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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Five Wounds: Heraldry, Part 2

[Continued from the previous post:]

So why did Dan and I use heraldry in Five Wounds, and to what ends? When I was looking for a way to represent the book’s structure visually, I needed a system with seven elements, but that in practice only made use of five them regularly: because there are five protagonists in my book, but two other characters whose status is sometimes brought into question. Moreover, of my central five characters, I needed to be able to subdivide them into two groups, of three and two respectively, because this is how their various relationships play out.

All of this found an analogue in the heraldic code, in which there are seven basic tinctures, but only five that occur with any regularity, and of those five, there are three colours and two metals. This sounds suspiciously convenient. It is possible that, at an unconscious level, I was already thinking of how to relate the structure of the book to that of heraldry right from the start, so the correspondence may not be entirely coincidental.

In any case, thinking that the heraldic code could perhaps be converted into a map of the book’s structure, I began to develop this idea by assigning a tincture to each of my protagonists: blue to the crippled angel, Gabriella; red to the man of blood, Cur; black to the amorphous man with a wax face, Cuckoo; silver to the daguerreotypist, Magpie; and gold to the alchemist, Crow. These designations loosely follow traditional colour symbolism, so they have a logic of sorts, although such symbolism is not part of the heraldic code.

My next step was to design five shields, one for each of the protagonists, each using the schema outlined above: that is, Gabriella’s shield has a blue field, while Cur’s has a red field, and so on; and the addition of other elements (ordinaries, subordinaries and charges) onto the field in other tinctures would then, in each case, map the various relationships between the five protagonists.

Gabriella's Coat-of-Arms

Magpie's Coat-of-Arms
Above: Gabriella’s and Magpie’s motto shields

Along with these ‘motto shields’ (designated thus by Dan and I for obvious reasons), there is an entirely separate series of miniature shields, which are distributed throughout the book, one on each double-page layout. These serve as a visual index of which characters appear on the layout in question. Thus, if Gabriella and Cur feature on a particular layout, then the accompanying ‘index shield’ will combine blue and red (as at 55 and 77 below).

Grid of Index Shields for Five Wounds (draft)
Five Wounds Sample Layout (right)
Above: grid of index shields and recto page layout

There are important differences between the motto shields and the index shields. The former use pictorial charges to help define the protagonists: wings for the angel, Gabriella; a wolf for the rabid Cur; the moon and stars for the nocturnal daguerreotypist, Magpie; and so on. By contrast, the index shields are purely abstract, consisting only of the field, ordinaries and subordinaries. And, whereas the motto shields use only five tinctures to refer to five protagonists, the index shields use all seven tinctures, which therefore refer to seven different characters. There are therefore two overlapping but separate indexical colour systems in Five Wounds: one with five elements, and one with seven elements.

Every index shield is unique. When successive layouts involve the same group of characters, and thus use the same tinctures, each of these is represented by a different shield design. And even on the layouts in which only one character appears, and which are therefore indexed with an undifferentiated shield of a single tincture (as at 61-65 in the grid above), I had Dan repaint the shield every time we used it, so that the patterning of the pigment would be slightly different each time.

Having gone to the trouble of learning the language of heraldry, it may seem perverse that the first thing I decided to do with it was to violate its integrity by forcing it to describe something external to itself: that is, my five (or is it seven?) protagonists. In Five Wounds, then, the language of heraldry is persistently construed wrongly. Dan and I deliberately created ‘ungrammatical’ visual statements, which are the inevitable consequence of forcing the code to express things it was never intended to express. There are, for example, many index shields that violate the rule of tincture by combining colour with colour and metal with metal, depending on which characters happen to appear on any given layout: that is, according to a criterion that is entirely irrelevant to the internal logic of the code.

However, the books still acknowledges the existence of the heraldic code, because any index shield that violates its rules is marked by hand as being somehow incorrect, although the reasons for these mysterious critical annotations are not specified in the book itself. (This relates to my ideas on misinterpretation and appropriation, discussed in a previous post: Five Wounds does not merely appropriate; it misinterprets.)

Gules, a cross purpure, a bordure argent (marked as incorrect)
Above: an index shield that appears in Five Wounds, but which breaks the rule of tincture, and is therefore marked for ‘correction’

Forcing heraldry to perform such an unnatural function creates interesting problems, which were highlighted for me when I tried to encode the motto shields I designed for the five protagonists in written descriptions thereof. Below is the horrific result of this exercise, which illustrates the impossibility of trying to describe a series of (deliberate) mistakes using a code whose entire purpose is to eliminate ambiguity. It can’t be done.

Motto Shield Descriptions
Above: A failed attempt to provide written descriptions for the five motto shields

This unreadable attempt at definition is not included in Five Wounds, but it inspired one of several handwritten annotations added to the text of the novel, in which a garbled representation of the five motto shields (drawn by Dan) is accompanied by the cryptic note, The problem with a perfect notation system: It can’t describe an error. Of course, this observation has much broader implications in the context of the novel than its application to heraldry.

The problem with a perfect notation system
Above: annotation from the end of Five Wounds

If a work is to be coherent, then certain ideas have to present in its DNA: they have to run through every aspect of its narrative and presentation. In Five Wounds, these ideas include: translation, garbled transmission, insecure attributions of meaning, the relationship between signal and noise, the nature of interpretation, and what constitutes a misinterpretation. It should be obvious how the book’s use – and abuse – of heraldry helps to dramatise some of these themes. If the colours represent the book’s protagonists, they also necessarily oversimplify their interactions by rendering them in diagrammatic form. Thus the colour coding is not only a misinterpretation because it makes improper use of heraldry: it is also a misinterpretation because, in doing so, it reduces each of the characters to a single, deterministic attribute.

None of this would be of any interest, of course, unless the heraldic shields communicate something to the viewer emphatically and immediately, as images; but that is the advantage of using a visual code designed to do exactly that.

Postscript: At some point, I'll provide a separate explanation of why Dan’s colour renditions of the shields are painted (deliberately) incompetently, with the paint spilling over the borders indicated by the underlying patterns.

Also, see here for another short analysis of heraldry as a semiotic system.

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