After reading High Deryni recently, I began thinking about Ursula LeGuin’s 1970s essay, From Elfland to Poughkeepsie. Why? Because LeGuin cited Deryni creator Katherine Kurtz as a perfect example of How Not To Do It.
LeGuin’s specific issue was that Kurtz’ language didn’t have a fantasy feel to it. Not that LeGuin thought it should all be “thee” and “thou,” but she did believe fiercely fantasy shouldn’t sound like ordinary every day speech. Which Kurtz does.
I can’t agree with LeGuin that language is some absolute standard fantasy has to meet, but it is a fair criticism. Kurtz is a good storyteller but her dialog doesn’t exactly sing. At times, such as when the Camberian Council (the secret Deryni leaders) engages in detailed political debate, it does feel very modern. That didn’t bother me as a teen, but it bugs me more now.
Similarly, the references to Deryni powers as psychic rather than magical or holy (as some characters believe their gifts to be) feels very contemporary for such a medieval setting. Not impossibly so — the Deryni may have greater understanding of such things — but annoying.
I give Kurtz some extra slack because political discussion wasn’t something fantasy dealt with much back then. I mean, there was the monarchical stuff — siblings scheming to seize the throne from each other — but certainly not politics the way we think of it now (and which they certainly did have in the medieval world). It’s less unusual for the time but back then it was quite startling.
On the downside, though, the treatment of religion is really shallow. It doesn’t seem to be anything but politics, except of course for the fanatics who want all the Deryni killed. While politics and power hunger are certainly built into organized religion, Kurtz doesn’t leave room for any genuine religious feeling — the church could as easily be the DEA for all the difference it makes. But as I recall, she did better with that in subsequent books.
For a previous discussion of language in fantasy, see here.