Humans are anthropocentric. By extension, so are our creative efforts, like writing.
I use anthropocentric to mean caring about what happens to man or man-like presence, fictive or real, more than caring about anything else. It’s the reason why personification in writing—a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics—is such a powerful imagination catalyst. Take the following three sentence:
- The car was enclosed in fog.
- Two rosebuds were bent towards each other on the terrace.
- An armchair was tilted backwards.
Boring? Now take the way three authors decided to “bring them to life” using various degrees of personification (from weakest to strongest):
- The car was enclosed in a dense fist of fog. (Anne Carson, The Biography of Red)
- Two rosebuds bowed courteously to each other on the terrace. (E. B. White, Essays)
- An armchair leaned back, its armrests braced, in an attitude of startlement and awe. (John Banville, Mephisto)
Carson gives fog a fist, White turns rosebuds into courtiers, Banville imbues the armchair with nuanced human feelings. The next step up would be a full-blown image, for example, Death as a scythe-wielding skeleton. But each of these is a mere eidolon, a spectre of personification, a teaser that enlivens the writing but stays safely in the realm of the non-human. To elevate an eidolon you need to give it the one thing that defines us: you need to make it speak like a human.
- “Ha, ha, ha I’ve got the car in my fist,” said the fog.
- “My Lord,” said the rosebud, bowing. “My Lady,” said the other, bowing back.
- “Wow,” thought the armchair, “humans, long time no see. I shouldn’t have passed wind just now. Whoops.”
The difference is vast.
Uttering or thinking what we perceive as human speech means passing the literary Turing test of personification. The thing that is being made to speak isn’t necessarily human, not even fictionally so, but it’s so darn close you’d take it with you to a deserted island and consider it company.
Which brings us to Tolkien’s fox.
Here is J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring (the first book of the Lord of Rings trilogy), using his power as a third-person omniscient narrator to saunter into the head of a fox. For those unfamiliar with his world: short, human-like beings called hobbits live in a woody, hilly green-grasses-of-England type of place called the Shire; Frodo and his friends are hobbits.
Quote: They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
‘Hobbits!’ He thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.
And that’s it: no more mention of the fox. So why bother?
I don’t know why Tolkien bothered, but I know why I find it interesting: Tolkien’s fox is an anomaly. The fox passes the “Turing test”: it speaks, or rather thinks, and indeed reasons, and all that in literary English. What’s more, the narrator of the story chooses to comment on the fox’s thoughts (not merely transmit them), thereby intruding on the illusion of the story for the sake of reaffirming the identity and reasoning of the fox, and for the sake of completing the fox’s presence within the story plane.
And it’s a fox with a gender.
Tolkien’s fox is a flash example, unexpected amidst a grand scheme, where different personas meet (the author, the narrator, human-like characters, and a fox). It’s almost like a crack in the storytelling façade, where we can peer in at the origins of personification, to the so-called prosopopoeia.
Prosopopoeia, coming from the Greek making of masks (personas), used to be a rhetorical exercise during which students would write speeches as if they were a certain (historic, mythic) character. The practice still lives on in day-to-day dialogue every time we make up a fictional quotation, e.g. if my mother were here, she’d tell you [insert comment], or, I bet you that politician would say [insert line], but not [insert line]. In non-fiction, similar lines may be conjectured by authors based on evidence of character or fact. In fiction, of course, all bets are off: we invent speech and interior monologue left, right, and centre, including for foxes, inanimate objects, artificial intelligence, and the wind.
The key word is speech. Inventing speech for a character is at the core of prosopopoeia because speech is what defines a character. Deeds can be done by anything and anyone, but a non-human entity can only pass the Turing test of personification by displaying knowledge of a human language.
Had the fox not been given thought-speech in the Quote it wouldn’t have been a character; it would have been scenery.
But perhaps most importantly: when we write, whatever we write, we invent speech for ourselves, our masks, our writers’ personas. So writing in itself is an act of prosopopoeia. Writing fictional characters, doubly so. Writing the fictional characters playing out fictions of their own, doubly, doubly so. Etcetera, as the parallel mirrors multiply depth ad infinitum. Who wears the mask underneath the mask? The secret is never fully revealed, but that doesn’t stop the audience from attending: witness Bian lian, the mask-changing mystery of the Sichuan opera.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien.
- Chapter 5 on Prosopopoeia, Renaissance Figures of Speech, edited by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber.