I was recently asked, by a very dear friend: “what are your favorite examples of a character, within a story, taking a moment to tell a story?”

I could only think: what a lovely question!

First I sought to give the parameters of the question a bit more definition.

First, I said, let’s ignore every story which is simply ‘framed’ – a la The Princess Bride, The Name of the Rose, The Taming of the Shrew or The Turn of the Screw, to say nothing of that hideous “So you think you know the whole story?” opening from the HBO series The Tudors.1 That is simply a device for introducing a tale; it is not a tale itself, that what follows can well be called subservient.

And then of course there is the text-within-the-text. Classic examples include the play staged in Hamlet (The Mouse-Trap; not the Agatha Christie version); the eponymous film short in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest; the three books (Umbrarum Regni Novem Portis; The Delemolonicon; and ‘The Anjou Wine’ from The Three Musketeers) which were the dingus-like trinity of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas; the Necronomicon of the mad arab Abdul Al-Hazred2 from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and other such works of H.P. Lovecraft; and the like.

But none of these, I think, fits quite what the question is looking for. Many of them are simply included as MacGuffins, in the Hitchcock sense – that is to say, objects of desire, without their content being of much particular import. (For all that they are read or viewed within their larger text, they might as well be The One Ring. Ash nazg durbatuluk, indeed.)

Likewise I think we should avoid such texts as are made up entirely of such sub-texts, such as short story collections, even those which follow a narrative style a la The Canterbury Tale. Much as it pains me to include any list of narrative excellence without mentioning Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

Let us refine our search parameters to include only those narratives which are related by a character within a larger narrative, the inclusion of which impacts the main story. AND, let us go further, and say that these subnarratives have to be entirely self-contained stories themselves; though they impact the main narrative, they could be viewed entirely on their own. They are gesamtkunstwerk – to drop a little Deutsch.

Ah. A definition! That was fun. We have a question; now to answer it.

(Oh, and you never thought you’d actually get only one answer out of me, did you? I’ll give you my Top 10. I’m very High Fidelity about such questions. Or twice as much, as it seems.)

10) Arthur Dent’s Biscuits. From one of the later Hitchiker books by Douglas Adams.
Arthur tells the story to Fenchurch, who plays Secunda to his Prima. Jolly hillarous story; and by virtue of the way it is told, as well as what it tells, I think it speaks volumes about the characters involved in its delivery. The full text can be found here:

9) Pechorin’s Childhood. From the novel A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Yur’evich Lermontov.
Part of the novella Princess Mary, which makes up the bulk of that book. The character gives the history of his personal growth in a single paragraph, providing just enough detail to assure realism, just enough abstraction for the sake of both brevity and the lofty position of his commentary. He provides the perfect description of the stereotypical Byronic hero – something which the character, and his author, both embodied. Yet he does it in such an easy, flippant way, almost acknowledging the stereotypicity of his life, that even he seems to find the peculiarities of his character superfluous. The paragraph opens with the words “He leaned back and assumed an air” – the very fact of such self-analysis allows him to feel removed from his life, above it, in control of it! Inconsequentiality, and existential angst… what could be more clarion a description of hipsterism; of decadence; of the spiritual plague which has visited modern man? (All written in 1834, by the way. Not bad.)

8) The Twelve Hours of the Night, by William Ashbless. Included in the novel The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.
Every chapter in the book opens with an epigram from a real novel, but the epigram which opens the book is an excerpt from this fictional poem. “He whispered, ‘And a river lies” is the captivating first line of its final stanza. Of course, the imagery employed in the poem is entirely nonsensical – or is it? (Mwuhahaha!) The book opens with the protagonist puzzling over the imagery, and the life of Ashbless, aboard a plane in 1990 or so. Through a synthesis of modern science and occult technology he is catapulted back to 1824, some two weeks before Ashbless is due to arrive in London. He waits at the coffee shop where he supposedly had his first English meal. Ashbless never shows. Perhaps his biography wass faulty? It was nearly two centuries old. Out of boredom he copies out his favorite poems – Gray’s Elegy, Shakespeare’s sonnet about finger-picking (dirty!), et cetera. He also copies out The Twelve Hours from memory. Ashbless never shows; he leaves.
More occultism later, the protagonist is switched into another person’s body. This body is six foot six, and as a result of the switching process, entirely covered in hair. After he shaves himself down, leaving nothing but a rakish golden Van Dyck, he looks in the mirror – and beholds the face of William Ashbless as represented in an engraving he saw near two hundred years later. And after all, he did write the poem out at that coffee shop, at the appointed time.
But what does the poem mean?
Things get worse for the character. He goes through Hell. Both in a realistic fashion, as he is trounced through a Dickensian underworld; and in a supernatural fashion, as the very forces of Hell keep coming after him. His poetry is forgotten. He’s just trying to stay alive, and one step ahead of those who wish him dead – or worse. Finally he is starving, burnt, cut, sick, dispairing of ever going home, even of staying alive in this ancient time, and his trials and travails have left the sympathetic reader nearly exhausted, and beyond all hope-
You turn the page-
And the epigram of the next chapter opening reads: “He whispered, ‘And a river lies…”
Attributed to William Ashbless.
When you come to this point, you grin, you smile, you laugh out loud – for you know, you just know, that bottom has been reached, and now begins the ascent back from hell to heaven.
(You even find out what the Twelve Hours of the Night really are!)
It was a magnificent conceit, and worth the entire novel – even if you are the closed-minded sort who dislikes such a synthesis of Indiana Jones and H.P. Lovecraft :)

