Monday, July 1, 2013

To Brush or not to Brush?

The first time I ever saw Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers in theaters, I was immediately dumbstruck by Karl Urban’s fantastic-looking… teeth. Here, in this gritty, manly, I’m-all-dirty-because-our-king-sucks-and-we-kill-orcs-for-a-living world, Eomer, nephew of King Theoden, flashes some phenomenal choppers. Impressive by any standards, those even, pearly whites peeking from beneath his ferocious snarl immediately stand out—not simply because they are quite beautiful as far as dental specimens go, but also because they seem so incredibly out of place. With that much grime on his face and dirt in his hair, shouldn’t his teeth be kind of nasty?

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?

~Kim Vandervort


Anonymous said...

I think that the level of detail (re: personal hygiene) is really subjective to the reader. Some like to hear it, some cringe.

Having read a lot of Romance novels, they really skip over some of the aspects of hygiene that are involved (no one EVER has to go to the toilet, for instance) because it's not part of the Romance aspect of the story. Those readers really don't want to think about it.

Despite being an intrinsic part of every day, it usually just gets left out of fantasy and SF. Because despite being's not often interesting enough to include.

I guess we have to strive for a happy medium. ;o)

Anonymous said...

Eomer might have had wonderful teeth, but Eowyn had tons of fillings! But at least the Rohirim have a decent dental program.

Terri-Lynne said...

I'm of a mind that, like sex and violence, if it enhances the story in some way while moving the plot along--faboo. I love such details. For the most part--meh.

Some assumptions can be made: Everybody poops. Women menstruate. Hygiene isn't going to be what is currently the norm. Deodorant hasn't been invented. Assumed and done. No need to dwell. BUT--if a toothache ends in a significant death, or lends to some actual plot point, (the sore tooth causes the hero to lose focus at a crucial point, or the villain knows the tooth is sore and pounds him in the mouth) then those details surrounding it are not only apprpopriate and interesting, they're helpful.

All in all, reading fiction tends to be more forgiving of leaving out such mundane matters. We're reading to be entertained, to be put in another time or place, someone else's adventure. To be reminded of the mundane might be a bit of a bummer.

I suppose it's all about situation and balance--as always, right?

Anonymous said...

The important part to remember about details like this, is they only matter if they compare to something. Otherwise, people are filthy in a high-fantasy setting? Why is this important? It would only matter for one of two reasons. The people are especially filthy for the setting. Or they are being visited by someone with different standards of hygene, say a time traveller or other Outsider. Crighton's "Timeline" makes a point of mentioning it because people from the future go to the past and encounter dirty, plaguey people. Otherwise it's a non-issue. People are probably dirtier now than they are in a thousand years, but we don't walk around saying "Hey! Look how disgusting we are! What a bunch of ignorant savages we are!" In LotR, we are applying our standards to those of a different world. The Hobbits were more bathy than probably the Rangers, so that's why it was mentioned by Frodo. Otherwise, sure, people stank, but without that comparison to OUR world, it was a non-issue.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I tend to agree that standards of hygiene are culture-bound, and so a lot of times people living in the same time and place will consider their standards the 'norm'.

(This is even true today. In Thailand, people are much more meticulous about washing their hands than in the US, and no one would EVER sit on a pillow; which when you think about it, is a pretty gross thing to do. In Costa Rica, EVERYONE brushes their teeth after lunch; not so in the US. I have to admit, having become accustomed to Costa Rican dental hygiene habits, I am not very fond of everyone's after-lunch breath here in the heartland. . .)

For fantasy writing, I think it's useful to think about different standards of hygiene across the different cultures that populate the fantasy world. Differing views and standards can enrich the story and provide some interesting sources of conflict.

Dental hygiene is important to prevent tooth decay, but what caused tooth decay in the first place was the appearance of refined sugar [she writes as she finishes her breakfast donut]. You can actually see this in the fossil record, how teeth begin to rot away as sugar consumption becomes more common.

