The making might be made
Not strictly related to sf, but… I’ve said in a couple of different contexts that one of the things I’m least interested in as a critic is questions of definition, not least because definitions literally applied always tend to lead to silly conclusions. (Fantasy has to include fantastical elements? So Gormenghast isn’t fantasy, then? Science fiction always needs to embody a scientific idea? So how much non-hard-sf are you excluding? Etc…) Reading Jan Morris’s anthology-history-of-the-university The Oxford Book of Oxford (1978) today, I came across a lovely example of the sort of thing that makes me grumpy, from nearly 750 years ago. As Morris explains the story, picture the expression on the King’s face:
Three Oxford academics were deputed to wait upon Henry III in 1266 to ask permission for a postern gate through the city wall at Oxford. The King (in Latin) asked them what they wanted.
First Scholar: We ask a licence for the making of a gate through the city wall.
Second Scholar: No, we do not want the making of a gate, for that would mean the gate was always in the making and never made. What we want is a gate made.
Third Scholar: No, we do not want a gate made, for a gate made must already be in existence somewhere else and so we should be taking somebody else’s gate.
The King told them to go away and make up their minds. When they returned in three days, they had agreed upon a formula:
We ask permission that the making of a gate might be made. [Ostium fiere in forti esse]
Permission was granted.
6 thoughts on “The making might be made”
Absurdo ad reductum.
What do you mean by silly?
Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that definitions that lead to silly conclusions are flawed? If the exception proves (tests) the rule, then the extension proves the definition. Unless we’re talking about using them as a priori truths that get applied in a Procrustean manner, which is simply bad analytical practice.
The Oxford scholars, of course, have a different problem–they’re stuck in that old grammar/metaphysics tangle that was still hypnotizing Scholastics even when I was in school. They shoulda axed in English (or even Norman French).
Some definitions lead to precision and clarity. Surely we can use language with precision. It is just that we often do not. All categories blur at the edges, it seems to me (Kushner’s Swordspoint, Peake’s Gormenghast, both of which have the feel of fantasy but are not entirely within that category–nor entirely outside it. They are part of the fantastic in literature, of which “genre” fantasy is a subset. Also, marketers sometimes lie to market successfully.
After making the gate in the carpentry shop, the same three approached the King to ask for the hole to be made in the wall so that it could be installed. In self-defence, the King told them he would execute the academic who annoyed him the most. Thus defeated, the University burned the wood from the gate in its hypocaust to supplement the hot air the academics generated through talking.