Hobberdy Dick

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Hobberdy Dick is obscure, even compared to other fantasy classics:

Woe’s me, woe’s me!
The acorn’s not yet
Fallen from the tree
That’s to make the cradle
That’s to rock the bairn [lad]
That’s to grow to a man
That’s to lay me.

— The Cauld Lad of Hilton’s Song

Sometimes, it’s the quiet ones. For every fantasy novel or series as famous as the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories or Watership Down, there’s another which is little-known, even among aficionados of the genre, like Lud-in-the-Mist or The Night Land. Given the vast amount of fantasy published in the last century and a half, and the scattered nature of it in the century between modern fantasy’s creation by authors like Morris, MacDonald, and Meredith in the 1850s to the flash-point of Tolkien’s publication of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1950s (1954-56) giving the genre shape and definition, it’s not surprising that some books, even those popular in their own day, somehow fell through the cracks. Few of these are so worthy of renewed attention of Katharine Briggs’ Hobberdy Dick (1955).

The story is in many ways a familiar one: A new family moves into an old house, and gradually they begin to realize that something strange is going on. They are sharing their home with something supernatural — something that’s been there a very, very long time. Many stories that follow this pattern are horror (e.g., King’s The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in its Walls), while others feature more benign boogiemen (The Canterville Ghost, McKillip’s The House on Parchment Street, Tony DiTerlizzi’s recent Spiderwick Chronicles, etc.). [1] Briggs departs from the pattern by turning it inside out: Her point of view character is not one of the humans newly arrived but the centuries-old creature who has been there all along, the title character Hobberdy Dick himself.

“[Brownies] are generally described as
small men, about three feet in height,
very raggedly dressed in brown clothes,
with brown faces and shaggy heads,
who come out at night and do the work
that has been left undone by the servants.
They make themselves responsible
for the farm or house in which they live…
A brownie will often become attached
to one member of the family…
he has a right to a bowl of cream or best milk
and to a specially good bannock or cake…
Any offer of reward for its services
drove the brownie away…
Where he was well treated, however,
and his whims respected, a brownie
would be wholly committed
to the interests of his master.”

— Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies

Of Hobs, Lobs, and Hobgoblins

Dick is, as his name suggests, a hob — a type of friendly faerie creature variously called a hob, a lob, or a brownie (i.e., little brown man). Hobs, unlike goblins, are solitary, shy, helpful creatures, so long as they are not crossed; a house-hob will mend items, sweep floors, churn butter, and generally help out by completing unfinished chores if treated well (the “elves” in the Brothers Grimm tale “The Shoemaker and the Elves” are clearly hobs). Wise homeowners will reward him with a saucer of milk or small cakes spread with honey left out for him at night. But, like many of “the fair folk”, they have a sinister side; a hob who was offended would either abandon its post or, worse, turn into a boggart or bogle (the English folklore equivalents of a poltergeist), spoiling work instead of completing it. Those who fell between the helpful and the malicious were generally called hobgoblins, like Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow, better known as Puck; the Irish pooka (known to American audiences via the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey) is a similar creature, and some have even suggested that the Robin Hood legend began as a hob story (Rob [or Hob] -in-the-Woods). Aside from being the probable inspiration for Tolkien’s “hobbit” [2], hobs have largely failed to make the transition from folklore into modern fantasy, unlike other faerie creatures such as elves and dwarves, mythological beings like sphinxes and dragons, fairytale favorites like witches and ogres, or even fellow folktale creatures such as giants and goblins.

“That was our little man,” she said…
“Hobberdy Dick?” said Marion, whispering.
“I don’t know his name,” said Martha. “He’s a
little ragged man that does things about the house.
I see him sometimes.”

Perhaps one reason for their dropping out of sight is that hobs, unlike the aristocratic elves, master-craftsmen dwarves, scheming witches, or huge lumbering giants, were neither the heroes of stories nor the monstrous foes overcome by heroes. Their lot was humbler; they were very much the supernatural helpers of servants, not companions of lords and ladies — and before Tolkien few fantasy authors expressed much sympathy or interest in the “Downstairs” side of the Upstairs/Downstairs equation. [3] Morris’s, Dunsany’s, and Eddison’s heroes tend to be princes and lords, and the same is true of most other fantasies of the times; even the apparently ordinary protagonists of novels like Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953) and Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp’s Land of Unreason (1941/42) turn out to be reincarnations of Ogier the Dane and Frederick Barbarossa, respectively. And while working class “proletarian” heroes were a well-established folktale tradition, their stories — Jack the giant killer, the tailor who killed seven with one stroke, etc. — were far more active and dramatic than those who, in Milton’s phrase, “stand and wait”. Briggs achieves what J. K. Rowling more recently tried and failed at with her Dobby and Kreature: take a nearly forgotten class of folklore creature, personalize a single member of that group, and imbue his steadfast attempts to protect his home and adopted family in troubled times with a heroism of its own.

“. . . If there’s a beast more on a farm
than ye can reckon for, pay good heed to it.
Ye never know who put it there.”

Charity looked up at him with large eyes.
“What do you mean, Mr. Batchford?”
she whispered. “Not the fairies?”

“Name no names,” said George Batchford. “There’s
some makes good neighbors if they’re treated right,
and Widford is well known to be a lucky place
and well guided. Least said soonest mended…”

A Time and a Place

The second distinctive feature of Briggs’ book, aside from her choosing an almost forgotten folklore creature as its title character, is the time and place in which she chooses to tell her story — a country house near Oxford in the year 1652, during the upheaval that followed upon England’s Civil War (1642-1651) and the establishment of Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth. Vague, idealized medieval settings have been the default for fantasy since William Morris’s day, with modern-day tales the recognized alternative. Fantasy set in other periods, especially when the author is specific about when and where, were a rarity until quite recently (cf. the Tor “Fairy Tale series” launched the late ’80s, which started a vogue that has continued to the present day). Briggs is not only very specific, having her characters visit many real-world sites (such as the famous Rollright Stones, a neolithic stone circle that also appears briefly in Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham), but grounds her book in the events of the time. The story begins when the traditional owners of Widford Manor leave, ruined by supporting the losing side in the war, and new owners arrive, a family of London merchants from Cheapside who aspire to become landed gentry. Dick almost leaves with the last of the old family at the beginning of the story, but decides to stay behind:

Dick had half a mind to… scramble into the cart
. . . before running water parted them. The Culvers
had been good friends to him, and he would
have liked to share their fortunes a little longer…
But he had been at Widford time out of mind
and had only known the Culvers for a little over
two centuries. He would stay with the old place
a little longer and give it a chance of life;
it would soon fall into ruin if he left it.

The opening chapter, describing the hob in the empty house, conveys vividly how desperately a hob needs people about him and things to take care of (as Briggs puts it, “hobs fare ill without [human company]“), and the touching degree to which he becomes attached to the only living thing left at the desolate house, a little red hen who escaped being rounded up after the auction. When the new family comes, not only are they city folk who know nothing of country ways and customs, they are Puritans who scorn old superstitions as ungodly. Briggs is very good at portraying unsympathetic characters without villainizing them. Mr. Widdison, the father, is a stern man with little use for any point of view but his own, yet he is redeemed for the reader by a fundamental core of decency, a determination to do the right thing as he sees it, and his devotion to his ailing mother-in-law, the mother of his first wife who he makes sure has a comfortable home with him to her dying day. Mrs. Widdison, the second wife, is a selfish and self-important woman, but Briggs always shows how her occasionally cruel treatment of others is partly due to vanity, party to thoughtlessness; she is not a “wicked stepmother” but simply a bad parent and worse employer, something far more believable. [4] The eldest son (and only child from the first marriage) and the young woman who comes to serve as Mrs. Widdison’s lady-maid (the last living member of the deposed family who once lived there), quickly come to be the main human characters, along with some of the servants; it’s hard to deal with a large cast, some of whom play very minor roles in the story, and keep their personalities distinct, but Briggs pulls it off.

Old Ursula scolded as if she were
an eight-day nagging machine
newly wound up.

Most difficult of all, perhaps, is her treatment of the mother-in-law, old Mrs. Dimbleby. Here we have a person so good that she is actually surrounded by a kind of halo that Hobberdy Dick can see, though her fellow humans cannot (“Dick was rather frightened of her because of a luminous cloud in which she often sat, but he was fascinated, and she looked so mild and quiet that he could not think her dangerous”). The difficulty of presenting genuinely good characters who are both likable and believable is well-known, and very few writers of fiction can pull it off — most prefer to create a good villain, which is much easier. Charles Williams tried several times to create such a numinous character and failed, as did C. S. Lewis (cf. Ransom in That Hideous Strength); Tolkien managed it with Faramir and Elrond, but witness those characters’ fates at the hands of Peter Jackson, where all the character traits that make them admirable are stripped away. And every gamer is familiar with paladins who come off as sanctimonious and self-righteous rather than living examples to admire and inspire. That Briggs is able to believably present the story from a whole range of points of view, getting inside of good and bad people alike and showing how events look from their perspective, is one of the greatest strengths of her work, and a fine example for other authors to follow.

“The trouble with we,” [the Taynton Lob] went on sadly,
“is that we’re neither one thing nor t’other.
We’re frittened [frightened] of their holy water and the great
things that come around them when they pray,
but we’re main frittened of their black bugs [bugbears, bogymen]
and their counter-pacings [widdershins] and the deathly things they say
[i.e., witchcraft]. And it seems there’s no place now
for the likes of we.”

The Way of the Hob

A final strength of the book is the degree to which it is specific, not generalized. So much contemporary fantasy of the last three decades derives from synthesized stuff such as the writings of Joseph Campbell, Northrup Frye, or Carl Jung, rather than the actual stories these critics boiled down to construct their theories from. Briggs, by contrast, was probably the leading folklore scholar of her generation (her colleagues recently issued a thirteen-volume set of her Collected Works), and she draws inspiration directly from the original stories and tales collected over the last two centuries or so, many of which she published in collections such as British Folktales (1977), which includes the hob story “The Brownie”. She also wrote several highly respected works on folklore: A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures (1976, also published under the variant title An Encyclopedia of Fairies) is undoubtedly her masterpiece, and probably the definitive work identifying and describing various folklore creatures, often accompanied by brief versions of the original stories in which they occur. Also significant are The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legend (1978), The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), Pale Hecate’s Team (1962, a book on Elizabethan beliefs on witchcraft), The Anatomy of Puck (1959, which does the same for Elizabethan fairy lore), and Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies (1979, a sort of Dictionary of Fairies lite).

Out of this expertise, Briggs has focused on a very specific part of all this lore; her plot is new, but the creatures and traditions are all authentic, and all drawn from English folklore of the period in which her story is set. This wealth of actual knowledge gives the tale a distinct flavor and realism more eclectic fantasies often lack. Nor do her self-imposed limitations hinder the story; she includes not just hobs (Long George, the Taynton Lob, Patch of Iccomb, Lull of Kingstanding, Hairy Tib of Bruern, the Shining Boy of Widley Copse, and Hobberdy Dick himself) but ghosts (the evil one in the West Attic and the miser’s ghost haunting the bed from London), witches (Mother Darke) and their familiars, a will-o’-the-wisp (Willy Wisp), the old Grim of Stow churchyard (an ancient spirit that was once a god and is now a Hound of the Baskervilles-ish black dog), an Abbey Lubber (whose presence foretells doom for the house it haunts), and more. In short, she vividly recreates a now-lost folklore and, in a tour-de-force, presents it from inside, from the point of view of the supernatural creatures, with all their fascination of humankind. Nor does she make the mistake of listing off all Dick’s powers at the onset; the reader finds out what he can do only by reading along — a triumph of “show, don’t tell.”

Once, when they were both unawares,
he caught a moment’s glimpse of Dick
and stopped, startled and almost frightened;
but Dick rallied all his powers,
and thought of a clump of ferns
with a rabbit peering out of it
until he looked like one,
and Joel went on, reassured.

In the end, Briggs’ book is as satisfying a fairy tale as any of the ones she draws inspiration from. In the best fairy tale/fantasy tradition, everything works out the way it should. She ends with a particularly poignant final note, with a Eucatastrophe Tolkien could be proud of. In the final chapter, her newly united lovers present Hobberdy Dick with a choice: They lay out three presents for him. If he chooses the green suit they have made for him, he can enter the hollow hills and fairyland, becoming a member of the seely court. If he chooses the red suit, his time on earth is at an end and he can follow the humans he loves into the afterlife. And if he chooses the little broom, he can remain as he has always been, and witness what the next few centuries will bring to his beloved house and its people. I will not reveal his choice here, other than to say that it is both moving and entirely fitting — the culmination of the entire book in its final pages.

Hobberdy Dick and Your Game

Katharine Briggs has long been one of the most influential authors in gaming; her work has been a major resource much-used by RPG designers for years, often uncredited. Anyone wishing to give a fey flavor to an adventure could not find a better source than A Dictionary of Fairies, and simply leafing through its pages should provide a wealth of material that sparks dozens of encounter ideas. Beyond this, her novel is a splendid example of how to take traditional material from old stories and weave it together into a satisfying new tale. Folklore is one of the three or four major sources from which modern fantasy was created (along with medieval romance, mythology, and perhaps adventure stories), and it’s never been put to better use than in Hobberdy Dick.

Finding a Hob of Your Own

Unfortunately, while Briggs’ scholarly works are relatively easy to come across, her novels are scarce in the U.S. Hobberdy Dick appeared in England in 1955 but had to wait until 1977 for an American edition (followed a year later by a paperback); both are long out of print. Relatively few libraries have it on their shelves, meaning that fantasy lovers who want to find the book must either resort to second-hand book services such as www.bookfinder.com or import their own copies from the UK, where it is readily available, having gone through seven or eight editions (cf. www.amazon.co.uk). One reason for this neglect in the U.S. might be due to its being marketed as a children’s or young-adult book; its specific historical setting makes it more difficult for American children — few of whom know England even had a civil war, much less who the sides and stakes were, and who know “Puritans” only as early Massachusetts colonists who followed the Pilgrims — than their English counterparts. In addition, Hobberdy Dick is a book that would greatly benefit from annotation, given its heavy reliance on authentic folklore and customs. For example, readers who do not know what a fetch is may be baffled by the scene midway through the book where Dick sees young Nicholas Culver, a boy he liked who had been the heir of the previous owners, slide down the bannister and run out into the yard, then vanish. In fact, Nicholas has just died of the plague miles away in Bristol, a fact disclosed in passing several chapters later; his spirit’s lifelike appearance at his old haunts is a classic piece of folklore (cf. Defoe’s “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal”). But even without annotations, the story is a masterpiece, and highly recommended. Briggs’ only other novel, Kate Crackernuts (1963), is a fairly straightforward novelization of an old folktale and thus less interesting than her original story.

