or, how a clueless Finn ended up blogging in English, by the way of Tolkien, undead professors and Dawkins
I am a Finn; a person from (and in) Finland, that is. Since the Finnish language is like backwards-Latin with ten times the grammar, it would seem logical that after learning that, I would use it and not bother with English.
Well, since you’re reading this, things clearly are not so. Why?
Maybe the most mercenary reason is that there are around five million people that understand Finnish, and (I guess) around five billion that can get something out of English. If you’re going to write an Anything-Goes blog of humor, atheism, Finland, griping and mathematics, and willing to have some readers, you must start with a big enough potential audience. Otherwise you’ll be left muttering darkly to yourself.
Well, that is not to say that I’m inundated with readers right now, either. Ah well. But how did I end up being capable of writing English like this, for fun and (say some) with some little skill? (And if not with wit, then with half-wit.)
It all began with the Lord of the Rings.
Y’know, this is going to be a longish and dullish tale; but if you like those, keep on reading.
I’ve always been a scribbler, a doodler, a person that ends up sketching up some idea after reading a book or seeing a movie, or after just hearing a well-placed word or two. My early scribbles were rather clumsy pictures of new and better Transformers after reading a comic of those (always Decepticons, the bad guys, for some reason), maps of nonexistent lands after reading a bit of fantasy, and (later on) screenplays for bad horror movies after watching Evil Dead II.
But there was one special book — the Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I trust you have heard of it? The father of fantasy novels, full of travels, medieval trappings, strange languages and weird maps. I loved it.
(Well, not when I tried to read the second volume first and found myself wondering: “Who are these people, and why are they running around like headless chickens?” But after I began with the first volume, oh, it was a love affair that still goes on.)
I read the Lord of the Rings, and from that time on I was hooked on secondary worlds. I didn’t quite want to imitate — just to do the same marvelous trick, the creation of a new world, with new tales and new people in it. In my doodles, the amount of Transformers and superheroes dived, and the amount of maps and strange banners and swords rocketed.
(Rocketed? Oh, there were Asimov and Clarke too, but there always were more unicorns and fiery mountains than spaceships and orbits for me.)
I read Tolkien’s other works, or rather wolfed them down, hungry and insatiable. The Hobbit was quickly read, the Silmarillion was a feast of history and drama, and the Book of Unfinished Tales was a treasure-trove of gems and gold.
And then, bam! No more Tolkien. I veered into Dragonlance, Eddings and other works, basically anything that promised adventures in new worlds, anything that had been translated into Finnish. If it had a map of new environs, it was good enough for me.
(Notes from those days, with the help of hindsight:
- Dragonlance — Weis/Hickman books were good; the dozens of derivative works weren’t so much, but I don’t bash entertainment as long as I am entertained.
- Eddings — liked the Belgariad and sequels then, read them multiple times, haven’t checked if the magic still works; Elenium and sequels were grittier and better.
- Holdstock’s Mythago books — didn’t understand much (was too young), but liked.
- Chronicles of Thomas Covenant — read the first book, hated it. Read it again a few years ago, still hated it.
- Robin Hobb — the Assassin cycle is great. Possibly even über-great.
- Tad Williams — couldn’t finish Memory, Sorrow and Thorn because the Finnish translation method was one part of the trilogy into four or five separate volumes, which is death if you’re reading through a city library you get to visit once a month. The municipal library was dry by then, you see.
- Terry Pratchett — love, love, oh I love the man. I love his books even more now, as now I can get a bigger fraction of the allusions.
There were many others, but I forget things easily and I never have kept a reading diary of any kind. And, please note, I didn’t read children’s tales because they were “childish”, not until I was safely over sixteen and thus capable of reading them without being “childish” too. Nowadays, I’m the kind of a person that’d do grievous bodily harm to anyone dismissive of children’s literature. There’s more skill and more gems in it than in “mainstream literature”.)
(Well, that’s my excuse for reading it. Yours?)
(Seriously. Go and read His Dark Materials. It will ignite your socks and then blow them off your feet.)
(Er, that was a plaudit.)
