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One fan's journey from Dark Crystal lover to creating the Podling language
When you really, really love a piece of storytelling, the notion that you may one day get to be a part of it may seem like a dream. In the case of author J.M. Lee, this dream became a reality when he began working on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
Lee is an author who had some short fiction published, but his first published YA novel was Shadows of the Dark Crystal, a job that he got back in 2013 thanks to a contest dubbed The Dark Crystal Author's Quest. What was only supposed to be one book turned into four, and soon enough the prequel series was being created — Lee's time in Thra only grew from there.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Lee to discuss his passion for all things related to The Dark Crystal, the Netflix prequel series, his assortment of tie-in books, and most importantly... his creation of a language for Podlings.
"The Dark Crystal was a huge part of my childhood, and my awakening as a creative person," Lee says. "It was one of the first films I saw that showed me that fiction and fantasy doesn't always have to be happy… that beauty isn't necessarily always a certain type of beauty."
It was this passion that led him to submit to the aforementioned The Dark Crystal Author's Quest contest, where the winning author was rewarded with a commission for a YA novel that took place before the events of the film. "They had been developing several attempts to do a prequel treatment for The Dark Crystal, so they'd accumulated a certain amount of information, lore, characters, and just general information that had been used in these prequel treatments that never got off the ground," Lee says.
Naturally, when Lee's agent brought the contest to his attention, he was interested. He also ended up winning and receiving a contract for what would eventually become Shadows of the Dark Crystal. Though the contest only involved one book, plans were soon made for it to become a quadrilogy before Shadows was even released. It was while he was knee-deep in copyedits for the second book, Song of the Dark Crystal, that he received a mysterious email from the Henson Company, asking him if he was interested in working on a prequel TV series that would become Netflix's The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a show that itself took years to develop.
Lee was obviously interested, and so he flew off to Los Angeles and joined the writers' room. He was in a unique position because his tie-in books had already laid some of the groundwork that would end up in the series.
The books take place in the same world and time period as the show, but they weave in and out and tell the tale from different perspectives. Some characters that Lee himself invented were prime material for the series.
"Tavra is a great example because I introduce her," Lee says. "Tavra was created for Shadows, and I developed her throughout Song. There was kind of a big thing that happens to Tavra during Song of the Dark Crystal that is sort of a major character moment for her... I'm not sure we would have gone forward with it if the show had been greenlit at the time."
"When we started the show, we had to work around the first two books that had already been published," he continues. "Then the final two books of the four-book series were able to work around the show, because the show's scripts had been finished." It's no small thing that Lee got to create a character like Tavra for his books, who ultimately ended up on the series, voiced by Caitriona Balfe (Outlander).
"Because of her role, because she's the daughter of the All-Maudra and she has a very narratively useful role, she was a very attractive character for the TV series," Lee says.
Lee was a staff writer, and he himself wrote the second episode of the series. But possibly the biggest surprise of all was that he ended up creating a language for the Podlings.
"Over the course of being in the writer's room it just came up that I have a degree in Linguistics," Lee says. "At a certain point, I got an email asking if I would ever be interested in developing Podling. We always knew that we wanted Hup to speak Podling mostly. That was an element that had always been an idea for Hup, but we hadn't really planned how the Podling was going to be developed at the time because you're not really thinking about those details when you're doing there first pass on scripts and concepts."
This would turn out to be a "dream job" for Lee, who says "You never go into linguistics and think, my job is I want to specifically develop fantasy languages for television." How then, did he begin the immense task of creating an entire fantasy language?
"I looked at the script and saw what we needed, and then I said alright, we're definitely gonna need some grammar because Hup speaks in full sentences," Lee says. "I started with some basic grammatical structures and then decided on what sound sets we were gonna use the sounds that were using for Podling in the original film, to make sure that it sounded like the same language."
He continues: "I built it up from there, looking at what we needed, the vocabulary that we needed. I also wanted to make sure that the language was built in a way that it was easy for the performers to read and to perform. I worked a lot with Victor Yerrid, who is the performer and the puppeteer for Hup because he was the one who was going to be doing most of the Podling speaking."
How much actual Podling exists then? As Lee says, "We have a full grammar, I think the document is about 20 or 30 pages. It's flexible enough, if I got an email when they were recording something on set, 'we need a translation for this line now,' the language is definitely robust enough to be spontaneous in that way. It does take me a second to create vocabulary words, but the grammar is pretty solid. I definitely didn't go out of my way to create a 2,000 word lexicon for words that no one is ever gonna say."
Are there choice words or sayings that Lee was fond of that didn't make it into the series? As it happens, yes.
"There is one. As a linguistic exercise, I always imagine what kind of idioms are used. There's one idiom that I made up that I don't think got used," Lee says.
He was kind of enough to look up the exact phrase for us, which is, "Apopotaba apopiapodpopod." That translates to, "Three Podlings laughing," an ancient Podling idiom that roughly means, "It can't be helped, guess there's nothing we can do about it."
Aside from the fourth and final of his tie-in books recently hitting the shelves (Book 3 is titled Ties of the Dark Crystal, and Book 4 is Flames of the Dark Crystal), Lee has also written two more books that will enhance the essence of fans everywhere — Heroes of the Resistance: A Guide to the Characters of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a handy guide to the show and it's characters, and Aughra's Wisdom of Thra is a small book of wisdom from the mighty Aughra.
Lee wrote all of Aughra's sayings himself, though there are Easter eggs and references to the original film within the book. One such instance comes in the case of our favorite Aughra saying found within: "Once someone's dead, they could be anywhere."
As Lee told us, that saying is inspired by the original film; when Kira tells Jen that his dead master "could be anywhere." Lee adds, "One of my favorite things about Aughra is that she's so of the earth. Her wisdom is practical, but also abstract in a way. It's also kind of irreverent. There's a quote in the book: If you sit in the river, no one will notice...especially not the river. Everything around us has a sentience, but that doesn't mean that it's always thinking about you."
The books Flames of the Dark Crystal, Heroes of the Resistance: A Guide to the Characters of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and Aughra's Wisdom of Thra are all available right now, as are Lee's first three tie-in books. The series is streaming on Netflix, and if you haven't checked it out yet, well, all we have to say is this: "Three Podlings laughing."