. . . but for all that
Widford was a lucky place
and well-guided in their time,
and their children’s,
and for many a long year after that.

— The closing lines of the book


[1] So familiar is this motif, in fact, that a movie like The Others can both use it and ultimately invert it.

[2] Briggs herself made the discovery in 1976 that the word “hobbit”, which Tolkien had simply made up, actually once existed in folklore. A mid-19th century collector of folklore, Michael Aislabie. Denham, had once published a list of folklore creatures based on one that had first appeared in Reginald Scot’s famous debunking The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584). Scot’s original list had included “Robin good-fellowe” and “hob gobblin”; among the creatures Denham added were “hobhoulards”, “hob-thrusts”, “hobby-lanthorns” (will-o-wisp), “hob-headlesses”, “brown men” (i.e., brownies), and “hobbits” — this last probably a diminutive of hob. See Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies, especially her entry on The Denham Tracts (1892 & 1895)

[3] The degree to which they’ve dropped off the radar can be shown by their near-total absence in urban fantasy; given the modern-day phenomenon of “McJobs” and the vast numbers of the overworked and underpaid, many of whom keep homes going while working two or more part-time jobs, one would think the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a helper who sometimes chipped in and completed chores left undone through sheer exhaustion at the end of a long, hard day would have made a resurgence. The only example of a hob known to me in urban fantasy is in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, where a female hob rescued by the heroine moves in and takes care of her. There are doubtless others, but their rarity underscores the point; the office hob, a fantasy icon ideally suited to the present day has yet to make its debut.

[4] The story does have a wicked stepmother, but she’s relegated to a minor role, having been dead several centuries. She appears as the evil ghost who haunts the West Attic, whose exorcism forms one of the high dramatic points of the novel.

The Hobbit

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

The Hobbit is one of the few classics of fantasy that needs little introduction:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations

What do you say about the second most famous book by the world’s most famous fantasy author? Without The Lord of the Rings, there would be no genre of modern fantasy, and without The Hobbit there would be no Lord of the Rings. There was certainly fantasy before Tolkien (see my earlier columns about William Morris and Lord Dunsany in particular), but it was Tolkien who pulled together all the disparate threads of pseudo-medieval romance, fairy tales, folk tale, novelization of myths, children’s literature, and adventure stories to create the genre as we know it by producing the masterpiece that serves as the paradigm — the book by which all other fantasies are judged. The Lord of the Rings (LotR) divides all other fantasy authors into precursors or successors of Tolkien, and its popularity has long since spread beyond just genre readers into the general public (witness its being declared “Book of the Century” by several end-of-the-millennium polls a few years back, none of them genre-oriented). Only two other modern fantasies have had this kind of impact and universal acceptance: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland [1] and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. But Carroll’s book is one-of-a-kind, with no true heirs; it stands alone rather than as the wellspring of a tradition — the only remotely successful work in the same vein being Carroll’s own brilliant The Hunting of the Snark (1876). Similarly, though the Oz books were very popular (Baum himself wrote fourteen between 1900 and 1914 and the series was continued by his estate for years after his death) their impact on modern culture comes entirely through the 1939 movie [2] and they too failed to establish any widespread or long-lived “tradition” of similar books by other writers.

By contrast, Tolkien is a much-imitated author; there was a time when few fantasy books appeared without some reference to “like Tolkien” or “the next Lord of the Rings!” in the cover blurb, and just this fall a new author’s publisher arranged with a major bookstore chain to shelve his book out of alphabetical order so it would appear in the Tolkien section rather than by the author’s name, a fairly transparent ploy to attract attention by implying the book was something Tolkien’s fans would like. So deep and pervasive is Tolkien’s influence that most readers and fantasy authors no longer consider his major innovations particularly “Tolkienesque” but simply generic fantasy; they work with his toolbox just as he drew on actual medieval lore and simply accept his constructions as “found” artifacts. To take a single example, Tolkien’s elves are a brilliant innovation: He reintroduced into English literature for the first time since Spenser (in his little-read but masterful King Arthur epic The Faerie Queene) [3] the idea of elves as human-sized, near-immortal, elusive, and dangerous beings. Before Tolkien, the word “elf” conjured up images of flower-fairies and twee, cute little rather silly fairy-folk: Peter Pan‘s tiny, flighty, winged Tinkerbell perfectly encapsulates the dominant image of an elf or fairy (the two words were used interchangeably) during the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. There are echoes of this silliness in the Rivendell chapter of The Hobbit and the elves singing “tra-la-la-lally” in the trees, but things shift dramatically by mid-story (the scenes in the hall of the wood-elves, who are elusive and evocative and yet believingly flawed), and by the end of the book the elves are presented as the most dangerous element in the elven-human-dwarven alliance in the Battle of the Five Armies. Even the spellings “elves” and “elven” are deliberate choices by Tolkien harkening back to Elizabethan times in defiance of the accepted twentieth century forms “elfs” and “elfin,” while the parallel “dwarves” and “dwarven” are Tolkien’s inventions which he was hard-pressed to preserve from the efforts of well-intended proofreaders (note the title of Disney’s movie, which debuted the same year The Hobbit was first published: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). [4] Tolkien was a philologist, a lover of words who understood that even a subtle shift in spelling could change the associations of a word and help it escape a whole host of unwanted connotations, and his fictions have had so great an impact that “elves” and “dwarves” now conjure up quite different images in a reader’s mind than “elfs” and “dwarfs”. The “Precious Moments” little folk of a century ago have by and large given way to the human-sized yet more-than-human ancient race familiar through D&D and the literally hundreds of fantasy novels written in the post-Tolkien era and in “the Tolkien tradition.”

“Gandalf!… Not the wandering wizard…
who used to tell such wonderful tales…
about dragons and goblins and giants
and the rescue of princesses
and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons?
Not the man that used to make such
particularly excellent fireworks!…
Dear me!… Not the Gandalf who was
responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses
going off into the Blue for mad adventures?
Anything from… visiting elves to stowing away
aboard the ships that sail to the Other Side?
. . . I beg your pardon, but I had no idea
you were still in business.”

— Mr. Baggins meets the wizard

There and Back Again

By the time he came to write The Hobbit in 1930-1933, [5] Tolkien had already been writing fantasy for at least a decade and a half, going back to his “Earendel” poems of c.1914 and The Book of Lost Tales (c.1916–1920). He already had in place his cosmology (how his fantasy universe was organized) and cosmogony (how it came to be), his pantheon with all its complex interactions between his demiurges, his peoples and their mythic histories. He had written long narrative poems about Turin and about Beren and Luthien, a collection of myths about the struggles between the Valar and the wars of the elves, and much more. What was lacking was a human perspective, a way of transforming a collection of myths into a coherent story. Tolkien solved this problem by bringing together the two parts of his creativity: the mythic background from his “Silmarillion” cycle (the “Lost Tales”) and the narrative flow from the various stories he had written for his children (the original drafts of Farmer Giles of Ham and Roverandom). The result was The Hobbit, a book unlike any that had preceded it. In the relatively short space of some three hundred pages Tolkien lays down the blueprint for the modern fantasy novel (which he later expanded upon for his own LotR), complete with all the now-necessary paraphernalia: a map, a strange unfamiliar alphabet (based in this case on the traditional Old English runes [6]), a world like our own in the past (compare Lake Town with the Swiss Lake Villages of the Neolithic era) but with features never found in history, only in folklore (dragons, goblins, elves, dwarves, giants), the coming together of a band of very disparate adventurers to achieve their goal, an epic quest to find (but then renounce) a great treasure, an inexperienced protagonist who grows into a true hero, and perhaps best of all a world which, varied as it proves, promised far more riches left unrevealed at the end of the story.

One of Tolkien’s most effective techniques as an author is the way he blends traditional fairy-tale creatures (albeit re-imagined ones bear the strong stamp of his imagination, as per the already-discussed elves) with new ones of his own creation. Alongside the dwarves and elves and trolls, the goblins and giants (who would have fit in well in an array of earlier works, from the mid-Victorian stories of George MacDonald to the Elizabethan chapbooks about Jack the Giant Killer), he inserts wholly new creatures — most notably the hobbit himself, but also Gollum and Beorn (and, in LotR, the ents and the balrog), not to mention the giant eagles and talking spiders. This knack enables him to expand beyond the material he has inherited from folk-tale and myth in new and interesting ways, as well as allowing him to generate a good deal of humor by juxtaposing some of the various elements (as in the sometimes hapless Bilbo’s conversations with the grand and solemn beings he encounters along the way).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his treatment of the dragon Smaug. A distant threat hovering in the back of the reader’s mind since the beginning of the book, Smaug proves to be everything rumor promises and marks the rediscovery of the dangerous dragon back into fantasy. Before The Hobbit, dragons had diminished from the epic foes fought by legendary heroes such as Beowulf and Sigurd to become the sly, comic creatures of such books as The Reluctant Dragon, The Land of Green Ginger, or any number of comic retellings of the St.George & the Dragon tale. [7] Tolkien, by contrast, re-created the dragon as a believable fantasy menace, making them intelligent, powerful, evil, implacable:

“I kill where I wish and none dare resist.
I laid low the warriors of old
and their like is not in the world today.
Then I was but young and tender.
Now I am old and strong, strong, strong…
My armour is like tenfold shield,
my teeth are swords, my claws spears,
the shock of my tail a thunderbolt,
my wings a hurricane,
and my breath

— Smaug boasts

Smaug is perhaps the greatest of all fantasy dragons, the icon of ancient wisdom, reptilian malice, enormous power, endless greed, and uncontrollable fury captured in one figure, who has the power to bring death and destruction on a wide scale even after his own death. He is not a mindless monster or a quaint polite figure but a vivid personality combined with one of the great archetypes of myth: the book’s chief villain, a sharply drawn character, a monster, and a force of nature all in one. Tolkien originally intend to have Bilbo kill the dragon, stabbing him in his sleep, but wisely thought better of it and had the dragon die in the midst of a rampage, perishing along with his own victims by a combination of his own hubris and a hero’s willingness to take a final desperate chance [8] — a great villain deserves a great death scene, and The Hobbit delivers in spades. Not even as great a work as The Lord of the Rings can match The Hobbit in this one point: its depiction of one of the great iconic creatures of fantasy brilliantly realized.

Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum.
I don’t know where he came from,
nor who or what he was.
He was Gollum! — as dark as darkness,
except for two big round pale eyes…
Goblin he thought good, when he could get it;
except for two big round pale eyes…
but he took care they never found him out.
He just throttled them from behind,
if ever they came down along anywhere
near the edge of the water while he was prowling about.
They very seldom did, for they had a feeling
that something unpleasant was lurking down there,
down at the very roots of the mountain…
Sometimes [the Great Goblin] took a fancy
for fish from the lake, and sometimes
neither goblin nor fish came back.

The Importance of Being Baggins

The Hobbit holds the enviable distinction of being perhaps the only fantasy more widely read than The Lord of the Rings. Although overshadowed by its sequel (and a marketing campaign that labeled it as a “charming prequel” to LotR), the earlier book is quite distinct in its own right. Many readers never move past The Hobbit to the sequel, and of the many who do some actually prefer its self-effacing and self-contained tale to the grand epic that followed and grew out of it. We should not forget that, in a famous Locus poll (1987) of the all-time greatest fantasy books, The Hobbit came in second only to The Lord of the Rings, getting far more votes for first place than Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (which came in a distant third). For most, the story of Bilbo’s adventures serves as an introduction into the world of Middle-earth, the first of two complementary tales. We must remember, however, that The Hobbit was intended as a stand-alone work, and it is best appreciated as such. Tolkien never intended to write a sequel and only did so when the original book proved so popular that the publisher demanded more of the same. Even so, seventeen years passed between the publication of The Hobbit and the first volume of its “sequel”, The Lord of the Rings, which turned out to be quite distinct in theme, intended audience, approach, and scope from the earlier book.

This is not surprising, since Tolkien never repeated himself: The Hobbit is as different from The Lord of the Rings as either is from The Silmarillion, “Leaf by Niggle”, or Farmer Giles of Ham. The fantasy world that both books share dated back to the early days of World War I, but Tolkien chose to put it to a very different use in The Hobbit than he had for his earlier tales, picking and choosing from among the material he eventually re-wrote into The Silmarillion. For example, prior to The Hobbit, dwarves had always been an evil people in Tolkien’s works, minions of Morgoth and allies of the orcs. Re-imagining them as the mostly sympathetic companions of the hero in The Hobbit would have been just as startling to anyone who had read Tolkien’s earlier unpublished work as if he had chosen a goblin for his hero. Many characters and elements from Tolkien’s earlier stories appear in The Hobbit, either in the story itself or mentioned as part of the background: Elrond and the half-elven, the three races of the elves, the Necromancer (the villain of the Beren and Luthien story, who in time becomes the namesake villain of The Lord of the Rings), Gondolin, the old dispute between the wood-elves and dwarves (i.e., the quarrel over Luthien’s silmaril that led to Thingol’s murder; cf. The Silmarillion, chapter XXII), and even (in the original draft) Beren and Luthien themselves. But he has given a new coherence to them by throwing them into the background of his new story; out of a wealth of old material he has made something new that is nevertheless enriched by all the previous stories that underlie it. And in turn The Hobbit provided him with the blueprint for his masterpiece, the crowning achievement of the genre: The Lord of the Rings.

