Bree. Maybe intuitively he knew he was at a contrived place. What leads me to give him the pass here is how well he developed Barliman and his inn as an integral plot element of the story. In fact, nearly everything that happens later in the tale hinges on the way things unfold at The Prancing Pony.

I’m not talking about Frodo and the ring or Aragorn in the shadows or Nazgul blades in the night.

I’m talking about an undelivered letter. Butterbur’s establishment was so much more than a place for events to happen. Tolkien lovingly establishes its local and regional importance. Barliman was the unofficial postmaster for the district, and if he had managed to get that note to Frodo in time, the Fellowship would have been a far different and less exciting story.

And this is where I feel the most strongly about how we use our ‘places’ in our stories.  Great events transpire in Tolkien’s Bree: violence, terror, character, intrigue. These sorts of things appear over and over again in other novels incorporating the tavern, and we get the accusations of ‘tropeness’ when THAT’S ALL THAT HAPPENS.

Bree is actually where the hobbits' growth begins in earnest. It is the place at the end of the novel where we, and they, see the results of that growth. It knits together the tale like it knits together the culture within which Tolkien makes it exist.  It is not just a plot device designed to introduce Strider. It is a reminder of what happens when communication goes awry.

Frankly, I like taverns. I like using them in my own writing because the world my characters inhabit need them for poetry duels, assignations and rest.

I am sure my defense of the tavern/inn has holes. I’d like to read what all of you think about taverns and various other ‘places’ that seem to pop up time and time again in fantasy.

Mark Nelson





Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Great post, Mark! So good to have you on board.

I love taverns in stories, though interestingly enough I don't think I have any taverns in my own. But I think taverns evoke a sense of community -- in addition to everything else you've already said -- so if you don't have taverns you have to find another way to establish what taverns bring to the story.

Since my college days I've held to the belief that all the truly great ideas in human history were conceived of in taverns.

Bavaria has a patron saint, Aloysius, who left heaven so he could spend eternity in a tavern. He's my patron saint, too. ;)

amuletts said...

I think it's difficult NOT to have taverns in a fantasy story that uses the travelling Adventurer. I've been on the road myself and, sure, you can sleep outside but if you have enough money a nice bed is much more comfortable, not to mention a full meal. So if your Adventurers are travelling it would be a bit strange for them to turn up their noses to a nice, comfortable Tavern, wouldn't it?

Terri-Lynne said...

I honestly don't know if the importance of the tavern in fantasy mimicks the time-period equivalent in actual history, but it seems to me that such gathering places are vital. They're a place to get information. Where else would you get it? It's not so long ago that the town crier was the masses' best and sometimes only source of news. Revolutions were planned in taverns, if American and French history are to be believed. I don't see taverns as being a trope; I see them as being essential.

That being said, the form a gathering place is going to take will vary by culture. When it came time to put such a place in Finder, I couldn't give it the look and feel of a European style tavern/pub. Instead, I called it a doovah (riffing off an old Arabic word loosely connected to the concept) and styled it more after what one would find in a desert settlement. But there is always one thing in common--alcohol! And beer is one of the oldest there is.

Terri-Lynne said...

amuletts--very true!

You know what I found disconcerting? When visiting Colonial Williamsburg, during a tour of the local inn, we were told that there were not ROOMS to be had in such common places, but bedspace. There would be several beds set up all over an open room, in any nook or cranny available. Very often, that bed would fit two, three, even four patrons. A traveler often ended up sleeping with several strangers.

Of course, if you had more money, you could afford to stay in a place with individual rooms, but in FACT, someone with that much money would have to be pretty desperate to do so. Typically, the local "nobility" would put you up.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Does Tolkien actually mentuion any taverns in Minas Tirith? I can't recall such. Pippin eats in what is essentially a military mess and there is an old guest hall mentioned, but that doesn't seem to be a tavern.

I agree that implicitly one might assume that the inns that are mentioned (in the Shire and Bree) are holdovers of Numenorean power and so it's liukely there would be such in Gondor. But actually I think it's more to do with the Shire and Bree being based heavily upon early c.20 rural England and so the pub being a staple of village life. In that sense I think they are somewhat anachronistic (there's little evidence that, for instance, way-stations on the Royal Road of the Persian Empire were devoted to drink) but in fairness both the SHire and (to a lesser extent) Bree have clearly been preserved (by the activity of the Rangers) as isolated beacons of prosperity in the north.

Pipe-smoking is equally a Shire trait (that was picked up by dwarves and rangers both) and, like drinking, was a staple of early c.20 recreation in rural England.

All that aside, a tavern depends on prosperity. Most rural cultures are not prosperous. Those that are can feature taverns (though drinking and the provision of accomodation could as well happen in a lord's hall -- like in The Children of Hurin when Turin returns home to find the Easterlings in residence, or, we may fairly presume, as would have been commonplace amongst the Rohirrim) if it fits with the culture. But the inclusion of commercial drinking-houses will imply a lot about the surrounding culture in economic terms (there must be considerable folk with surplus income living nearby or regularly passing through).

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo--I was hoping you'd chime in. You are always our Tolkien scholar in residence.

Mark's having some issues with posting comments. I'm going to ping him now and escort him in. :)

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Mark said:

In fact, Tolkien probably did more to cement the idea of the tavern/inn as a staple of fantasy than anyone else

And I'm not so sure.

Tolkien didn't introduce the tavern or inn to fantasy. i'm not sure who did but it was likely Rober E Howard. While Tolkien mentions 3 taverns (the Green Dragon, The Prancing Pony, The Ivy Bush) - all in one relatively small geographic area: The Shire/Bree, Howard mentions (unnamed) drinking houses in many stories - The Tower of the Elephant, Black Colossus (Conan has come from 'the last wine-shop open'), The Queen of the Black Coast, Shadows in Zamboula, The Hour of the Dragon and Wolves Beyond the Border). That's a quarter of his published stories and most of the others are set in remote areas beyond civilisation or in lands that were not based on western culture.

While in Tolkien we can merely assume taverns were Numenorean in origin and preserved in the prosperous rural locals of the Shire and Bree, in Howard they are widespread in the civilised west.

I'm of the mind that Tolkien may have included inns because hobbits were based on his slightly idealised view of the English rural working and middle classes whereas Howard, writing in Prohibition-gripped America, included them because tawdry drinking dens were a staple of cities in his civilisation . . .

But while I do think the tavern is more prevelant in Howard than Tolkien and so he probably set the trend earlier (though I doubt Tolkien had him in mind at all), I suspect the vast raft of Tolkien imitators, especially those who initiated fantasy role-playing games, Messrs Arneson and Gygax, played a yet greater part in turning drinking-houses from background detail to trope.

Terri-Lynne said...

(Mark is still having issues getting our little house here on Blogger to let him in. He asked me to post this.)
Thanks for proving my point. Tolkien's use of the tavern created a groundswell of imitation in the years since. The over-use, and ill-use since created the trope claim that plagues the genre in critical arene.

Minas Tirith was a shell of its former self, had been on a war footing for a generation, and at the time of the story the need for inns as over. One could argue the guest house where Bergil and Pippin met served a similar purpose. Tying the tavern notion to the Numenorean culture doesn't wash to me.

No matter the source, in the end, the tavern in JRRT's material serves an essential purpose that connects history, culture and plot
harmoniously. When those variables aren't well articulated, we get the trope claim and rightly so.