Cellar Door Details

Wednesday , 23, July 2014 4 Comments

“…[I]t doesn’t take long for the experience of the Numinous to unhinge the mind.”

King Alfred the Great: Rebuilding Civilization, Book by Book

King Alfred the Great ascended the throne of England in 871. He saw his age as one whose literacy had fallen since the time of Bede (673-735), and his civilization as one that was decaying from within as it fended off Scandinavian attacks from without. He implemented a program of general education throughout the land with the assistance of the clergy.

One of the key works Alfred included in his educational program was his own (Old) English translation of the Consolation* of the Roman consul Boethius. It is a most rigorous defense of the truth and a poetic attack on falsehood’s bliss and thorns. Why, of all things, would this be a cornerstone of Alfred’s rising civilization and defense against the invaders?

The reasons are many, but an important one is this: if you can read the Consolation and comprehend it, you will become an abstract thinker. A nation of abstract thinkers is a nation engaged. King Alfred’s program was a program of vigorous, morale-building engagement. Or, as he put it:

…Keenly he longed
Unto the people     to put forth songs
Men to make merry,     manifold stories,
Lest a weariness     should ward away
The man self-filled,     that small heed taketh
Of such in his pride.

J.R.R. Tolkien was intimately familiar with the translation (into Modern English) of King Alfred’s translation of the Latin, and its contexts — both for the old Romans and the old English. I’m sorry, but I can’t point exactly where in The Lord of the Rings this bit of knowledge comes in.

And that’s the point. One of the key difference that I see in great science fiction and fantasy and everything else is that the great works are most undeniably salted by chefs who have done their homework. Tolkien absorbed the civilization-building lesson from Alfred, who took it carefully from Boethius and not only gave it to his people, but encouraged them to do likewise. Good authors who do great work have developed an expertise in something other than prose…and the truth lodged in the expertise just flavors the entire thing.

I call these markers of expertise cellar door details after the perfectly fabricated literary quote in Donnie Darko:

This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that “cellar door” is the most beautiful.

Now, it is not the truth of the quotation that provides illumination on the heroic themes of  the movie. It is the fact that the quote fits (even though there is no real linguist who is known for saying this) as an important detail in that movie, because there are so many carefully constructed texts (chiefly, A Philosophy of Time Travel, by Roberta Sparrow, excerpts of which were written for the movie) in which the writer was an expert.

When you are looking for greatness in your stories, look for expertise in an author, even if that expertise may seem buried in translation.


*De consolatione philosophiae, Boethius

  • Mark Butterworth says:

    I believe it was Edna St. Vincent Millay who when asked what the most beautiful word in English was replied, ‘cellar door.’

    A film company was called Celador.

    I named my daughter Shenandoah which has a similarity of sound if you leave off the last ‘ah’.

    • Daniel says:

      I’m not aware of her answer to the question, but she certainly put the two words together well in Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree:

      Then cautiously she pushed the cellar door
      And stepped into the kitchen — saw the track
      Of muddy rubber boots across the floor,
      The many paper parcels in a stack
      Upon the dresser; with accustomed care
      Removed the twine and put the wrappings by,
      Folded, and the bags flat, that with an air
      Of ease had been whipped open skillfully,
      To the gape of children.

  • The CronoLink says:

    Looking into it, it seems the “cellar door” comes from the early 20th century. I had thought it was Tolkien’s since it was mentioned, if I recall correctly, in Carpenter’s biography, but recalling that passage, what probably Tolkien was referring to was that he had heard such idea and that he had found Welsh to have many “cellar doors”. (And thankfully all this explains what Tolkien was trying to convey; I thought he was just saying his opinion of English/Welsh)

    • Daniel says:

      I wonder if Tolkien ever imagined a Welsh “cellar door” above a hole in the ground, in which there lived a hobbit.

      The concept of this spontaneous beautiful thing being flush against the ground and very much rooted in the reality of the author’s “home” expertise is something I intend to look at more deeply. I can think of a number authors who wrote a lot of good books, but nailed greatness at least once…and I think it had something to do with their roots and applied expertise.

      It doesn’t even have to be intellectual (or physical) Boy’s Life, by McCammon is one that just springs to mind. One of the best “terror” fantasies of the 1990s. It is an emotional expertise that infuses that book with greatness, just like how blue-collar fright man Stephen King absolutely nailed his inner life with the thunderously powerful The Long Walk. Flannery O’Connor (who I always classify as a writer of Weird Fiction who had the benefit and curse of being viewed as literary. She’s spookier and more out there than Shirley Jackson, but everyone insists she’s “literary.” I don’t) flies highest when she’s in the throes of her special sort of orthodox mysticism.

      So it isn’t about authors necessarily being master linguists in order to write epics about civilization building…or master carpenters…or master scientists. It is the combination of mastering something in life outside of storywriting, and then somehow allowing themselves (and that mastery) to stand–either hidden or naked, it doesn’t matter–in the tale.

      I may be barking up the wrong tree. It would not be the first time I did that. Woof.

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