Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Do We Know and When Do We Know It?

The expanded version of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novel THE BLOODY SUN has one conspicuous difference up front from the original edition—a prologue. Set in the time of the protagonist’s infancy, the prologue reveals the backstory behind the mysterious events that befall the hero, Jeff, when he returns to Darkover for the first time since childhood. A member of the Terran space service, Jeff spent his early years in a Terran orphanage on Darkover. When the novel opens, he knows little more about the native culture than a reader new to this universe does. I still consider THE BLOODY SUN one of the best novels in the series, and it’s an excellent introduction for a new fan, because the reader learns about Darkover and the secrets of Jeff’s own past at the same time he does. He acts as a surrogate for the audience in uncovering the hidden truths of the fictional world.

In the original edition, that is. In the later version, the prologue changes that perspective. The reader starts out knowing vital background information Jeff doesn’t discover until far into the story. For instance, the ominous pronouncement “the golden bell is avenged” means nothing to him, but the reader, with the benefit of the prologue, has knowledge superior to the hero’s. The relation of the audience to the narrative has altered in a vital way.

I wonder whether the prologue improves matters for a first-time reader. For an experienced Darkover fan, the references to Keepers, laran, and Towers make sense. A new reader gets plunged into an alien environment with little or no guidance. He or she might even find the footnote to the effect that “this story was told in THE FORBIDDEN TOWER” off-putting. That note might leave him or her with the impression, “Oh, I can’t read this book now because I was supposed to read that other story first.”

Which is preferable, for a reader to know the same amount as the protagonist or to know more? Considering the answer is surely, “it depends,” what does it depend on?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. What a great question to pose. I know some agents and editors hate prologues. I read a lot of fantasy novels, and I love prologues. Some authors use them better than others but lots of prologues have inspired me to buy a book.

  2. Interesting. I haven't read any Dark Over novels for years but think I will brush off the dust!

  3. eddie s.11:13 AM EDT

    Hitchcock said: always maximum information. Suspense tops surprise. And he made a very convincing case, didn't he? ... You can go check out the old concept of dramatic irony if you fancy, another hard-to-beat trick... So, knowing more might be better than knowing less than our hero, which is still better than feeling we know absolutely the same amount (i.e. no tension at all) - I suppose. What do you suppose?

  4. Very good points. A related issue: Whether it's better to read a series such as Darkover or Narnia in the publication order or in the chronological order of the series (if you do it the second way, you get information about the fictional world differently from the way its original readers did). If you read in publication order, elements in DARKOVER LANDFALL or THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW hold meanings for you that they wouldn't have for someone who started the respective series with those books.