Celebrations in Fantasy Novels

A portion of the painting “The Peasant Wedding” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Kunst Historisches Museum in Vienna. (Photo by Susan Ruff – 2019.)

Happy Holidays to all my friends out there! I hope that, despite the pandemic, your holidays are still filled with love and joy. And to all my friends and family who are celebrating Christmas today, I wish you a very merry one.

Since my Friday blog this week falls on Christmas Day, it seemed appropriate to consider the subject of celebrations in fantasy books. I had originally planned to talk about topics such as invented holidays vs. real world holidays, and to explore the question of whether you should create holidays for your fantasy world, even if those events never appear in your novels.

Then John and I got into a discussion about how and when to incorporate celebrations and parties into a fantasy novel. Our dispute involved whether you can have a chapter in a novel where the characters celebrate an event and nothing bad happens during the celebration.

I initially opined that descriptions of joyous, untroubled celebrations are fine during the happy ending of the book, but not at the beginning. For example, by the end of the Lord of the Rings, the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen can go off without a hitch (*ahem* except for them getting hitched). However, I thought it would be boring to give a detailed account of a celebration early in the story, before the reader knew the characters and had reason to celebrate with them. Instead, if you put a party early in a book, something bad had to happen during the event to propel the story forward.

John disagreed. He quite correctly pointed out to me that nothing bad happens during Bilbo’s long-expected party at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings. Bilbo’s little “joke” is planned from the start. The reader may not know what the joke is, but has been warned several times that it will happen. Bilbo’s birthday party is an amusing opener to the story which helps establish what the Shire is like and gives a fun background for the Hobbit heroes.

That got me wondering. How long is the description of the “long-expected party” at the beginning of LOTR compared to the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen at the end? Surely Professor Tolkien would prove my theory that a celebration is better described in detail at the end of a story.

So I pulled out my much-beloved 1972 Houghton Mifflin paperback version of the Fellowship of the Ring (that I’ve read so many times that even the tape I used to keep the pages together back in high school is now falling apart). In that version, the first chapter (which describes the events surrounding Bilbo’s birthday party) goes from page 43 to page 69, or about 26 pages. The actual party starts on page 50 and and Frodo leaves the party on page 56, so about 6 pages for the party itself. Roughly a fifth of the chapter involves the actual description of the events of the party.

Then I went to the Return of the King from the same version of LOTR. The chapter which contains the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen starts on page 291 and ends on page 310, so about 19 pages. The wedding of Aragorn and Arwen takes up an entire paragraph. Yep, all the events described about the wedding take place in a single paragraph at the end of the chapter. The wedding of Sam and Rosie a couple of chapters later takes…one sentence. Knowing Professor T, there may be more detailed descriptions of the weddings in other places in his writing, but not in the actual narrative of the novel.

So, I guess John wins the debate. (I have to let him win sometimes or he will stop writing books with me!)

Susan 12/25/2020

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