In the end, The Hobbit deserves accolades on its own merits; it is full of good things, and by itself would have won Tolkien fame as one of the greatest of all fantasy writers. Within the space of a single book he evolves the modern genre, moving from the fairy-tale mood of the opening chapters to the grand epic of the scenes at the Lonely Mountain, where friend turns on friend, heroes betray their companions, and the author displays a willingness to kill off likeable characters; something unheard-of in the children’s books of the time. What starts out as a children’s book with a delightfully intrusive narrator (“I imagine you know the answer, or can guess it, since you are sitting comfortably at home and have not the danger of being eaten to disturb your thinking”) becomes something that transcends any given age or audience. Tolkien’s book stands out from its precursors and contemporaries by his willingness to introduce gray into a fantasy world of black and white, his believably flawed hero, his assumption that the good guys will often be tempted to take an easy way out (as when Thorin, talking to the Great Goblin, is described as “not quite knowing what to say… when obviously the exact truth would not do at all”) or behave in less than admirable ways (“You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain,” said Gandalf [to Thorin]. “But things may change yet.” [note: they do]). It’s hard to imagine any other book of the day featuring a character like Gollum, a sinister, sympathetic, menacing, pathetic, wholly horrible figure. Everything about him is left a mystery: where he came from, what he was, how he came to be as he is — all that is left is a vivid, indelible impression. This chapter may stand as the single best piece of fantasy writing, from the tour-de-force of a character waking up alone and lost in total pitch blackness, through the encounter with the dangerous yet piteous Gollum, madman and murderer and lost soul all in one, to Bilbo’s decision to not repay evil with evil, whatever the cost. And, of course, the introduction of a certain little gold ring that plays a major role in determining the outcome of the rest of the book, not to mention setting up the quest for the book that followed. In short, “Riddles in the Dark” can stand for The Hobbit itself; it both opened up a vast horizon, and a working method that others could imitate but never quite match. And the rest, as they say, is history.

[F]or ever after he remained an elf-friend,
and had the honour of dwarves, wizards,
and all such folk… but he was
no longer quite respectable.

He was in fact held by all the hobbits
of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’
— except by his nephews and nieces
on the Took side…
[H]e did not mind…
though few believed any of his tales,
he remained very happy to the end of his days,
and those were extraordinarily long.

A Shelf Full of Hobbits

Since Tolkien’s work is so successful, there are literally dozens of different editions that have been published over the last sixty-seven years, and that’s not even counting all the foreign translations. The first edition is now highly collectable, with copies in good condition going for thousands of dollars; it differs dramatically from the second and all subsequent editions in that the Gollum story was later re-written to match the sequel (LotR) — in the original, Gollum did not try to kill Bilbo after he lost the riddle-contest but instead showed him the way out; this variant of the familiar story can be found in Doug Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit (1988; 2nd rev. ed. 2002). Tolkien, ever the perfectionist, also made many small changes to the book over the years; Anderson’s edition incorporates all of these as well as providing the original readings for comparison.

For those artistically minded fantasy fans, there have been many illustrated editions over the years, from the solemn grandeur of Alan Lee (1997), to the children’s book mode of Michael Hague (1987), to the cartoony Rankin-Bass (1989, illustrated with stills from the animated film). There has also been a reasonably faithful graphic novel adaptation by David Wenzel (1989-1990). Many of the foreign editions are illustrated, some beautifully and some so ineptly as to stagger belief; a representative selection of this art can be found in Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit. The best illustrator of Tolkien’s work remains Tolkien himself; his black and white drawings reveal a good deal of how he saw Bilbo’s world and thus provide a valuable addition to the story, and his five color paintings are beautiful, especially the stained-glass-window-ish “Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves” of the barrel-riding Bilbo on the tree-lined forest river and “Conversations with Smaug”, an exceptionally detailed portrait of the great dragon upon his hoard, complete with depictions of the Arkenstone, mithril-shirt, and a dwarven curse on an inscription.

While we have been lucky enough to get Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to wash the taste of the 1978 Bakshi film out of our minds, there has as yet been no announcement of a forthcoming comparable film of The Hobbit, although Tolkien fans everywhere live in hope. If we discount a miniseries on Finnish television, The Hobbit has never been filmed except for a single bad cartoon adaptation from Rankin-Bass in 1977, which at least had the benefit of an excellent cast of voice-actors (John Huston as one of the best Gandalfs ever recorded, Richard Boone as Smaug, Hans Conried of “Bullwinkle” fame as Thorin, et al.).

Luckily, several excellent audio adaptations have been released over the years, with the best being Tolkien’s own reading of the Gollum chapter (available as part of the “J. R. R. Tolkien Audio Collection”). The best of the non-authorial versions is the wonderful full-cast radio play from Minds Eye Theatre (available in a wooded boxed set). Nicol Williamson’s four-record set, although regrettably somewhat abridged before release and now long out of print, is also highly recommended, particularly for the troll scene (“Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrow“). Recorded Books Inc. offers an unfortunately pedestrian but nonetheless unabridged reading by Rob Englis, and more recently Durkin-Hayes Audio has released a new (abridged) recording by Martin Shaw, whose accent interestingly enough gives a more working class/proletariat slant to the tale.

Alive without breath
As cold as dead
Never thirsty, ever drinking
All in mail never clinking

— Gollum’s riddle

The Hobbit and Your Game

Tolkien’s influence on roleplaying games is greater than that of any other author, even Robert E. Howard; all but one of D&D‘s player-character races come directly from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the sole exception being gnomes, which as a result have always been something of a fifth wheel), as does the concept of the player-character party (characters of widely varied background, race, and abilities uniting for an adventure): one of the two or three fundamental core elements of RPGs. The original edition of D&D was quite open about its borrowings, until a cease-and-desist from the American company that owned the licensing and film rights resulted in the renaming of a goodly portion of the creatures in the original “Monsters and Treasure” book (1974; one of the three booklets that made up the 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons game): thus hobbits became “halflings”, ents >”treants”, balrogs > “balor”, and Nazgul > “wraiths” and “spectres”, while wights (i.e., barrow-wights) simply silently dropped the explicit Tolkien connection. Oddly enough, the name “orc”, Tolkien’s invention for a goblinoid race, remained unchanged on the dubious logic that it resembled an Old Irish word for pig. Still, while the game has developed far from its roots (as have all the RPGs deriving from it — that is, every RPG in existence), Tolkien’s influence still remains a strong background element even now, with significant overlap between Tolkien fans and roleplaying gamers.

Besides its influence on D&D, Tolkien’s Middle-earth has been the inspiration of two licensed RPGs. The first was Middle Earth Role Playing (“MERP”), a much-read, little-played game published by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) in 1984 and followed by dozens of supplements over the next dozen years. Although featuring some beautiful artwork and maps, especially on its early releases, MERP was notorious for its torturous rules system and bizarrely un-Tolkienesque development of his setting (a female Nazgul, an adventure featuring Morgoth’s daughter, spell-casting priests as standard PC party members, and so on). An associated collectable card game, Middle-earth: The Wizards followed in 1995, again with stunningly beautiful art and glitch-filled rules. Iron Crown also published several Hobbit-based boardgames: The Battle of Five Armies (1984), The Lonely Mountain (1984), and The Hobbit (1995); of these, The Lonely Mountain is the most interesting (explore the dungeon and escape without alerting Smaug) and The Hobbit has the highest production values (but unfortunately again with significant rules glitches).

A second Tolkien RPG debuted from Decipher in 2002; although called simply The Lord of the Rings it includes material from The Hobbit as well. Several supplements have followed, benefiting greatly from the game’s close ties with the Peter Jackson films (stills from the films are used as illustrations throughout the core book). A second LotR-based collectable card game has also seen the light of day, likewise using photos from the films. Remarkably enough, neither of the two officially licensed Tolkien RPGs have ever recreated the quests from either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings in adventure form.

Finally, there have a number of Tolkien boardgames from other RPG publishers, dating all the way back to TSR’s Battle of the Five Armies (1976) through classics such as SPI’s War of the Rings (1977) and ICE’s Fellowship of the Ring (1983); more recently, the world’s most famous boardgame designer, German Reiner Knizia, released The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most innovative Tolkien boardgame ever (Hasbro, 2000) featuring as it does the idea of cooperative rather than competitive play (i.e., all the players work together against a common foe, rather than try to beat each other); it has since been followed by several supplements, including one based on The Hobbit (Fantasy Flight, 2001). Beyond these, there have been several Tolkien-based computer games over the years, most recently a series of major releases tied into the Peter Jackson films. For those who like their roleplaying gaming through a computer, rumors of a MMORPG based on Middle-earth have been circulating for the past several years, and its eventual appearance seems highly likely.


[1] Here I am considering both parts of Alice in Wonderland — e.g., Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) as two parts of a single book. Even if they are considered separate works, the essential point still holds, that Carroll proved inimitable and did not found a tradition of Carolingian fantasy; indeed, his own horribly sentimental and sappy Sylvie and Bruno (1889 & 1893) shows he could not sustain his own success.

[2] All the familiar tag-lines associated with Oz — “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” “Surrender Dorothy!” “If I only had a brain” “Auntie Em! Auntie Em!” “I’m melting!” “There’s no place like home” and so on — come from people quoting the movie, not the book. The degree to which the book, with its FOUR witches, has been overshadowed by the movie can be indicated by the title itself: Baum’s book is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The movie drops the Good Witch of the South (among much else) and adds such elements as the threat to Toto from the malicious neighbor (Miss Gulch), Dorothy’s running away from home, and all the connections between characters in Dorothy’s Kansas and those she meets in Oz (adding the three farmhands who correspond to the Scarecrow, Lion, and Woodsman, the mean old lady who corresponds to the Wicked Witch, the traveling showman who corresponds to the Wizard, and so on). Perhaps most strikingly, the “Emerald City” in the original book is white; it only looks green because its inhabitants wear green-tinted glasses, and the movie’s famous “ruby slippers” are instead “Silver Shoes” in Baum’s tale.

[3] In Book One of The Faerie Queene, which retells the story of St. George and the Dragon, characters keep mistaking George for an elf because he’s such a great warrior; like Aragorn, he is a human raised by elves who excels the human norm. Unfortunately, few read Spenser’s tale because (1) they are put off by its being in verse, (2) no one has told them the best way to read Spenser is to ignore the allegory and just read through and enjoy it for the story, and (3) all modern editions of his book retain the Elizabethan spellings (unlike his contemporary Shakespeare, whose spellings are almost invariably modernized). Any fantasy fan who can read Shakespeare might want to give Spenser a try sometime and might be pleasantly surprised by how like a fantasy novel they will find his story of knights, maidens, evil enchanters, treacherous and beautiful sorceresses, bold and capable heroines, monsters, enchantments, and of course the Dragon.

[4] The first paperback edition of The Hobbit, the 1961 Puffin edition (an imprint of Penguin), actually used “dwarfs”, “dwarfish”, and “elfish”, much to Tolkien’s displeasure.

[5] Tolkien began the story sometime during the summer of 1930 and finished it in January of 1933; for more specifics on how we can establish these specific dates from the surviving evidence, see my forthcoming book Mr. Baggins: The History of The Hobbit.

[6] Tolkien even went to the trouble of transcribing a long, detailed version of the book’s title into the design that runs all along the borders of the dust jacket, providing different versions to match the English and American editions.

[7] Tolkien himself wrote one story with a sly, clever, and rather cowardly dragon (Farmer Giles of Ham‘s Chrysophylax Dives), who nevertheless proves extremely dangerous when fighting under conditions of his own choosing, perfectly capable of slaughtering or putting to flight an entire kingdom’s cadre of knights. See also his poem “The Dragon’s Visit”, an amusing cautionary tale about a peaceful visiting dragon who, when provoked, destroys an entire town and all but one of its citizens.

[8] For more on this and Tolkien’s other rejected plot-ideas in the original draft of The Hobbit, see The History of the Hobbit. For the opening chapter of The Hobbit seen from Gandalf’s and the dwarves’ point of view, see “The Quest of Erebor”, published in Unfinished Tales (1980) and as an appendix to the second edition of Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit (2002).

The Book of Wonder

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Before there was Tolkien, there was Lord Dunsany, John Rateliff reminds us:

“I do not know where I may be
when this preface is read…
But it does not greatly matter where I am;
my dreams are here before you
amongst the following pages…
[W]riting in a day when life is cheap
[e.g., the middle of World War I],
dreams seem to me all the dearer,
the only things that survive…
[I] offer you these books of dreams…
as one throws things of value,
if only to oneself,
at the last moment
out of a burning house.”

— Lord Dunsany, “Preface”, The Last Book of Wonder

For the last half-century, J. R. R. Tolkien has stood alone as the most influential writer of fantasy: the author most imitated, the one who set the paradigm of the genre, the single person who most defined what fantasy is. But before there was Tolkien, there was Lord Dunsany, who dominated the first half of the twentieth century in the same way JRRT dominated the latter half. Without Dunsany, modern fantasy would be very, very different from what it is today, and immeasurably poorer. Unlike Tolkien, who was best in long fictions (e.g., the 1200-page Lord of the Rings), Dunsany excelled at the short story; no one has ever surpassed him in the fantasy short story, a form he essentially perfected. Among his admirers were William Butler Yeats (who asked him to write plays for the Abbey Theatre and edited the first omnibus of Dunsany’s work), Ernest Hemingway, Aleister Crowley, H. L. Mencken (who helped introduce his work to America), James Joyce, H. P. Lovecraft (who went through a “Dunsanian period”; see April 2003 column), J. R. R. Tolkien,[1] Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin (who in an autobiographical essay proclaimed herself “A Citizen of Mondath”, a land in one of Dunsany’s tales), Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Leiber, Arthur C. Clarke, Jorge Luis Borges (who considered him a precursor to Kafka), Rudyard Kipling, Clark Ashton Smith, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name only a few. In addition to short stories, he also wrote novels (including one fantasy classic, The King of Elfland’s Daughter), plays (many of them fantasy; he once had five plays running in New York at the same time), poetry (eight volumes), essays, and three autobiographies. A true Renaissance man, he ran for Parliament (twice), went on numerous safaris around the world, played competition-level chess, fought in three wars (the Boer War, the Irish Uprising, and World War I, being reluctantly sidelined to the Home Guard because of age in World War II), campaigned tirelessly for various causes (everything from condemning synthetic foods to decrying the practice of docking dogs’ tails), and divided his time between his ancestral 12th-century castle in Ireland, his London townhouse, and his country home in Kent. Dunsany truly lived the life some pulp writers ascribed to their larger-than-life heroes.[2] But out of it all, it is by his books that he deserves to be remembered, and among them the best of the best are the eight volumes of fantasy short stories he wrote between 1904 and 1916 (published between 1905 and 1919)[3], which reached their pinnacle in the three volumes A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), and The Last Book of Wonder (1916).

