Narratively speaking, would you rather have description served dense, like pound cake, or light, like sponge cake?

I confess that most times now a little description goes a long way, if it’s well considered and carries the flavor of the character through whose eyes we’re seeing the landscape, or other characters. But I still carry a literary torch for certain writers of past decades who wrote lush, dense descriptive passages.

Like this one that begins [Italics mine, for emphasis]…

From the retired stall which he preferred, Cadfael studied the messenger with interest. A more unlikely servitor for an anchorite and popular saint, in the old Celtic sense that took no account of canonisation, he could not well have imagined, though he could not have said on the instant where the incongruity lay.

A young fellow of about twenty years, in a rough tunic and hose of brown cloth, patched and faded — nothing exceptional there. He was built on the same light, wiry lines as Hugh Beringar, but stood a hand’s breadth taller, and he was lean and brown and graceful as a fawn, managing his long limbs with the same angular, animal beauty. Even his composed stillness held implications of sudden, fierce movement, like a wild creature motionless in ambush. His running would be swift and silent, his leaping long and lofty as that of a hare. And his face had a similar, slightly ominous composure and awareness, under a thick, close-fitted cap of waving hair the colour of copper beeches. A long oval of a face, tall-browed, with a long straight nose flared at the nostrils, again like a wild thing sensitive to every scent the breeze brought him, a supple, crooked mouth that almost smiled even in repose, as if in secret and slightly disturbing amusement, and long amber eyes that tilted upwards at the outer corners, under oblique copper brows. The burning glow of those eyes he shaded, but did not dim or conceal, beneath round-arched lids and copper lashes long and rich as a woman’s.

What was an antique saint doing with an unnerving fairy thing in his employ?


From The Hermit of Eyton Forest, by Ellis Peters.

Reading that passage leaves me feeling surfeited on its lush description, but there’s no doubt I know this lad, and I’m certainly feeling the incongruity Cadfael is sensing in this vivid first impression (an unnerving fairy thing, indeed).

But as much as the writer in me thrills to these sorts of lengthy, rich passages, I don’t write them very often myself–though I won’t admit to never doing so–and I don’t think most readers expect them in today’s novels.

I’d be more inclined now to lift out two, three at most, of the most pertinent of these phrases to build a first impression, and sprinkle in bits of the rest over several scenes or even chapters.

But it’s as luscious to me as dark chocolate to read, and one of the reasons Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter has remained one of my favorite authors.

So (readers and writers) do you like encountering a passage like the one I quoted? Or is it so rich with detail it makes your teeth hurt? 🙂

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