7) The Very Pretty Problem. From Stranger in a Strange Land (the unabridged version), by Robert Heinlein.
A little story which talks about an alien race’s deliberations over the creation of another little story. The story is that of modern-day Earth, and whether or not, for aesthetic purposes, they are going to destroy the planet – an act which they would consider mythopoesis. The story can be found at if you search for the phrase “AROUND A MINOR G-TYPE STAR”

6) The Gomer Bulstrood Pornography. From Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Randy Waterhouse and some of his cronies have a bet with Tom Howard concerning Van Eck Phreaking, the process by which the functions of a computer can be replicated by analyzing the microemissions of its machinery. Rather as one might determine what a person was writing in one room by putting your ear to the wall of the next room. This is the story which they overhear, which involves what is called The Grandma Furniture Paraphilia – the ability to achieve orgasm only on top of a piece of really great Victorian woodworking.
Can be found at by searching the phrase ” “We’ve got bits,” Cantrell says.” ”
Of course, there are no shortage of similar stories and digressions in Crypto. The most pronounced is Randy’s “THE DRUMS OF THE HUKS” interlude, which in many ways is to Crypto what The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings. (Look at the way the title of the Drums of the Huks story is given; compare to the Red Book of Westmarch. Or just read my essay on the subject! )

5) The facing-page inserts, from Gateway by Frederick Pohl

They are never more than a page in length, and sometimes are just a few lines. They are typeset differently from the rest of the book. They stand out very clearly as being apart from the primary narrative. But they serve to augment the narrative as well as any graphical illustration. Beyond that, they help drive the story, a thing of which few illustrations can boast.

Some of the inserts serve to explain conceits within the narrative. Some are environmental illustration – flavor text. Some foreshadow. Some backshadow. And some just make you smile.

Some are excerpts from scientific lectures. Some are bits of computer code. Some are personal ads. Some are security bulletins or legal announcements. And, five or six time, they are only a few lines of poetry, which serve as a tiny refrain in the story much as the 12 Hours in The Anubis Gates.

They are very human, all of them. They are almost cinematic in the immersion they cause. They are not some crude homage to hypertext, in the manner of Bethke’s Head Crash. They, each of them, tell a story.

If you look closely you can find a few of them as being a part of the larger narrative as a whole. For they are, though set apart from the larger narrative, a part of it – and ain’t that a fucking nice trick.

4) The Stories of El-Ahrairah. From Watership Down by Richard Adams.
I believe there are five stories which are told at times within the novel. They are narrated by various characters, usually at times of great stress, when there is just the hint of a calm before a looming storm. They are supposedly of canon stature, in the culture of the protagonists; they are almost religious, in the way that all stories are in a culture who preserves its heritage through oral tradition. The stories which are told always relate to the events which the protagonists are suffering through at the time. Yet they are often wonderful stories by themselves; in every way they bring yet more life to story which already all but rises from the page.

3) The Poetry. From The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein
I think particularly of the “All that is gold does not glitter/ Not all those who wander are lost” poem, written by Bilbo. But there are many examples in both Hob and LotR. The society which Prof Tolkein created was one which valued oral tradition of an almost skaldic fashion. Every man a makar, or what kind of man was he? So he put poetry into their mouths, as we might put stories. That very fact added more texture to the novel, for me, than any of the invented languages he then employed. Not the least of which due to the elegant simplicity of his poetry, and the way he uses such tangible language to such transcendental affect.

2) The Dolcinian Heresy, or ‘Somehow He Erred’. From The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Besides providing what is perhaps the only (and was they certainly the only) English-language history of the heresiarch Fra Dolcino and his Pseudo-Apostles, the narrative also serves as an elegant and substantive examination of medieval attitudes towards such people as the Dolcinians, the Carthusians, the Waldenisians, and similar proto-Protestant Promethii. The refrain, “But somehow he erred,” has burned itself into my neocortex like a cattle brand. The phrase is repeated without modification, yet you can hear the resolve of the speaker growing weaker with every repetition, his defense more hollow, his righteousness fading like silver in an old mirror.
A hint of this can be found here:

1) The Athenian Ships. From Farewell Great King by Jill Paton Walsh; adapted from the Plutarch.
When he was young, Themistokles was taken by his father Neokles down to the old harbor outside of Athens. There they looked upon the old and worn-out ships that had been abandoned by the Athenians on the beach. “There,” said Neokles, “is what happens to things when the Athenians no longer have use of them. For ships, or for men, it is no different.”
Themistokles was a disciple of Kleisthenes, though he was no Alkmeonid. He fought as a polemarch at Marathon, was elected archon, was patron of Simonides and choragos for Aeschylus, served as ambassador to Sparta, masterminded the alliance against the Persians, and was the military leader responsible for the Battle of Salamis which broke the Persian yoke once and for all.
Yet when peace came to Attica, he was seen as no help to the city he had saved; in fact he was a threat, so much wartime power had he accrued. So he was exiled by those he had saved. His father’s ships had finally come to shore.
Even after all this, history shits on him. Plutarch disdained him. Only Thucydides seemed to give him any props. Really it was not until Jill Paton Walsh wrote this book that a pragmatic assessment of the man was given the world. And believe me when I say that her novel makes history come alive, alive as it has not been since it was lived.

And I will end with the great wisdom of Groucho Marx: “These are my opinions. If you don’t like them… I have others.”


1 I have often maintained that The Satyricon was originally given just such a Castle of Ontronto-style frame, and that the lacunae which have ‘marred’ it for millennia were in fact put there by the author himself to give it a hint of age. I wrote a paper on this subject in the ninth grade that nearly got me thrown out of high school. Some people just can’t hold their historical revisionism.

2 Obligatory citation is obligatory


~ by davekov on 22 August 2009.

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