Come with me, ladies and gentlemen
who are in any wise weary of London:
come with me: and those that tire
at all of the world we know:
for we have new worlds here.

— “Preface”, The Book of Wonder

A Dreamer’s Tales

By the time Dunsany came to write A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), his fourth book, he had already created the first fantasy pantheon[4], an innovation whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. The Gods of Pegana (1905; his first book), introduced cosmogony (creation-myths) and fantasy deities to the genre, one of the fundamental elements of modern fantasy; it was the direct model upon which Lovecraft based his Great Old Ones (the very core of “the Cthulhu Mythos,” in its turn the most influential concept to come out of pulp horror[5]) and Tolkien his Valar, who underlie the entire history of Middle-earth from The Book of Lost Tales through The Lord of the Rings; all writers influenced by these elements in either Tolkien or Lovecraft are therefore influenced by Dunsany as well, even if they have never read his work themselves. Dunsany had also already written what is essentially the first “sword and sorcery” tale, “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1907, in The Sword of Welleran), in which an evil magician and his many minions can be defeated only by a magical sword (“Sacnoth”), and the sword can be forged only out of the spine of an invulnerable dragon:

“[I]t is a hard task to vanquish Tharagavverug [the dragon],
for no sword can pierce his hide; his back
cannot be broken, and he can neither burn nor drown.
In one way only can Tharagavverug
die, and that is by starving.”

— “The Fortress Unvanquishable… “

These two achievements alone would guarantee him a high place among fantasy masters, but it was Dunsany’s distinguishing characteristic as an author that he disliked repeating himself. Thus, it was thoroughly typical of Dunsany that, having created these innovations, he quickly moved beyond them: No sooner had he created a new cosmology (like that of Pegana) or subgenre (e.g., sword and sorcery, the thieves’ tale, and so on) than he tired of it and went seeking new challenges. His work is thus a treasure-trove for his fellow writers — Dunsany throws out ideas and then leaves the development of them to others; he is an explorer, not a settler. This is in part what makes him so impressive: The sheer variety of his work is staggering. Dunsany was no Tolkien (nor even a Pratchett), to painstakingly and lovingly craft a setting and then develop it slowly over the course of decades; after his first book, he rarely used the same setting for more than a story or two, preferring to create a whole new setting and cast of characters each time he wrote a new tale — and this despite the fact that he wrote some two hundred stories in those dozen years (roughly a third of them fables). Some are set in fantasy worlds, others in modern-day (i.e., early twentieth century) London, still others in dream-lands that are nonetheless somehow linked to our world (a motif his disciple H.P.Lovecraft would later develop at greater length). While occasionally a story is linked to an earlier tale by a reference to a character or place that had appeared elsewhere, each is essentially a stand-alone piece. It’s small wonder Dunsany burned out after 1916, when, among other disasters, he was shot in the head by his fellow countrymen during the Easter Uprising; then sent from the hospital to the Western Front to take part in the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle in human history; then put to work writing propaganda for the government for the rest of the War, as soul-killing a task as one could imagine). What’s amazing is that he could throw out so many ideas, so finely realized, in such a short time — an achievement that has never been equaled in the fantasy field.

I dreamt that I had done a horrible thing,
so that burial was… denied me either in soil or sea,
neither could there be any hell for me. I waited
for some hours, knowing this. Then my friends came for me,
and slew me secretly and with ancient rite,
and lit great tapers, and carried me away.
… It was all in London that the thing was done,
and they went furtively at dead of night along grey streets
… until they came to the river…. They took me
down a stairway that was green with slimy things,
and so came slowly to the terrible mud.
There, in the territory of forsaken things,
they dug a shallow grave…

— “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow”

The Book of Wonder

This creativity is Dunsany’s hallmark: Most of his stories are quite short — each was written in a single sitting and is intended to be read the same way, as a stand-alone exploration of an idea or motif. Their brevity and compression is part of the impact, as is his mastery of style (Le Guin considers him one of the three or four master stylists of the genre; compare to her “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”), his knack for mixing the exotic and the homey, the humorous and the grim, the evocative and the ironic, and his gift for nomenclature (unexcelled by any other fantasy writer and equaled only by Tolkien — and most subsequent fantasists have followed Dunsany’s example rather than Tolkien’s, going with what sounds right rather than what is lexicographically consistent). The reader literally never knows quite what to expect from a Dunsany wonder tale, other than that potentially sentimental material is likely to be treated with a light touch and a refreshing cynicism. A place might be haunted by something terrible that has not yet happened, but casts its shadow backwards from the future (“The Field”). Denizens of a fantasy world may laugh disbelievingly at descriptions of our world (“Idle Days on the Yann”), but our own world can turn disconcertingly unreal at a moment’s notice (“Taking Up Piccadilly”). A hero may achieve a perilous quest and yet utterly fail to achieve his aim (“The Quest of the Queen’s Tears”). A story might prematurely conclude, with a promised revelation lost forever (“The House of the Sphinx”, “The Hashish Man”, “The Secret of the Sea”, “Why the Milkman Shudders When He Perceives the Dawn”), or an experience be simply related and not explained (“The City on Mallington Moor”, “Bethmoora”, “The Ghosts”). The narrator might be a dreamer (“Idle Days on the Yann”, “Bethmoora”), a drug addict (“The Hashish Man”), or a madman (“The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap”); the point-of-view character an animal (“The Lord of Cities”, “Furrow-Maker”), an inanimate object (“Blagdaross”), or the damned corpse of a dead man (“The Highwayman”, “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow”). Dunsany’s protagonist might be a fairy-tale hero (“The Fortress Unvanquishable… “, “How One Came, As Was Foretold, to The City of Never”), or, equally, a villain of the blackest die (the evil sorcerer of “A Narrow Escape”, the garrulous cannibal of “Poor Old Bill”, the intrepid thief of “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”) or, more interestingly, somewhere in-between.

It was quite dark when he went
by the towers of Tor, where archers
shoot ivory arrows at strangers
lest any foreigner should alter their laws,
which are bad,
but not to be altered by mere aliens.

— “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”

Such is certainly the case with one of Dunsany’s most appealing subseries, the thieves’ tales (including “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”, “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, “The Bird of the Difficult Eye”, “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”, and “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles”), each of which recounts a risky exploit by a bold thief to gain some precious treasure from its current (rightful) owner, usually resulting in the unpleasant demise of said thief either before, during, or after the theft.

[T]hey came… to that lean, high house
where the gnoles so secretly dwelt…
[Nuth] sent the likely lad [up] with the instruments
of his trade by means of the ladder to the
old green casement. And the moment that Tonker
touched the withered boards, the silence that, though
ominous, was earthly, because unearthly
like the touch of a ghoul. And Tonker heard his breath
offending against the silence… and [he] prayed
that a mouse or a mole might make any noise at all,
but not a creature stirred… And then and there,
while yet he was undiscovered, the likely lad
made up his mind, as he should have done
long before, to leave those colossal emeralds
where they were and have nothing further to do
with the lean, high house of the gnoles,
but to quit this sinister wood in the nick of time
and retire from business at once and buy a place
in the country. Then he descended softly and
beckoned to Nuth. But the gnoles had watched him
through knavish holes that they bore in trunks of
the trees, and the unearthly silence gave way…
to the rapid screams of Tonker as they picked him up
from behind — screams that came faster and faster
until they were incoherent. And where they took him
it is not good to ask, and what they did with him
I shall not say.

Nuth looked on for a while from the corner of the house
with a mild surprise on his face as he rubbed his chin,
for the trick of the holes in the trees was new to him;
then he stole nimbly away…

— “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles”

Just by focusing on a single thread such as the thieves’ tale, we can see Dunsany’s influence on Clark Ashton Smith (“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”), Jack Vance (“Liane the Wayfarer”), and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (e.g., “The Jewel in the Forest”; compare to the November 2002 column), and this is only one of literally dozens of possible examples. In these eight volumes of stories Dunsany explored so much new territory, experimenting to find out just what the fantasy short story is capable of, and in the process laid the groundwork for all the writers who would follow him, many of whom chose to develop their own some small patch from among the ground Dunsany had surveyed. If Tolkien is the genre’s father-figure, then Dunsany is clearly the grandfather. His work is little read today because the genre’s emphasis has shifted from short self-contained fictions, at which he excelled, to epic interlinked novels, which were outside the scope of his talent. But within his chosen medium, his work is as readable, enjoyable, and impressive as the day it was published: a true, timeless classic.

The Last Book of Wonder

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Dunsany’s art is to look more closely at a single representative story. There are many fine ones to choose from — “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth” (the first sword and sorcery story), “Chu-bu and Sheemish” (the story of two squabbling idols; Tolkien’s favorite Dunsany tale), “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (the source of D&D‘s gnolls), “The Bird of the Difficult Eye” (one of his most effective modern world/fantasy crossovers), “Bethmoora” (a quiet, haunting reverie that represents his more lyrical side), “Where the Tides Ebb and Flow” (a grim picture of a very individual damnation) — but perhaps one of the most representative is “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”. Here we have all the elements of a classic fantasy tale: irredeemably evil villains (the cannibalistic Gibbelins, who stockpile treasure purely as a way to lure humans to their tower and hence into their larder), a fantastic treasure (“they have a separate cellar for emeralds and a separate cellar for sapphires… In times of famine they have even been known to scatter rubies abroad, a little trail of them to some city of Men, and sure enough their larders would soon be full again”), a bold hero (“Alderic, Knight of the Order of the City and the Assault, hereditary Guardian of the King’s Peace of Mind, a man not unremembered among the makers of myth”), and a cunning plan whereby the hero plans to defeat the villains (“he had studied carefully for several years the manner in which burglars met their doom when they went in search of the treasure… “). Dunsany carefully lays out the problem, and the steps by which the knight prepares to resolve it — as, for example, when he decides he needs a dragon-mount to carry out a daring scheme:

This was his plan: there was a dragon he knew of
who if peasants’ prayers are heeded deserved to die,
not alone because of the number of maidens
he cruelly slew, but because he was bad for the crops… .

So [Alderic] took horse and spear and pricked
till he met the dragon, and the dragon came out against him
breathing bitter smoke. And to him Alderic shouted,
“Hath foul dragon ever slain true knight?”
And well the dragon knew that this had never been…
“Then,” said the knight, “if thou would’st ever taste
maiden’s blood again thou shalt be my trusty steed,
and if not, by this spear there shall befall thee
all that the troubadours tell of the doom of they breed.”

And the dragon did not open his ravening mouth,
nor rush upon the knight, breathing out fire;
for well he knew the fate of those that did these things…

— “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”

And yet, in the end, having built up so many expectations based on fairy tale and medieval romance, Dunsany utterly reverses them in the last two sentences: the clever scheme proves to be not-quite-clever enough, the bold hero no more successful than all those who have gone before, as the cliches turn inside-out. The reader who may have thought he or she was reading essentially a fairy tale (which tends to be the story of the one prince who wins through to Briar Rose, not the hundreds who tried, failed, and perished) finds Dunsany’s tale is more complex and unpredictable, and the expectation that this hero will succeed totally unfounded. Dunsany thinks nothing of killing his heroes, sympathetic or otherwise, in the last sentence of a story — like his contemporaries O.Henry and Saki, he was fond of surprise endings, sudden twists that confound reader expectations. A villain may escape scot-free, a hero perish miserably, a carefully-wrought plan suddenly come to naught because of some overlooked detail. The freedom to take a story in an unexpected but ultimately satisfying direction is one of Dunsany’s best bequests to modern fantasy writers:

And without saying a word, or even smiling,
They neatly hanged him on the outer wall
— and the tale is one of those
that have not a happy ending.

— “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”

The Books of Wonder and Your Game

Dunsany’s stories, being short and self-contained, make ideal stand-alone scenarios; there is more often than not a character, location, or plot-idea in each one that would enrich any fantasy campaign. His specific contributions to D&D are harder to trace, aside from his providing the name of the gnolls (acknowledged by Gygax and Arneson in the “Monsters & Treasure” booklet for the first-edition D&D game [1974] — although Dunsany’s own “gnoles” were quite different, and far more dangerous and impressive), but his Gods of Pegana is still one of the most interesting fantasy pantheons, particularly in its treatment of the god of Death (Mung) and the wary relationship between the (absent, transcendent) creator god, the petty but still powerful Small Gods who rule over the worlds, and the humans who worship them. His thieves’ tales are a fine model of perilous adventuring, and some of the dilemmas he sets his heroes — defeat a dragon who can die only by starvation, steal a holy jewel whose god will come to retrieve it personally if his minions fail, investigate a haunting without falling prey to the things that haunt ghosts — are as good as story hooks today as they were eighty years and more ago. His villains — the sorcerer Gaznak and his three servitor dragons, the evil emperor Thuba Mleen (the original King in Yellow), the gnoles and the Gibbelins — are also potent models for challenges to throw in player characters’ ways in any fantasy campaign.