(Another note: The Decepticon complex continued, too — Darth Vader, the cackling Indiana Jones Nazis, Sauron and Saruman and Denethor, Torak, Zedar and Ctutchik, Verminaard, Raistlin and Kitiara — why is it, evidently, so much easier to create an enchanting villain than a sympathetic hero? Plus points to those who know all of those in the list.)
But, then, I noticed (it was the time when BBS:s faded out and Internet faded in) that there were more books by Tolkien, but they were all in English! And I, a poor Finn, what did I know about that?
(Yep, there were language-lessons on English at school, but they were steadily on the level of “Ai am aa Vinnish boi. Shii tere is nott aa boi, butt aa kirl.”)
(Well, that level of proficiency was still better than playing Leisure Suit Larry, the first game in the series, with no knowledge of English whatsoever, and running off now and then to ask your parents what this word or that was in English.)
(No, not those words. One, even “taxicab” was a challenging English word-monster for a kid of that age; two, I wouldn’t have been crazy enough to ask those words; and three, I never got that far in the game anyway.)
Well, apparently I made some noises — probably “Wanna Tolkien! Mama!” in Finnish — because one Christmas I got a Tolkien-book for a present: The Shaping of Middle-Earth, the fourth part of the huge History of Middle-Earth series, edited by Christopher, J.R.R.’s son, showcasing the shards and pieces left behind when J.R.R. died.
If you know the series, you also know that it certainly, surely, is not the place to pick up your first English-language book. The History books aren’t dull (I think), but they’re written in a semi-academic language, full of strange terms and difficult words, and there’s no central tale, just fragments and versions.
For the first few years I mostly looked at the pictures. Luckily, that volume had plenty of sketch-maps, so I was happy.
(And, a month or so ago, I received in mail the final four volumes of the History I haven’t read yet, 7 plus 10 to 12 — I am going to finish the History, expletive expletive. I guess I qualify as a major Tolkien-junkie by now.)
Luckily I also found other books in English, books that were much easier reads. I guess I picked up a Dragonlance novel from Fantasiapelit (the greatest and finest sf/f shop in all of Finland), having read Weis and Hickman in Finnish translation, and thinking “Why, it’s the same world, so it must be as good!”
Now I can see that spin-off Dragonlance novels weren’t as good as the original colour/season-coded trilogy and its sequels, but they were good fodder — uncomplicated adventure stories for a young boy learning a relatively new language.
One of the side effects was that I learned five different sword-types and the names of a dozen humanoid races before I learned what Porta-Potties and Hefty bags were. (Those I learned when, when in the army, years later, I picked up Carrie and got hooked on Stephen King.)
(Another side effect: When you just read, you don’t always notice the subliminal errors in your vocabulary: For years I managed to read “surprise” as “suprise” — and quite a surprise it was when I finally noticed and thought, wait, is this a typo? Typos everywhere!)
My chief drive in this reading was simple: The books weren’t translated into Finnish. If I didn’t read them in English, I couldn’t read them at all. (Well, there are translations now, but I doubt their quality. And I once, much later, bought a few novels in German, but I could finish only those I had read in Finnish before.)
(Fun fact about German and me: One Finnish book — Sotahevonen by Arto Paasilinna — had a phrase in German that I, a callow, er, a round youth of few years, couldn’t understand, not knowing anything of the language, so I — naturally — went and asked my father. Without a second thought he told me that nicht gut translates as not good, and I think it was that moment that I decided that my father knows everything. Everything. After a subsequent decade and a half, I now think I can beat his knowledge in mathematics, if not in anything else.)
Meanwhile, while I was reading everything I could lay my hands on, both in Finnish and in English, my scribblings jammed and spluttered. The problem was that, with reading so much in English, I had, just to help my reading, began to half think in English, too, and thus my scribblings were done mostly in English. This was a bad thing, because even while I read English without a dictionary then (I used to prefer guessing over incessant interruptions), I jolly well couldn’t write it as well as I read it.
(And, of course, I still can’t speak English even half as well as I write it. No matter the way you learn, there’s always a snag.)
