I don’t know why I spend so much on time on the sub-reddit for books and book suggestions.
Wait a minute.
That’s not true.
I know exactly why I spend so much time in those sub-reddits.
It’s because most of the people there are genuinely concerned in finding great books or in sharing something great from or about a book they love.
In that same spirit then, I wanted to share an excerpt from Enchantment that is one of my favorite examples of dialogue done really, really well.
Now, I say this not as a a bearded professor concerned with wordplay or as a reader in nonfiction mode who is looking for wisdom in the wrong place.
I say it as a reader of fiction, as somebody who loves a good story and who treasures conversations in it that move irretrievably forward—conversations that have the action and stakes of a good sword fight.
This excerpt has all of that.
There’s just one problem.
The conversation doesn’t start at the very beginning of the book and so I have to set this up as economically as possible, without giving away anything more than a movie trailer might.
So, basically, our time-travelling hero has gotten past a god-like bear, kissed a sleeping princess, and agreed (after she woke suddenly) to a strange request to marry her before the bear kills them both.
This, our hero soon realizes, leaves him stuck in the princess’s world, unable to get back to his own without her help—and in the meantime completely naked, as for some reason when he entered her world, his clothes disappeared.
And with that lead-in, here it is, one of my favorite examples of dialogue done really, really well.
Did I say that already?
Well, no matter, read on—and if you’re not already a fan of Orson Scott Card, who wrote the book, prepare to be!
“So I’m trapped,” he said.
“Yes,” she said coldly. “Poor you, a peasant boy trapped into marrying a princess so you can become king.”
“I don’t want to be a king,” he said. “And I’m not a peasant. Or a boy.”
“You’re certainly not a knight.”
“I must be a knight,” he said. “Or else how could I get past the bear?”
“You’re too weak and soft and young to be a knight.”
No one had ever called him weak and soft, and he was older than she was. Almost by reflex he tensed his muscles, feeling them bulge under his skin. “How can you call me weak?”
In reply she took hold of his forearm between her hands. Her fingers overlapped considerably. “This arm has never raised a sword.” She gripped his left upper arm. “Could this arm hold a shield for more than five minutes?”
“I’ve never needed to,” said Ivan. “But I’m hardly a. . .” he struggled to think of a word that would mean weakling.
“Smridu,” she said. Peasant.
“I’m not a smridu. I’ve never farmed in my life. I don’t even know what farmers do.”
“No, I can see that,” she said. “You have the manners of a peasant, but those thighs would never get you through a plowing season. They’d break like twigs.”
Her cold assessment of his naked body infuriated and shamed him. He had never tried to bulk up like Schwarzenegger, he had tried for genuine all-around athleticism. Her scorn was so unfair, so culturally myopic—and yet he knew it would be pathetic to defend himself. “In my country I’m considered strong enough.”
“Then your country will soon be conquered, when real men see their opportunity. What are you, a merchant?” She glanced down at his crotch, continuing her assessment of his body. And then, suddenly her eyes grew wide.
“What?” he said, fighting the urge to cover himself or turn away.
“I heard about this. The Jews do this.”
“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “I’m a Jew.”
Her gaze grew stony and she muttered an epithet he didn’t understand.
Great, that was all he needed. Anti-Semitism too.
“If you think you can sell the daughter of a king into slavery, think again,” she said. “My father will ransom me, and then he’ll come and hunt you down and kill you anyway.”
“Slavery!” he cried. “What does my being a Jew have to do with slavery?”
Her fear eased. “If you’re not a peasant and you’re not a knight, then I thought you might be a trader, and then I thought of the Jews who traffic in slaves, carrying people west to sell them to the Franks.”
Ivan remembered his history. In this era all the traders dealt in slaves.
“Traders don’t steal slaves, they buy them. War captives. Debtors.”
“But the bishop says—” Of course. No sooner are people converted to Christianity than the Church starts in the with the calumnies against Jews.
“The only thing the bishop knows about Jews is the lies the Christians made up about us.”
Her face flushed. “How dare you say that Christians are liars. I’m a Christian and I never lie.”
“Well, I’m a Jew and I never captured a slave in my life. Or bought or sold one either. And I never met a Jew who did.”
She glared at him. “What a lie,” she said. “I have watched my father buy slaves from Jews himself!”
“Well, if you buy the slaves, what right do you have to criticize a Jew for selling them?”
“In my father’s kingdom, Christian slaves earn their freedom by fifteen years of work.”
“Oh, but Jewish slaves would stay slaves forever?”
“All our slaves convert to Christianity.”
“Of course they do!” cried Ivan, exasperated. “If Christians are the only ones you set free!”
“But Jews sell Christians into slavery,” she said.
“And who do you think they sell them to?” he demanded. “Christians like your father. I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation. Dealing in slaves is evil when Jews do it, but perfectly all right when Christians do it, is that the rule?”
“Why should I argue with a boy?” she said.
“You shouldn’t argue. You should listen, and learn the truth. I’m a Jew and I’m not a prince and I don’t want to marry you, I want to go home and marry Ruth. . . .Nobody’s going to want me to be king, so let’s forget the whole thing. Let me go back across the bridge.”
She was adamant. “The man who kissed me is the man I have to marry,” she said, “or the Widow rules over the people of Taina.”
“So you’d even marry a slave-stealing Jew?” he said.
“Now you admit it!” she cried triumphantly.
“No, I don’t admit it!” he shouted back. “The only thing I admit is that I don’t want to marry you!”
“You gave your word!”
“There was a bear!”
She squared on him like a trapped badger. “And there will be another bear, or worse. I will marry you for the sake of the people. Maybe you don’t care about them, maybe you have no people, maybe you come from a land where other people’s suffering means nothing. But in my land, even a peasant would die for his people, would stand against Hun or Saxon if it would save the life of even one child. Because in my land, even the peasants are men.”
He looked at her, and remembered how she had looked to him before he kissed her, the ethereal beauty, the perfection of her. Well, that was gone. But there was a different kind of beauty now. Or perhaps it wasn’t beauty at all. Nobility. She made him ashamed.
“They’re not my people,” he murmured.
“But they’re my people, and if I’m to save them, I have to marry you, even a man who . . . lies to my face.”
“Is the Widow so terrible?” he asked.
“Terrible enough to choose you as the one she let past the bear to wake me.”
“Hey,” he said. “Nobody let me past that bear! I beat him.”
“You hit him with a rock,” she said scornfully.
“I set you free of that spell.”
“Someone else would have eventually.”
“When? It was already more than a thousand years from your time to mine.” The language she spoke was at least that old.
She gasped. “A thousand years! But . . . in a thousand years . . . my people . . .”
She turned from him, gathered her skirt, and plunged into the woods.
If you made it this far, you probably liked the above.
And if so, I want to compliment you on your good taste.
But I also want to ask: What’s one of your favorite dialogues?
Please respond in the comments of the subreddit itself where I’ve linked to this post.
Oh, and if you want to read what happens in the story next, you can get Enchantment here.