[I]t does not become adventurers
to care who eats their bones

— “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”

Bibliographic Note

Dunsany’s work has been issued and re-issued by many publishers over the last ninety-eight years; luckily, most of his early short-story collections are currently back in print. The easiest way to get them is in the massive Fantasy Masterworks omnibus, Time and the Gods (Millennium Books, 2000), which collects six of the eight early short story collections together in one volume: Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran, A Dreamer’s Tales, The Book of Wonder, The Last Book of Wonder, and The Gods of Pegana (which it bizarrely places at the end of the otherwise chronologically sequenced volume), omitting only Fifty-one Tales (his book of fables) and Tales of Three Hemispheres (a miscellany of odds and ends). Although not available in the US, it can be ordered on-line via www.amazon.co.uk. In this country, Wildside Press (www.wildsidepress.com) has reprinted five of the early collections: The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, A Dreamer’s Tales, The Book of Wonder, and Fifty-one Tales, omitting The Sword of Welleran, The Last Book of Wonder, and Tales of Three Hemispheres (Wildside has also re-released two volumes of Dunsany’s plays, his first novel, and — bizarrely enough — the first of his two books of wartime propaganda). Chaosium (www.chaosium.com) released a more modest omnibus volume, The Complete Pegana (1998), which includes The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, and the three-story sequence from Tales of Three Hemispheres known as “Beyond the Fields We Know”.

Unfortunately, none of these collections include the artwork by S. H. Sime that accompanied these books’ original editions (nor, for that matter, did the Owlswick Press editions of A Dreamer’s Tales published in the late 1970s). This is a serious flaw because Dunsany considered Sime not an “illustrator” but his partner, even sharing a dual byline with him for The Book of Wonder‘s first appearance. So great was his confidence in Sime that for this book the two men reversed their usual procedure: Sime did the artwork first, then Dunsany wrote stories inspired by them (a procedure that had earlier produced the fine tale “The Highwayman”). Reading Dunsany without the Sime illustrations is like watching a black-and-white print of a color movie; what remains may be entertaining, but an essential element meant to contribute to the overall impact is missing.

Several anthologies of Dunsany stories have been put together at various times — three by Lin Carter for the Adult Fantasy Series (At the Edge of the World, 1970; Beyond the Fields We Know, 1972; Over the Hills and Far Away, 1974), one by E. F. Bleiler for Dover (Gods, Men, and Ghosts: The Best Supernatural Fiction of Lord Dunsany, 1972), and most recently The Hashish Man and Other Stories (ed. Jon Longhi, Manic D Press, 1996), with another recently announced as forthcoming (In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales, Penguin, March 2004). Aside from the Bleiler (which gives a pretty good one-volume overview), these have tended to be eccentric selections; any serious reader of fantasy is better off avoiding them and searching out the original collections. Although the stories themselves are independent, Dunsany did not group them randomly; each of his eight early volumes has a coherence that will be missed by a reader who has access to only a random selection mixing tales from different books (rather like songs from concept albums spliced onto “greatest hits” collections).

Unquestionably by far the best way to read Dunsany, for serious fantasy aficionados, is in the original collections, sequenced as he arranged them and with the accompanying art he fought to have included. For those willing to haunt used-book dealers and online sites such as www.bookfinder.com, the J.W. Luce editions of the late teens are recommended, since these include the original artwork by S. H. Sime; so do the Books for Libraries Press print-on-demand copies from 1969-1970. Since Dunsany was so popular in his time, the original collections were reprinted many times, and a scattering of them can be found in almost any well-stocked used bookstore as well as most larger public libraries (usually stored in their below-ground stacks, some of them undisturbed for decades).


[1] When American Clyde Kilby arrived in Oxford in the summer of 1966 to offer Tolkien “editorial assistance” in finishing The Silmarillion, one of the first things Tolkien did was hand him a copy of Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder and told him to read it before starting work on Tolkien’s own story.

[2] Dunsany came by his adventurous streak honestly; one of his mother’s cousins was the Victorian explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton, translator of The Arabian Nights, first European to visit Mecca, and one of the searchers for the Source of the Nile. Dunsany’s full name and title was Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, with “Edward Plunkett” being his name before he succeeded to the title “Lord Dunsany” at age nineteen. The correct pronunciation, by the way, is “Dun-SAIN-y” (rhymes with “rainy”) not “DUN-sah-nee”.

[3] The eight volumes are The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908), A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), Fifty-one Tales (1915; a collection of fables also known as The Food of Death), The Last Book of Wonder (1916; retitled by his British publishers “Tales of Wonder”), and Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919, a collection of odds and ends put together by his American publisher).

[4] The first fantasy pantheon: Some would credit William Blake’s visionary poems from the late 1700s about Los, Orc, and Urizen as the first synthetic pantheon, but closer examination shows that Blake is writing psychomachia, a form of allegory in which each figure stands for a part of the human psyche (e.g., Urizen is Reason, Orc what we would now call the rebellious Id, and so on.). By contrast, Dunsany is writing fantasy: Mung the god of death is simply Death Himself as a character, not some allegorical abstraction.

[5] Lovecraft borrowed from Dunsany not just in concept but in detail. For example, two of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones derive their names from Dunsany: Nyarlathotep from Dunsany’s Mynarthitep (“The Sorrows of Search”) and Shub-Niggurath from “Sheol Nugganoth” (“Idle Days on the Yann”). More importantly, Dunsany’s concept of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI, the sleeping creator-god who dreams the universe into being, creating without being aware of it, whose eventually wakening will spell disaster for our universe, inspired both Great Cthulhu (in lost R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming) and Azathoth.

A Rendezvous in Averoigne

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Clark Ashton Smith was one of “The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales” — but he was always the least popular, if the most talented, according to John Rateliff:

“In sheer daemonic strangeness
and fertility of conception,
Mr. Smith is perhaps unexcelled
by any other writer, dead or living.”.

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

L. Sprague de Camp called the three leading writers to emerge from what is now called the “Weird Tales” school of pulp fiction “The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales“: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Of the three, both Lovecraft and Howard were popular in their own time within their own limited circles[1] and have retained devoted cult followings to this day. Specialty presses (Arkham House, Gnome Press) have been founded with the express purpose of rescuing their work from the crumbling pages of out-of-print magazines and preserving it in book form for a wider, more permanent audience.[2] A number of their works have been filmed, usually with no particular concern for fidelity[3], and both men — noted misfits even by the generous standards of pulp-writers — have been the subject of much biographical speculation. In all the excitement, somehow the third and most talented of the three, Smith, has been overlooked.

This is hardly surprising — Smith has always been the least popular of the three, and his work is an acquired taste prized by those who appreciate his elegant, morbid, sensuous touch — but it is unfortunate all the same. For if it’s fair to say that Lovecraft and Howard are more important historically, through their influence on other, better writers, than in their own right — i.e., that HPL’s creation of the Cthulhu Mythos and REH’s giving definitive form to the barbarian adventurer motif are events whose importance far exceeds the literary value of their actual stories — then the exact opposite is true of Smith. Smith’s work creates no new paradigm, blazed no new subgenre of comparable popularity to Lovecraft’s or Howard’s. This is not to say, of course, that Smith’s influence has not been important. It’s hard to imagine Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth series or John Brunner’s The Traveller in Black ever having been written without Smith’s example before them. But the tradition of writers influenced by Smith has been a substrata of fantasy/horror, not a main thread. His importance rests essentially upon the sheer excellence of his work: the man who wrote Lovecraftian stories better than Lovecraft himself, the most literate of all pulp writers, who showed what an extensive and erudite vocabulary can do in the hands of a Master. Clark Ashton Smith just might be the means by which pulp fantasy and horror transcended their roots and ascended into Literature.

“[Smith's] stories more than any others…
had everything to do with my decision…
to become a writer…
[I]n the short story form
CAS stood alone on my horizon…
[his] influence was… complete
and… compelling.”

— Ray Bradbury, introduction to A Rendezvous in Averoigne


Smith’s stories have a “literariness” that eluded his fellow pulp writers, due no doubt to the unusual route by which he came to pulp fiction. A child prodigy, he had already written a full-length novel by age 14[4] and published four short stories in mainstream fiction magazines (The Overland Monthly, Black Cat) between the ages of 17 and 19. By the time he abandoned fiction and shifted his attention to poetry as a teen, he had already achieved the competency in prose many of his pulp peers (e.g., Frank Belknap Long or E. Hoffman Price) never surpassed in their long careers. His poetry also won early acceptance: Hailed as a prodigy, an up-and-coming young poet, he was embraced by the literary mainstream, publishing his first book of poems before he was twenty (1912) and having his poems appear in such journals as The Yale Review, The London Mercury, and H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set.

Unluckily for Smith, however, just as he became identified with the San Francisco literary establishment (which had dominated the West Coast since the days of Bret Hart and Mark Twain half a century before), that literary world began to self-destruct; its remaining literary lights vanishing at an alarming rate — Ambrose Bierce (disappeared 1913), Jack London (committed suicide 1916), and Smith’s own mentor, the now-forgotten George Sterling (suicide 1926). Furthermore, the literary style Smith embraced and embodied in his poetry, melodious and formal and melancholy, descending from Poe and Baudelaire (whose Fleurs du Mal Smith translated), was kicked into the dustbin of history, displaced by the Modernism championed by Ezra Pound (who urged his contemporaries to stop imitating the poets of seventy years before and try writing something new for a change). It was Smith’s tragedy, perhaps, that he by age twenty achieved the goals Lovecraft and Howard strived for in vain all their lives, only to have it all slip away before he was thirty.[5] Reduced to writing a Biercian column for the local newspaper, his eventual return to fiction a decade later was due largely to the urging of H. P. Lovecraft, whom he quickly surpassed in his own field.

[Smith's tales] are, above all, sensually compelling.
… [A] fiction writer must… enclos[e] his characters,
and therefore his readers, in a scene, an atmosphere…
Once you have trapped your readers in sights, sounds,
smells, and textures… [they] will be unable to resist
… Take one step across the threshold of [CAS's] stories,
and you plunge into color, sound, taste, smell,
and texture — into language.”

— Ray Bradbury

Word Music: from Prose Poem to Weird Tale

The secret to Smith’s stylistic breakthrough, the element that so strongly differentiates his work from that of his contemporaries, seems to come from his mastery of the prose poem, a form he had begun experimenting with in his early twenties; his third book, Ebony and Crystal (1922), included as its final section a score of prose poems which are far more effective than the finely crafted but utterly static traditional poems in verse that precede them.[6] When, desperate in the early days of the Depression to find a regular source of income to help support himself and his two elderly and ailing parents, Smith returned to authorship in 1929, he created his own distinctive new style of fiction by essentially expanding prose-poems out into full-length stories by the addition of characters, dialogue, and plot. The result is a heady mixture of what looks to the careless eye like language run riot but reveals itself, on closer scrutiny, to be entirely under control:

Beginning with late spring, the Cistercian monks
were compelled to take cognizance of sundry odd phenomena…
They… beheld flaring lights, where lights should not have been:
flames of uncanny blue and crimson that shuddered
behind the broken, weed-grown embrasures
or rose starward above the jagged crenellations…
Hideous noises… issued from the ruin by night… and the monks
…heard a clangor as of hellish anvils and hammers… and
… deemed that Ylourgne was become a mustering-ground of devils.
Mephitic odors as of brimstone and burning flesh…
floated across the valley; and even by day…
a thin haze of hell-blue vapor hung upon the battlements.

… Observing these signs of the Archfoe’s activity
in their neighborhood, they crossed themselves
with new fervor and frequency, and said their
Paters and Aves more interminably than before.
Their toils and austerities, also, they redoubled.

–”The Colossus of Ylourgne” (1934)

Sights, smells, sounds: Smith appeals directly to the senses in passages like these that pile on the carefully chosen adjectives, in rhythmic prose that incorporates many techniques normally associated with poetry (alliteration and cesura in particular). Smith may prefer a polysyllabic colorful word to a simple short one, but the word he chooses, however unusual, will always be precisely correct. Just as Hemingway deliberately chose a plainstyle vocabulary and short, simple sentences to emphasis the ordinariness of his characters and encourage reader identification with his protagonists, his contemporary Smith takes the opposite approach that is just as viable, deliberately stressing the artificiality of the tale through a style that pulls out all the stops and makes use of the entire available vocabulary English has to offer — a feat few authors before or since have dared to attempt. It’s the difference between (say) a recorder flute or acoustic guitar on the one hand and a church cathedral’s pipe organ on the other.

“As to my employment of an ornate style,
using many words of classic origin and exotic colour,
I can only say that it is designed to produce effects
of language and rhythm which could not
possibly be achieved by a vocabulary
restricted to what is known as ‘basic English’.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, letter to S. J. Sackett (1950)

Naturally, advocates of one style tend to denigrate the other, and Smith is often derided for actually knowing words the critic doesn’t, and daring to use them. His deliberate choice to follow Poe’s example and create “word-music,” where sight and sound of the words are an essential element of what’s being said, rather than journalistic prose that stresses message over medium, meant that to a degree he was willing to accept a limited audience, one not put off by the demands his vocabulary puts on the reader , or at least willing to put in the effort to follow where he led (the same could be said of two more of his contemporaries, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound). His disciple Jack Vance has largely avoided similar criticism by incorporating a strong element of humor in his baroque prose, especially the dialogue, making clear that his style is at least partially a joke he’s sharing with his readers. Smith also has a strong and largely unrecognized streak of humor that lightens his work, and on occasion deliberately piles on the polysyllabics for comic effects:

What unimaginable horror of protoplastic life,
what loathly spawn of the primordial slime had come forth to confront us,
we did not pause to consider or conjecture… [I]ts intentions were
too plainly hostile, and it gave evidence of anthropophagic inclinations,
for it slithered toward us with an unbelievable speed and
celerity of motion, opening as it came a toothless mouth
of amazing capacity…. We saw that our departure from
the fane of Tsathoggua had become most imperative…

— Master-thief Satampra Zeiros encounters fiction’s first Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931)

In short, Smith could simply have said “it rushed toward us with its mouth open to try to eat us, so we decided to run away”; the humor comes from the hapless thief’s saying it in a slow and stately overly elaborate way. Again like Poe, roughly a third of whose tales were comic pieces, albeit with grim overtones (e.g., “Some Words with a Mummy”, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral”, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, and so on), Smith can include a touch of humor in his tales without negating their essential horror; this is a difficult balancing act that few horror writers achieve.