Thus my maps had Plains of These and Mountains of That, but I couldn’t write anything real out of those: In English, my skill wasn’t enough, and in Finnish, the words seemed silly and inadequate. This continued for years, and it was, I can tell you, immensely frustrating: having all these ideas, and knowing that you didn’t, because of an accident of birth, have the tool you wanted to put them down in writing.
The solution came in parts. First, I now and then scribbled things, very short short stories and the like, down in Finnish. I did a couple of Cthulhu pastiches (too grand a word for my variations on the theme of “I saw! Now I don’t sleep anymore.”), a few pieces of Dragonlance fan fiction, and even a (shudder) speculative Middle-Earth horror story. The best that can be said of these efforts is that I didn’t bother others with them.
I also wrote a few things of my own devising, but they weren’t fantasy or even quite horror. When I was in high school (actually the Finnish equivalent, the three-year school that prepares you for university or equivalent studies), I got friendly with a couple of quite fanatic computer-gamers and Magic: the Gathering-players, and got sucked into that happy world of imagination and competition. When it came to competition I sucked (“My winning strategy is to get my single copy of Palladia Mors into play!”), but with imagination I excelled. Every group and clique has its inside jokes. I ran with those of mine and developed them into legends, into mythologies and silly screenplays and mock-serious “holy books”. Others were amused; I was happy for I was writing something; random silly crap in Finnish, but that’s something, right?
Then I went into a university and, bang, the old group was gone and scattered. My doodlings-in-English continued, but nothing got beyond a halting synopsis or an abandoned first paragraph, because I couldn’t write fluently. For a while, I stopped writing in Finnish, too — what the use when the old chortling crowd wasn’t there? I felt I couldn’t do anything serious, and the old silly things seemed — well, silly, and too random to be really funny.
After a while I picked up my pen again — well, my keyboard actually, since I haven’t ever written anything of any length by hand; if I can’t write by computer my hand (left) starts to hurt pretty quickly, and my by-hand writing speed isn’t quick enough. So I grasped my keyboard and, in the form of my silly “pulsating monster invades high school!” screenplays I began drafting a couple of similar screenplays, in Finnish, about the new worlds I found myself in. One was about the Finnish army, where I was in for a year in the early part of my university days, becoming a clueless junior sergeant of the paper-shuffling branch, and the other script was about university itself, and more exactly, the idea of cramming as many of various ever-circulating maths jokes into the screenplay as I could.
It turned out that I found plenty of funny (I hope) ideas and tangents about the army, some memories and some half-memories and some made-up extrapolations, to finish the army script, and after noticing that my own jokes fit the university script better than the pasted jokes of others, I finished that one too. Having nothing better to do with them, I printed out relatively fancy copies at the university desk that usually does, in exchange for a bit of dough, the bookcovers for Master’s theses. Then I gave the copies to my little brothers (cheap and amusing presents! Yay!) and started a few others.
Now, this was another bad habit: Not writing real sentences and stories, but just scripts — a short description of the scenery, and then just two alternating speakers, and occasionally a third exclaiming “In the name of cultural diversity, we oppose your plot against the homicidal ray-gun alien that is taking over this university and the world as we know it!” (Real deep stuff, my work.)
Finally, I thought “This is not real writing” and wrung out a short story. Since it went well, I wrote another — and another. I got some from the unused snippets of my plays — I just filled and expanded them from a list of lines and notes. The resulting stories were humorous narratives and descriptions of odd things happening at the university or nearby, something that grew to be my style — if I may put on some airs, I like to think of it as Monty Python meets Rumiko Takahashi.
Then two crucial things happened. First, I got religion — namely, “Oh, I get it! This Jesus stuff ain’t true!” — and I became the happy atheist I am now. That didn’t affect my writing much, but eventually led to this blog.
Secondly, in the last days of the October of 2006, I noticed a site I had run across earlier — some nice American dream called NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month: an idea that people should give themselves a month, the month of November, and wrote a novel (lower limit: 50 000 words) during it, just to amuse themselves. Those that did so got a shiny graphic to show others, and all got an option for immense sympathy and empathy from the other participants through their message board.