Though sugar was available in the Middle Ages, it was a luxury until about the 18th century; so it's reasonable to think that many characters in a story like LotR don't eat a lot of sugar (Bilbo's birthday cake aside), and therefore probably have good teeth.

Of course, teeth still discolor with time -- and a few would likely be lost during battle. So Eomer's fluorescent whites are definitely a modern invention, though they are probably more a product of cosmetics than of hygiene perse.

Oh, and Terri -- What are you talking about? I thought sex and violence ALWAYS enhances the story while moving the plot along!

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--heh-heh. :)

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I thought it was heavy reliance on grains that caused wear on teeth in ancient and medieval times (hunter-gatherers having few dental problems, agrarian societies far more) with sugar being a problem largely in post-industrial societies with easy access to refined sugars.

But many ancient and medieval societies were pretty scrupulous about hygiene (the various Arab, Greek and Roman ones, obviously, having plumbing and other civilised comforts but also the far less advanced -- they were less advanced I'm afraid -- Celtic and Germanic cultures were hardly unclean peoples. Obviously even today labourers get filthy, and they may sit around after work drinking without bothering to clean up first. But mostly they wash and so did their (proportionally far greater) counterparts in pre-Enlightenment times.

I think the notion that most pre-modern societies were foul comes largely from the C16 onwards becaus eof the notion that people didn't bathe (Elizabeth I's notorious one bath a year whether she needed it or not . . .). But I have long suspected that even here people would have tended to wash if not bathe, though one thing that would have hampered that a lot is a lack of fresh water in the increasingly large and crowded cities that lacked good sewage and water provision.

Eomer might just have good teeth though: there's a picture in Jim Curran's book about K2 of their mail-runner who despite being in his late 20s and without access to dental care still had what appears to be a full set of white (if not quite gleaming) teeth, unlike most of the yellowed or worse seen in the pictures of his fellow villagers.

Anonymous said...

Most bodily functions are pretty repetitive and obvious. If you feel you have to mention characters taking a pee or a poop to be realistic, how often do you have to mention it? Every time? For every character? Like physical movements, we tend to only draw attention to them when they are out of the ordinary, like breathing when it is heavy, strained, rasping etc, walking or running when it tires or accelerates. If somebody develops dysentry, then obviously they are going to spend a lot of time in the bushes to be credible, otherwise, we can probably take it for granted that all the characters are keeping up with their regular bowel movements. Personally, I can live without knowing what fantasy characters out in the woods use for toilet paper...

Terri-Lynne said...

Jane, I'm right with you on that one! Unless there is a POINT to showing your characters relieving themselves, it's assumed they do. I might love my characters but, like my loved ones in real life, I don't need to know the intimacies of their toilet!

Anonymous said...

I say I don't care, but I must admit that I do wonder what knights in armour and other medieval look alikes do for toilet paper. I bet it's never mentioned because we just can't imagine not having the stuff. Dry leaves? Only works in the autumn. Handfulls of grass? Not very practical when you think about it. And did they even have underwear? And when it wasn't the right season for dry leaves or they were in a desert? Did they have soap for washing their dirty undies every day? Once you open the can of worms your book turns into a study of the parts of history nobody ever recorded. Makes plaquey teeth seem like very small beer.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Spagnum moss is a fairly common form of 'natural toilet paper'.

The Roman soldier of course used sponges for the purpose.

Modern day soldiers when in the field often use vaseline to help ensure a relatively mess free 'evacuation' and one may of course trial that in the comfort of one's own home. As the modern infantryman is, on the whole, not noted for his innovative ideas, I'd presume that in pre-modern times other substances might have been used similarly.

In the desert of course, one uses sand (see Thesiger's Arabian Sands).

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Pongo. I suppose most hygiene accessories would have had to be ultra expendible, since ours must be the first society to produce things just to throw them away.