“Cast a Cold Eye/
on Life, on Death”

Smith’s most typical tone, however, is one that can be described only as cold-blooded. Whereas in Lovecraft’s stories there comes a point where the author will stop and coyly remark that what follows is “too terrible to describe” (typically followed by the narrator fainting like a maiden aunt of Victorian days), by contrast Smith at such points quietly proceeds with the description, which often turns out to be horrific indeed (see, for example, the narrator’s gruesome death at the end of “The Seed from the Sepulcher”, or those caused by the brain-devouring creature in “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”). Small wonder that several of his stories were censored by Weird Tales, which demanded he excise certain gruesome or salacious details before publishing them.[7] Nor are his characters given to fainting away; some of them calmly accept death, not so much out of suicidal impulses as a deadly mix of fatalism and ennui, while others fight bravely to the last and occasionally even triumph, though in Smith’s cosmos all such victories are qualified. Even those who defeat their foes and win love are wise not to examine their happiness too closely: the beloved may prove to be a monster herself (e.g., the lamia of “The End of the Story” or the title character of “The Enchantress of Sylaire”) or, perhaps worse still, merely an ordinary woman (“Morthylla”). On the whole, Smith (inspired no doubt by the French Decadents and fin-de-siecle) prefers to avoid being overly judgmental — the villain of one story is sometimes the hero of the next (cf. “The Maze of Maab Dweb” and its sequel “The Flower-Women”, or the Averoigne tale “The Holiness of Azedarac” and its projected but unwritten follow-up “The Doom of Azedarac”).

His ability to adopt unconventional points of view — Smith opens one tale with an account of a character’s escape from the Inquisition, and within two pages makes the reader regret that he got away (“The Colossus of Ylourgne”) — shows up best in his treatment of the dead (and undead). It’s hard to imagine another writer who could title a play The Dead Will Cuckold You and end up presenting the main female character’s seduction by a zombie, when it comes, as a tender, touching moment rather than a vile act of necrophilia. Nor, in the hands of most Cthulhu Mythos writers, would a corpse-devouring Great Old One served by a ghoul priesthood turn out to be relatively benign (“The Charnel God”), concerned only with the dead and indifferent to the living. There’s a reason Smith’s work has inspired any number of game writers dealing with necromancers (see below). It’s not just his utter lack of squeamishness but his ability to adopt, and persuasively convey to the reader, what death is like from the dead’s point of view (“Necromancy in Naat”). In “The Empire of the Necromancers”, one of the Zothique stories, he even in an amazing tour-de-force switches the point of view mid-way through the story from the necromancers to the animated subjects they have raised from the dead; the undead mount a successful revolt against their living masters for the sole purpose of once again returning to the untroubled calm of death.

After his death, he forgot that he had died;
forgot the immediate past
with all its happenings and circumstances…
[H]e began to play with the thought of some presence
— immortal, lovely, and evil — that… would respond
to the evocation of one who… had longed vainly
for visions from beyond mortality.
Through headstone aisles of moon-touched solitude,
he came to a lofty mausoleum… Beneath it,
he had been told, were extensive vaults…
To his startlement a woman, or what
appeared to be such, was sitting
on a fallen shaft beside the mausoleum.
He could not see her distinctly…
“Who are you?” he asked…
“I am the lamia Morthylla,” she replied.

— “Morthylla” (1953)

The Dead Will Cuckold You

Oddly enough, despite his preoccupations, Smith’s work is not repulsive or grotesque but weirdly beautiful. One of the reasons is that he admits into his fictional worlds not just horror but also love — ennui but also passion. It’s significant that Smith’s works are filled with well-drawn female characters. In this he stands alone among his Weird Tales peers — compare the enchantress Moriamis (“The Holiness of Azedarac”), the sorceress Sephora (“The Enchantress of Sylaire”), or even Sabine, the late wife of Gilles Grenier, who avenges herself upon her husband even after he kills her (“The Mandrakes”) with Howard’s personality-lite trophy-maidens in the Conan stories. Smith’s work would be seriously diminished without the femme fatales his protagonists encounter, who are usually smarter, more powerful, and more effective than their male counterparts; in contrast , Lovecraft’s only fully realized female character turns out to be a man magically possessing a woman’s body(Aseneth Waite Derby from “The Thing on the Doorstep”). Lovecraft considered sex a rather tacky distraction from the intellectual game of horror and avoided it as much as possible; Howard treated it as a rote off-screen reward for his heroes; Smith simply assumes it’s an essential, and delightful, part of life that, for better or worse, continues even beyond the grave.

He had killed her one even in autumn,
during a dispute of unbearable acrimony,
slitting her soft, pale throat in self-defense
with a knife which he had wrested
from her fingers when she lifted it against him.
Afterwards he had buried her
by the late rays of a gibbous moon
beneath the mandrakes in the meadow-bottom,
replacing the leafy sods with much care,
so that there was no evidence
of their having been disturbed…

— Gilles Grenier kills his wife Sabine, who later returns the favor “The Mandrakes” (1933)

All of these qualities help define Smith: A vivid imagination with a morbid twist; a poet’s command of language, a prose-poem writer’s ear for word-music, and perhaps the largest vocabulary of any horror writer in English; a fatalist’s acceptance of death coupled with a decadent’s appreciation of sensuality; a noted lover of women (Smith was notorious for his many affairs) who created strong female characters, and a pessimist not afraid of killing off his heroes if it gave a story a necessary ironic, bitter note; a writer whose devotion to his craft paved the way for Bradbury, and Zelazny, and Ligotti, who pushed pulp fiction as far as it could go before ascending into literature; a member of the Lovecraft circle who could write “Lovecraftian” stories better than HPL himself, whose contributions to the “Cthulhu Mythos” (Tsathoggua, The Book of Eibon) were enthusiastically taken up by Lovecraft and made canonical; a pulp writer who churned out roughly a story a month for three years (the vast bulk of Smith’s stories were written between 1929 and 1932, when writer’s block began to overtake him, who wrote bejeweled prose that has far outlived the ephemeralness of his medium. (He finished only a handful of tales between 1937 and his death twenty-five years later.) Clark Ashton Smith was a man of many talents and the finest writer of weird tales of his day. [8]

“I, Satampra Zeiros… ,
shall write with my left hand,
since I have no longer any other,
the tale of everything that befell
[my companion] and myself
in the shrine of the god Tsathoggua
… as a warning to all good thieves and adventurers
who may hear some lying legend of the lost treasures
… and be tempted thereby.

— “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1931)

Averoigne and Your Game

A writer like Smith, who could throw off ideas like a flaming pinwheel, has proved a godsend to DMs and RPG designers over the years: his works were full of monsters, characters, ideas, and motifs that could be sprung on unsuspecting players who had never read the original tales, as relatively few have. The first RPG product based on his work, Tom Moldvay’s excellent Chateau d’Ambreville (a.k.a. X2. Castle Amber, 1981) was not only an exceptional D&D adventure in itself that enabled PCs to play through the four major Averoigne stories (“The Colossus of Ylourgne”, “The Enchantress of Sylaire”, “The Beast of Averoigne”, “The Holiness of Azedarac”), it also provided the template for one of the most famous of all AD&D modules, I6. Ravenloft, and the Ravenloft campaign setting that followed. The original stand-alone module was further developed by products like Gaz 3. The Principalities of Glantri (1987), eventually becoming a major part of the D&D “Known World”/ AD&D Mystara setting — cf. the Glantri boxed set by Monte Cook and the audio-CD adventure Mark of Amber (both 1995).

In addition, Smith’s work has not only inspired a number of D&D monsters but also has set the tone and thus had a major impact on the treatment of necromancy as it has appeared in roleplaying games, in such products as The Complete Book of Necromancers (1995), the Al-Qadim setting’s Cities of Bone (1994), Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998), and Secret College of Necromancers (2002). Surprisingly enough, his stories have had little impact on the Lovecraftian Call of Cthulhu game, being represented only by a very few scenarios — e.g., a single encounter in Trail of Tsathoggua (Chaosium, 1984), a markedly un-Smithian use of the sorcerer Eibon in Spawn of Azathoth (Chaosium, 1986), the Great Old One Mordiggian hovering ineffectually in the background of The Realm of Shadows (1997, probably Pagan Publishing’s weakest CoC release), and the like. Gamers who are admirers of Smith’s work are better off creating their own scenarios around his ideas. Zothique, his end-of-time setting for some of his best stories, is probably too bleak for an ongoing campaign, though very effective for self-contained scenarios inserted into a pre-existing game (e.g., in Pelgrane Press’s The Dying Earth RPG). But Averoigne is perfect for fans of both D&D and Call of Cthulhu: It combines the medieval sensibilities and possibilities for heroic adventures of the one with the eerie horror, lurking menace, and overwhelming terror of the other. (I am myself currently running a d20 Call of Cthulhu campaign set in Smith’s Averoigne and can testify to its effectiveness as a setting.) Considering its historical links with the development of the whole “Land of Mist” concept underlying Ravenloft, the domain of Averoigne can easily be into a Ravenloft campaign; Averoigne is also an apt setting for a Vampire: the Dark Ages scenario (it even already has its resident vampires, “A Rendezvous in Averoigne”‘s Sieur Huge du Malinbois and his wife Agathe).

“Old age, like a moth in some fading arras,
will gnaw my memories oversoon, as it
gnaws the memories of all men.
Therefore I write this record of the true origin
and slaying of that creature known as
the Beast of Averoigne. And when I have ended the writing,
the record shall be sealed in a brazen box,
and that box be set in a secret chamber of my house
at Ximes, so that no man shall learn the dreadful verity
and that box be set in a secret chamber of my house
of this matter till many years and decades have gone by.”

— Luc le Chaudronnier, “The Beast of Averoigne” (1932)

Bibliographic Note

Unlike the Zothique and Hyperborea story cycles (cf. Necronomicon Press’s Tales of Zothique [1995] and The Book of Hyperborea [1996]), Smith’s Averoigne stories have never been pulled together into a single volume but remain scattered over various books. All eleven completed tales were published by Arkham House in their six collections of Smith’s work between 1942 and 1970 (Out of Time and Space [1942], Lost Worlds [1944], Genius Loci and Other Tales [1948], The Abominations of Yondo [1960], Tales of Science and Sorcery [1964], and Other Dimensions [1970]) — these are now all quite expensive collector’s items, but paperback reprints of them issued in England in the 1970s by Panther Books can be found somewhat more easily. The so-called “best of” collection, A Rendezvous in Averoigne (1988, re-released in 2003), reprints four of the Averoigne stories (including two of the best ones). In addition, various plot outlines and notes for several additional unfinished tales are included in The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith (Arkham House, 1979) and Strange Shadows: The Uncollected Fiction and Essays of Clark Ashton Smith (Greenwood, 1989).

A second attempt to publish the complete Smith — and the first to bring his work to the attention of a mass-market paperback audience — was made by Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series in 1970-1973, but ironically their “Averoigne” volume was to be the fifth in a series that was cut short when the publisher was bought out and the line terminated after volume four. Pocket Books released three CAS collections in their “Timescape” line in 1981-1983, but these, while fine selections, deliberately emphasized the variety of Smith’s work and so only included five Averoigne tales — though to their credit Timescape did include all four of the best in the series. Finally, The Emperor of Dreams: The Lost Worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, the recent Fantasy Masterworks trade paperback (2002) that runs a massive 580-pages, includes three Averoigne tales (though only one of the best four). Of all these, only the Arkham House A Rendezvous in Averoigne and the Fantasy Masterwork omnibus are currently in print; neither is likely to be in your average bookstore, but they can be ordered online either directly from Arkham House www.arkhamhouse.com or www.amazon.co.uk, respectively.

A note of warning: Readers tempted by Chaosium’s The Book of Eibon (2002) in the hopes that it presents a definitive collection of Smith’s Mythos writings, a la their excellent Robert Bloch (Mysteries of the Worm), Henry Kuttner (The Book of Iod), and Robert E. Howard (Nameless Cults) collections, should be warned that unlike these The Book of Eibon contains only two genuine Smith stories, the rest of the book being hackwork pastiche by Lin Carter and others (some of it falsely labelled as “collaborations” between Smith and Carter, much as Derleth used to forge Lovecraft’s names on stories of his own creation).

Finally, Smith is fortunate in having an exceptional website devoted to his work, which makes available on-line all of his currently out-of-print writings as well as biographical information, pictures of some of his artwork, and much, much more: see www.eldritchdark.com.

The Averoigne series has unfortunately never been collected into a single volume. Arranged by internal chronology, the eleven completed stories and four story-fragments are as follows: *”The Oracle of Sadoqua [e.g., Tsathoqqua]” (set in Roman times), “The Maker of Gargoyles” (November 1138), “The Holiness of Azedarac” (a time-travel story starting in 1175, going back to 475 A.D., then flashing ahead to 1230), *”The Doom of Azedarac” (c.1198), “The Colossus of Ylourgne” (late spring 1281), “The Beast of Averoigne” (summer 1369), “The Enchantress of Sylaire” (n.d.), *”The Werewolf of Averoigne” (n.d.), “The Mandrakes” (? c.1400), *”Queen of the Sabbat” (n.d.), “The Disinterment of Venus” (April 1550), “The Mother of Toads” (n.d.), “A Rendezvous in Averoigne” (? c.1550), “The Satyr” (? c.1575), and “The End of the Story” (November 1789).

An asterisk (*) indicates an unwritten story that survives only as a plot outline, ranging from a single paragraph to several hundred words.

I am endebted to Steve Behrends’ Starmont Reader’s Guide on Clark Ashton Smith (Starmont House, 1990) — the single best book on Smith’s work — for help in establishing this sequence; the conjectural dates in the preceding listing are Behrends’.