Usually, I would have just shrugged and said “We’ll see” and forgotten all about it, but it happened to be just a few days before the start of November, and I thought: “Hm, I could try…” — and, a month later, barely before the deadline, I was over 50 000 words and holding a novel, written in Finnish, of my own: Päivä Yliopistolla, or A Day at the University, a messy conglomeration of plot threads and semi-random asides that described (you guessed it!) a day at a university that was the one I attended, with the exception that all the people were different, but all the buildings and archetypes the same. It had nefarious lecturers, slacker freshmen, terrified grad students, a mysterious disappearing corpse, a stranger with eyes of flame, and a puzzled undead professor, and it ended with a Himalayan Book of Secrets and a narrative bang.
It was like a hundred of my short stories rolled into one, and I was (and still am) madly proud of it. Most of all, I was surprised I had been able to cough up so much material, because I don’t write filler — I may write bad stuff and lousy jokes, but I don’t do prolonged walking scenes and repetitious self-examinations. (Well, unless the self-examination ends with the discovery that your genitalia have been replaced with a portal into another dimension.)
(Leaves for a moment to scribble down: “Short story: Genitalia turn into interdimensionary portal — Genghis Khan? Napoleon?”)
I danced a bit, gave the novel (short, but still a novel) to a couple of friends to read, and promised myself I’d do it again the next year.
Then the next summer came, and a thought began growing in my mind: a thought of a blog. I had been reading various atheist websites and books for about a year, then, enjoying myself immensely, and occasionally cackling with ungodly glee, and wondering whether PZ Myers ever slept, and wondering googly-eyed at the verbal magic (er, a bad word) of Daylight Atheism and Greta Christina and others. I had been thinking that a way for me to iron out my opinions might be to start a blog of my own — I wasn’t worried about the content, since by my experience of the Internet I knew that no matter the feces-quotient and brain-dysfunctionaryness of your writings, you couldn’t be thrown out of the Internets — witness, say, the Time Cube, Answers in Genesis (I refuse to link), and my various earlier non-blog and non-sensical homepages.
My problem was twofold, and now don’t laugh: What should I call my blog? And what language should I use?
The first was a quibble, though it took a lot of work, but the second was more serious. I was a born Finn, with naturally a good command of the language, but I only “knew” how to write weird stories of fun and puzzlement in Finnish. In English, I at least “knew” the way religious arguments and counter-arguments were phrased, and my English was (despite generous helpings of Stephen King) a bit more lofty and fitting than my Finnish yammering. (Then again, there’s nothing worse than a grandiloquent prick with poor language skills.) But was my English good enough? Would I be inundated with comments of “What U say? Go frak yousself!” —
And that, of course, was the deciding thought. I took a good look at the lack of hyphens and capitalization in Internet postings, the omnipresence of incoherence, rudity and sheer imbecility, and I told myself: “Heck, I can do better than this. There’s no need to be a scaredy-cat.”
And thus, after agonising for a few more weeks over a name, and a week or so over Bloggers and Blogspots, I picked WordPress and typed: masksoferis.wordpress.com, and Masks of Eris was born. I had two “first posts” ready, real posts instead of the usual “Uh, Im here getting hung of it cya later” scrawls. I posted them and thought: “Well, let’s see if I can write, and write, and write.”
Well, it’s been a little over eight months now, and the posts average to about 0.8 posts per day, and most of them have been longer than the usual one-liners and “busy cya laters” you so often see. I think my English is heap-loads better than it was when I started (not that it was so shabby even then, once I sat down and wrote), and I still enjoy doing this. It’s one more immaterial drug I’m happy to use, one more beast I enjoy feeding.
And, last November, I wrote my second NaNoWriMo novel, still in Finnish, and while it still had loads of silly-funny stuff — and I don’t intend to drop the funniness — it also had, in addition to a real plot, various serious events and undercurrents that made me think: why, maybe I will one day write some of my dragon-and-tentacle fantasies, and see how the world is inside my maps of Amida, Angala and other villains and wanderers of my making.
And, until that day comes, I have my funny-tales and this dear blog of mine.
Have I ever mentioned that I now and then get a little too talkative? Shake your head; your eyes look a little glazed over; go drink a glass of water and then surf elsewhere. Thank you for your attention.