[1] Lovecraft was the second most popular Weird Tales writer among the magazine’s readers, behind only Seabury Quinn, author of a long string of execrable supernaturally-themed Hercule Poirot pastiches (the “Jules de Grandin” series). Howard’s popularity near the end of his career was such that Weird Tales published the Conan tales pretty much as fast as he could write them; between December 1932 and September 1936 there was only once a gap of longer than two months between issues carrying Conan stories, and often they appeared sequentially month after month.

[2] Arkham House, while founded to publish Lovecraft, also extended its mission to the “Lovecraft tradition” as represented by his fellow Weird Tales writers. Smith’s high standing among his fellow “Cthulhu Mythos” writers (as opposed to his limited acceptance by the reading public) is indicated by the fact that his Out of Space and Time (1942) was the third book published by Arkham House, preceded only by Lovecraft’s The Outsider and Others (1939) and Derleth’s self-published Someone in the Dark (1941). By contrast, Donald Wandrei, the imprint’s co-founder with Derleth, had to wait until their fifth release in 1944 for his first Arkham House book (following close on the heels of their second Lovecraft book in 1943). Other members of the Lovecraft Circle did not join the queue until after Smith’s second book, Lost Worlds (1944): Bloch’s The Opener of the Way (1945), Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos (1946), Howard’s Skull-Face and Others (1946; Arkham House’s nineteenth book), Leiber’s Night’s Black Agents (1947), et al.

[3] See, for example, The Haunted Palace (1963), an inept adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward starring Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr; The Dunwich Horror (1970), which devotes most of its attention to an interpolated love-interest; the Jeffrey Comb Herbert West, Re-animator (1985), a most un-Lovecraftian medley of gallows-humor, sex, and gore; et al. Most of these take only the names of (some) characters and a few motifs from Lovecraft and make no attempt to reproduce the plots of his stories. In recent years, however, a thriving amateur film scene has grown up around independently produced Lovecraftian short films such as “Cool Air” and “Return to Dunwich” (both 1999); these short films make serious attempts (some more successfully than others) to remain faithful to their originals.

As for Howard, see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian (1981), which significantly did not take its plot from any of Howard’s own stories, or even from the pastiches by de Camp and Lin Carter, but owes more to the Marvel comic books based on the thriving Conan-pastiche market that grew up in de Camp & Carter’s wake. Howard himself has been the subject of a film, The Whole Wide World (1996), starring Renee Zellwedger, based on the memoirs of REH’s one-time girlfriend, Novalyne Price. Rather surprisingly, given his eccentric personality, no film has yet been made of Lovecraft’s life.

The only Smith video adaptation of note is a minor episode of Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery (1972) based on the (equally minor) Necronomicon story “The Return of the Sorcerer” (1931), starring Vincent Price and Bill Bixby.

[4] The Black Diamonds, an Arabian Nights tale not published until 2002 (Hippocampus Press). At 90,000 words, it is nearly double the length of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Lovecraft’s longest fiction, and twenty percent longer than Howard’s sole novel, The Hour of the Dragon (a.k.a. Conan the Conqueror). While it lacks the elegance and word-music of his later fiction, it is quite readable blend of ideas and adventures and amply demonstrates that he had already reached at a precociously early age the competency most pulp writers settle on for their entire careers (e.g., Frank Belknap Long or E. Hoffman Price), only to surpass them when he returned to fiction in 1929.

[5] Lovecraft’s dream was to see his work appear in book form; for his long and futile pursuit of this goal, see S. T. Joshi’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996). Howard’s was to graduate from the pulp magazines — the lowest rung of the fiction world — into the pages of the slightly more upscale Argosy and other “slick” magazines; see de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (Arkham House, 1976) and also his Howard biography, Dark Valley Destiny (by de Camp, de Camp, & Griffin, 1983).

[6] For a complete collection of Smith’s superb prose-poems, a form he seems to have adopted from Poe (cf. EAP’s “Silence” and “Shadow”), see Nostalgia of the Unknown: The Complete Prose Poetry of Clark Ashton Smith (Necronomicon Press, 1988).

[7] For the most part, these have since been published in “The Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith” series, released as individual pamphlets by Necronomicon Press (1987-1988); the Averoigne story “The Mother of Toads” was among them. Other stories that Smith was forced to re-write include the Averoigne tales “The Satyr” (to eliminate the scene in which the cuckolded husband ruthlessly murders his wife and her lover, impaling them with his sword while they are making love) and “The Beast of Averoigne” (whose original version took the form of documents left behind by multiple narrators, a format apparently considered too difficult for Weird Tales’ audience). The modern-day story “The Return of the Sorcerer” also had its original conclusion — wherein a murderer is killed by his dismembered rotting limbs of his victim (shades of Jeffrey Comb’s Herbert West, Re-animator) — toned down a good deal for publication.

[8] While any list of the best of Smith’s tales will perforce be subjective, nevertheless any “best of” collection deserving the name would have to include “The Empire of the Necromancers”, “Morthylla”, and “Necromancy in Naat”, all three set in his end-of-time era Zothique (as is his marvelously creepy play, The Dead Will Cuckold You); “The Enchantress of Sylaire”, “The Holiness of Azedarac”, “The Beast of Averoigne”, and “The Colossus of Ylourgne” (the four best Averoigne stories, with “The Mandrakes” not far behind); “The Last Incantation”, “The Death of Malygris”, and “The Double Shadow” (all three set in Poseidonis, his version of Atlantis); “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (set in Hyperborea, comparable to Howard’s Hyborian age but written with much more wit); “The Vault of Yoh-Vombis” (truly horrific science fiction set on Mars); and “Genius Loci” and “Nemesis of the Unfinished” (two modern-day stories, the latter an effective fictionalization of the crippling writer’s block that brought Smith’s own career to a premature end a quarter-century before his death).

Book of the Three Dragons

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

John Rateliff calls Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) one of the great forgotten fantasists of the twentieth century and praises his Book of the Three Dragons:

“[T]he ancients did not posit omniscience or omnipotence
as qualities of those whom they called the Gods:
they saw evil in the world, and were logical….
[T]he Gods were the great generals and battle-captains
in the eternal war against evil:… they… stood
in need of us as a general stood in need of his… soldiers.
… So the effort would have been, not to obtain help
from the Gods, but to give help to them.

— Kenneth Morris, Preface to The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (1914)

Obscure even in his own time and almost forgotten today, Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) is one of the great forgotten fantasists of the twentieth century. He wrote only three novels — the first, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (1914), published under a pseudonym (“Cenydd Morus”, the Welsh version of his name) by a theosophical press the month after World War I broke out, when the world had grimmer things on its mind; the second, Book of the Three Dragons (1930), released in a cut version by a publisher who lopped off the final third of the story and then tried to market what was left as a children’s book; and the third, The Chalchiuhite Dragon, not published until fifty-five years after his death (i.e., in 1992) — plus some forty short stories (including juvenalia and short-shorts), all of which appeared in theosophical journals and almost all under a weird array of pseudonyms (Quintus Reynolds, C. ApArthur, Sergius Mompesson, Wentworth Thompkins, Fortescue Lanyard, Aubrey Tyndall-Bloggsleigh, et al.). Ten of his best tales were collected by Morris into The Secret Mountain (1926), a superb collection from a major publisher which was remaindered within a year; not until 1995 did The Dragon Path, his collected short stories, appear. This neglect would not matter much if Morris were only a minor talent and an interesting footnote in the development of modern fantasy, but in fact Book of the Three Dragons is perhaps the single best fantasy adaptation from a real-world mythology (in this case, the Welsh Mabinogion), and the best of his tales (e.g., “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, and perhaps “Red-Peach-Blossom Inlet”) are among the finest fantasy short stories ever written.

“Who shall say where history ends and myth begins?
What is the dividing line between them? All these heroes
I doubt not were living men as well as everliving principles,
or rather they were the former and represented the latter.”

— K. Morris, “The Epic of Wales” (1899)

The Mabinogion and Welsh Fantasy

It is said that the Welsh have given two great legends to the world. The first is the King Arthur story, which has inspired countless authors through the centuries and is still going strong today. The second, unknown until rediscovered and translated into English in the 1830s and 1840s, is The Mabinogion, a collection of eleven medieval Welsh tales that preserve what little remains of the lost mythology of the Britains. [1] It is these elusive myths, and his own imaginative re-construction of the ancient pantheon that underlay them, that inspired Morris to create his masterpiece: Book of the Three Dragons. This was typical of his fantasy, almost all of which was myth-based. In fact, his short stories are remarkable in that rather than build up a sequence of linked tales practically every other story in The Dragon Path draws on a different mythology (Norse in “The Regent of the North”, Chinese in “The Eyeless Dragons”, Moorish in “The Night of al-Kadr”, Hindi in “The King and the Three Ascetics”, Christian in “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, Greek in “A Wild God’s Whim”, or his own fantasy pantheon for “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, etc.). His final novel, The Chalchiuhite Dragon, unpublished until a generation or more after his death, was inspired by the Mesoamerican legend of Quetzalcoatl (“chalchiuhite”, by the way, simply means “jade”). But by far his two greatest sources of inspiration were his own Theosophical faith[2] and Welsh legend, in particular The Mabinogion.

“In the Welsh Mabinogion, as in books of Eastern legend,
the ancient story of the soul is told.”

— K. Morris, “The Epic of Wales” (1899)

“It was Morris’s belief that the great theme of the world, of its philosophy
and its mythology, was the evolution of the soul of man”

— Douglas A. Anderson, Introduction, The Dragon Path (1995)

In his duology made up of The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of the Three Dragons, Morris recasts the plot from parts of the Mabinogi into a story all his own. His is not a novelization of the old tales or an attempt to retell the same stories in a more modern idiom — for that, see Evangeline Walton’s quartet Prince of Annwn (1974), The Children of Llyr (1971), The Song of Rhiannon (1972), and The Island of the Mighty (1936, 1970). Nor is it a re-enactment of one of the Mabinogi stories in modern times, like Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967). Instead, Morris chooses to create a new story that takes its characters and rough outline from the traditional tale (especially the First Branch, with parts of the Second Branch and Third Branch woven in as well) but has a plot and emphasis essentially new, enabling him to overlay a theme of his own creation upon the old legend. And in the process, he deftly transforms mythology into fantasy. He does not, however, depart so far from the originals as Lloyd Alexander, whose Chronicles of Prydain — The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967), and The High King (1968) — take characters, names, and elements from the Mabinogi stories but change them drastically to fit the demands of a wholly new plot set in a completely imaginary world, so that the result bears only a passing resemblance to their source, Morris’s story, while greatly changed in places, is still recognizably the story of Pwyll, Rhiannon, and Manawyddan.

“It would be an ill thing if wonders were for the seeing,
and we without the seeing them.”

— Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed

The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed

The first of the two books, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, takes the plot of the First Branch of the Mabinogi, “Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed”[3] and infuses it with cosmic significance. In Morris’s hands, the events of the old tale become more than just an evocative sequence of wonders that befall the hero. As in the original, Pwyll accidentally offends the ruler of the Underworld (Arawn, lord of Annwn) and, to make amends, agrees to take his place for a year. After returning to his own land, he meets and woos a supernatural lady (Rhianon), winning her after overcoming many challenges and obstacles. Unluckily, disaster strikes and their infant son is stolen away, and he cannot save her from undergoing years of undeserved penitence before their child is restored to them. From these lean bones, Morris spins an ornate tale that expands upon the original more than tenfold, delighting in its own extravagance all the while. More importantly, he unified all the incidents by imposing a grand scheme upon the whole: In Morris’s book, the gods have decided to elevate a mortal into godhood, and they choose Pwyll as the worthiest candidate. All his exploits — his sojourn in the Underworld, his courtship and marriage to an immortal goddess, and the rest — are here tests whereby they seek to see if he is worthy of deification. In the end, he fails, bringing a curse upon himself and his land. The final half of Fates of the Princes describes the miseries that fall upon Pwyll, Rhianon, and their kingdom until mother and land are redeemed by the deeds of their heroic young son, Pryderi.

Unfortunately, while impressive and elegantly written, The Fates of the Princes is Morris’s least successful book in terms of quality — not quite juvenilia, but definitely journeyman work. (Morris himself later admitted he “piled on the adjectives” and wrote it “in a very Welsh mood”.) Morris delights in rituals and patterns, so that almost every scene contains repetitions of almost the exact same thing happening over and over again. For example, when Pryderi seeks to free one of his mother’s magic birds from imprisonment (one of three very similar quests), he greets and fights a warrior barring him entry; after slaying this foe, he is opposed by ten of his fellows, each stronger than the first; after slaying them, by a hundred mightier than those who came before; after their defeat, by a thousand who are mightiest of all. Sometimes almost identical actions and dialogue are repeated, as when Pendaran Dyfed uses the same trick four times in the same chapter to cow the usurpers into acknowledging Rhianon’s queenship. This method works extremely well in fairy tales, but there’s a reason fairy tales are short; the repetition of patterns becomes wearisome in a novel-length work. Finally, there is the matter of the gods’ testing of poor Pwyll, which starts reasonably enough but continues to the point where it verges on the sadistic (e.g., forcing him to witness what he thinks is his infant son being murdered before his eyes); being gods, they can extend temptations indefinitely, repeating them until at last he fails. But for all these faults, the book is a bold attempt to create a new myth out of the fragments of an old one, and it blazed the way for much better things to follow — chief among them its sequel, Book of the Three Dragons.

Said Manawyddan, “The greeting of the god and the man to you…”
Said the Dragon, “The greeting of the man and the dragon to you…
For what reason have you come here — for fighting or for peace?
It will be better for you to go back to the Island of the Mighty at once,
having exchanged this friendly greeting with me.”

“Lord Winged One,” said Manawyddan, “let more than greetings be exchanged!”

“More than greeting would be fighting,” said the Dragon.

“Of your courtesy and your kindness, fighting let it be,” said Manawyddan.

“Here is the fighting it will be,” said the Dragon. “You will remember
longingly all the battles and torments of your years, and they will seem
to you like quiet sleep and dreaming in comparison with it.”

“Lord Splendor of Heaven,” said Manawyddan, “for the sake
of such fighting as that I came here.”

With that they raised their war-shouts and the fighting began…

— Manawyddan challenges the dragon Gwron Gawr, Book of the Three Dragons

Book of the Three Dragons

With the second book in his duology, Book of the Three Dragons, Morris achieves a stunning breakthrough. Although written around the same time as The Fates of the Princes was published (i.e., circa 1910-1911),[4] the book was drastically revised during the long gap between its completion and publication, allowing Morris to perfect his style and show just how much he had learned as a writer by writing the stories collected in The Secret Mountain. The result is so impressive that it’s no wonder that Ursula K. Le Guin chose an excerpt from this book as one of her three examples of the best that fantasy can offer (along with E.R. Eddison and J.R.R. Tolkien):

“[I]f [Book of the Three Dragons] ever had a day of fame
it was before our time. I use it here partly in hopes of arousing interest
in the book,[5] for I think many people would enjoy it.
It is a singularly fine example of the recreation of a work
magnificent in its own right (the Mabinogion) — a literary event
rather rare except in fantasy, where its frequency is perhaps proof,
if one were needed, of the ever-renewed vitality of myth.
But Morris is also useful to my purpose because he has a strong
sense of humor… I think Morris and James Branch Cabell
were the masters of the comic-heroic. One does not smile wryly,
reading them; one laughs. They achieve their comedy essentially
by style — by an eloquence, a fertility and felicity and ferocity
of invention that is simply overwhelming. They are outrageous,
and they know exactly what they’re doing.”

— Le Guin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973), repeated in The Language of the Night (1979)

With this second part of his story, Morris departs altogether from his model; although Manawyddan is the hero of both Book of the Three Dragons and the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, except for a single chapter adapted from the ending of the Mabinogi‘s Second Branch (“Branwen, Daughter of Llyr”) the plots are completely different. Morris’s story follows the miserable final days of Pwyll until he expiates his failings and is reborn in Ceridwen’s Cauldron as Manawyddan. In the original Mabinogi, Pwyll and Manawyddan are separate characters, the heroes of the First and Third Branches respectively, with their only common element being that they are the first and second husbands of Rhiannon; Morris has transformed them into a Before-and-After portrait of the same person, with Manawyddan being Pwyll as he should have been (an awakened soul, so to speak). Even though it forms a direct sequel to The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, Book of the Three Dragons is self-contained enough to stand alone; one can read it without having read the earlier book — in fact, since some might be put off by the first book’s shortcomings, I’d recommend reading Book of the Three Dragons first and then going back and seeking out the earlier book.

With Manawyddan’s story, Morris’s art reaches its apotheosis. In all his fantasy he seeks to lift legend up into the numinous; here, as in his best short stories, he achieves it. Rarely has any fantasy been so infused with a sense of the author’s vision. Furthermore, Morris’s is an unusually benign worldview, especially for a fantasist; one gets the sense that he didn’t really believe in “Evil” with a capital “E”. As a result, though his stories feature plenty of villainous characters, they are always drawn so that the reader knows exactly why they do what they do; we have empathy though not sympathy with them. For example, the sorceress Ewinwen, servant of Tathal Twyll Goleu (Tathal Cheat-the-Light, one of the three great thieves who are the chief villains of the story), who has fossilized more than a thousand heroes and is trying her best to similarly petrify Manawyddan, does not think of herself as evil:

“It would be the pity of pities,” she thought , “for such a man
to go roaming free, a mere mortal, in the Island of the Mighty,
when the immortality of stonehood might be put on him,
and he preserved forever in Uffern through my ministrations.”
and, after he defeats her
In pity she sighed, and her tears came near falling; she foresaw
mortal life and death for him through his stubbornness, and
no attaining immortal stonehood. Woe was her, that she
could not save him!

Similarly, Gwiawn Llygad Cath (Gwiawn Cat’s Eye the Sea-Thief) has his own distinct moral code, though it is not the same one our hero espouses:

His conscience began to trouble him sorely, thinking how
shamed he would be if [Manawyddan's magical] shield
were left unstolen… Thinking he was, that there would
not have been the like of it in the world since the days of
… Arthur. And alas, he had never attained stealing [Arthur's
shield]; and whispers had gone abroad to his discredit
over that… “Unwise the man who neglected stealing it:
imprudent he who filched it not from its lord when he might.”

And all this is while he is running full tilt away from Manawyddan with the well-armed warrior in hot pursuit! Some of Gwiawn’s interior monologues are positively Vancean; if Morris’s exceptional Master Thieves owe something to Dunsany (e.g., “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnolls”, “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, “The Bird of the Difficult Eye”, “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”), it seems quite likely that the distinctive conversational style of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld owe something to Kenneth Morris.

Even the zest for battle that marks both books comes across as joyous, not bloodthirsty. (“Opposition I desire, and extreme fighting, and not to go forward until usage shall have been complied with” — Pryderi, The Fates of the Princes; “Lord Dragon,” said Manawyddan, “it was for the sake of enjoyable conflict I came here, if there were anyone with the kind courtesy to grant it to me” — Manawyddan, Book of the Three Dragons) In part this might be because of Morris’s belief in reincarnation — slain foes are described as being freed to seek better lives — but mostly I believe it comes from the extreme politeness with which all parties conduct themselves. One of the outstanding set pieces of Book of the Three Dragons is Manawyddan’s battle with Gwron Gawr, an immortal disguised in dragon form, which though extremely violent — the two fight from dawn to dusk on three consecutive days, and in the end are reduced to snatching up great boulders and beating on each other with them — has nonetheless to rank as the most polite dragon-battle in all of fantasy: the two exchange courteous greetings each morning before they set to, and equally polite farewells at the end of each day’s battle. The stakes, too, are suitably grand for the most epic of heroes — when Manawyddan is forced to pursue the thief Gwiawn Cat’s Eye through Uffern (a Welsh Hell), he not only redeems and reforms Gwiawn once he defeats him but vows not to depart until he has freed all the petrified souls he has seen and passed during their battle, giving the climax of the book a truly eucatastrophic tone.

In the end, Morris not only created a new subgenre of fantasy (fantasy inspired by Welsh myth, with Walton, Garner, and Alexander as the most notable to follow in his footsteps) but offered up a superb book that transcends its inspiration. His career is proof that even a writer with a small output can achieve greatness if there are gems of the quality of “The Saint and the Forest-Gods”, “The Last Adventure of Don Quixote”, and Book of the Three Dragons among them.

“I think… that we too go upon these adventures”

— Kenneth Morris, “The Epic of Wales”

The Mabinogi and Your Game

Fantasies that have been read by few and unfamiliar myths make prime ground for DMs looking for characters, plots, settings, and magics to enrich almost any campaign. The Mabinogi has all these elements in plenty, and Morris puts his distinct stamp on them as well; his Master Thieves would make a particularly useful addition to a fantasy setting, while his distinctive dragons ennoble the whole concept of wily, powerful wyrms. The sorceress Ewinwen and the armies of petrified men Manawyddan encounters in Uffern would also spice up or creepify an adventure. Hardest, perhaps, to imitate would be his characters’ speaking style, but a DM or player character who achieved it would have an immensely effective roleplaying device. In addition, all who love bards would be well advised to read Book of the Three Dragons, since bards play major roles throughout the story, both in casting spells and even more importantly in breaking enchantments.

“The only fault I find with him is,
that he does not write more,
and oftener.”

— Talbot Mundy on Kenneth Morris

Bibliographic Note

The Fates of the Princes, first published in 1914 and re-released in trade paperback by Newcastle in 1978 as part of their “Forgotten Fantasy” library, is now long out of print but readily available through online used book services like www.bookfinder.com (sometimes under “Kenneth Morris” and sometimes under “Cenydd Morus”). Similarly, Book of the Three Dragons, released in 1930 and re-issued by Ayer in 1978 as part of their “Lost Race and Adult Fantasy Fiction” series, is woefully out of print but available online from specialty book dealers. Fortunately for those who would like to see what Morris’s prose is like before paying $45 to $100 for a rare book, the first quarter of Book of the Three Dragons is available online at www.contemporarypoetry.com/dialect/morris/morrisdragonmain.htm, along with two short stories and a play (The Archdruid).

The final third of Book of the Three Dragons has, alas, never yet published, although the manuscript does survive. I can only echo the words of Doug Anderson, the foremost Morris scholar: “A one-volume edition, containing The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed, Book of the Three Dragons, and the unpublished ending, is sorely needed in order to demonstrate the real scope of Morris’s achievement and to tell the whole story of the Princes of Dyfed and the Family of Pwyll.” (Introduction to The Dragon Path, p. 26). At the very least, since Book of the Three Dragons is so vastly superior to its predecessor, a complete edition with Manawyddan’s confrontation with Llwyd ab Cilcoed (the third of the three Master Thieves) and his reunion with his wife and son restored in their proper place would be a boon to fantasy readers everywhere.

“[T]hey are not only crazy but Welsh”

— Ursula K. Le Guin


[1] The title is actually a misnomer; it should be The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (cf. Patrick Ford’s excellent translation, The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales), but the name “Mabinogion” has stuck ever since it was first used by the original translator, Lady Charlotte Guest (1838), to refer to the contents of the 14th century manuscript known as “The Red Book of Hergest” (itself the probable inspiration for Tolkien’s “Red Book of Westmarch”). It includes the four Mabinogi tales as well as four others (including the oldest and possibly oddest Arthurian tale, “Culhwch and Olwen”) and three Arthurian romances. Ford’s translation omits the three romances and two dream-visions but adds the Tale of Taliesin from another manuscript.

[2]Although Welsh, Morris spent most of his adult life in America, living and teaching at the Theosophical commune at Point Loma, California, from 1908 till 1930, and spending his final years as a Theosophical missionary in Wales, giving lectures and establishing new lodges; he even assigned the copyright of The Fate of the Princes to the head of the Order, Katharine Tingley. It’s fair to say that Morris was as devoted to proselytizing his beliefs through his works as C. S. Lewis was to infuse Xian doctrine in all his own writings, but aside from his juvenalia, Morris was considerably more subtle in how he went about it.

[3]Regarding the pronunciation of the names: Morris provides an extensive section in each book explaining in detail just how each name should be pronounced in Welsh, then ends with the following observation: “[A]n excellent plan is just to decide for oneself what one will call each of the people in the book, and stick to that. Thus if you elected to call Pwyll simply Pwil, and call him that every time his name cropped up; — why, you would get along charmingly, and he wouldn’t mind in the least. It doesn’t sound so nice as Pooeelh perhaps, but then — !” (Book of the Three Dragons, p. xi-xii). The same applies to the names in The Chalchuihite Dragon; readers unfamiliar with Mesoamerican orthography will be surprised how quickly they become used to Toltec nomenclature once they become absorbed in the story.

[4] My thanks to Doug Anderson for providing this specific dating.

[5]Le Guin’s enthusiasm for the book may have been directly responsible for reviving interest in Morris’s work; note that both Fates of the Princes and Book of the Three Dragons were reprinted shortly after her essay (originally circulating in chapbook form) appeared, after decades of neglect. In any case, certainly many readers first heard of Morris’s work through her praise, which led many to check out his writing for themselves.

Watership Down

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Watership Down qualifies as one of the more unusual fantasy classics:

“All the world will be your enemy,
Prince with a Thousand Enemies,
and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.
But first they must catch you…
Be cunning and full of tricks
and your people shall never be destroyed.”

— Lord Frith’s promise to El-ahrairah

Every time critics and fans of fantasy begin to feel that they’ve seen it all, that it’s all been done, along comes a work from a totally unexpected direction that blows them away and changes everything. No sooner had Lin Carter, in the wake of Tolkien’s phenomenal popularity, constructed a history of fantasy that led from Morris to Dunsany to Eddison to Tolkien to the “Tolk-clones” than along came a work that didn’t fit into the pattern in any way. Rather than harkening back to medieval knights’ tales with suitable dollops of folk tale, fairy tale, and mythology thrown in, Watership Down [1] harkened back to an entirely different tradition: the beast-fable, to which Adams gave a whole new lease on life.

Among the most ancient of all literary types that have come down to us — Aesop’s Fables have remained perennially popular for over twenty-five centuries now — beast-fables have been used for everything from social satire (Reynard the Fox) and political commentary (Animal Farm) to trickster tales (Brer Rabbit) and children’s stories (The Wind in the Willows). Richard Adams, using the unlikeliest of materials — the story of a bunch of rabbits journeying to establish a new home — raises the form to the status of epic and subtly merged it with the burgeoning fantasy genre: the result was a masterpiece that transcended its genre, achieving best-seller status, [2] becoming one of the few modern fantasy novels to have a movie adaptation, [3] and inspiring a host of imitators. [4]

The moon sailed free of the cloud and lit the heather…
Fiver was looking far out beyond the edge of the common.
Four miles away, along the southern skyline, rose the seven-
hundred-and-fifty-foot ridge of the downs… “Look!” said Fiver
suddenly. “That’s the place for us, Hazel. High, lonely hills,
where the wind and the sound carry and the ground’s
as dry as straw in a barn. That’s where we ought to be.
That’s where we have to get to.”

A Place Where We Ought To Be

Rather than tell the story of a grand quest, a there-and-back-again with elves, dwarves, wizards, damsels, and all the other paraphernalia of generic modern fantasy, Adams looks back to an older model, Virgil’s Aeneid, which tells the story of a hero fleeing disaster (the Fall of Troy) with a few companions, seeking to find a new home where they can live in safety and establish a new community (Rome). Adams has specifically said (introduction to the Perennial Classics edition, 2001) that his inspiration for Fiver, the quiet little rabbit given to visions foretelling disaster, is the Trojan princess Cassandra, who warned of the coming doom but was not believed (it being her curse that her prophesies would always be true but never believed until too late). In a sense, his book is a “what-if” — what if a few friends had believed Cassandra and fled Troy before it was too late? What if, like Aeneas and his companions, they find a seductive temporary home that almost spells their doom (Carthage and the Land of the Lotus Eaters, Cowslip’s Warren of the Shining Wires)? What if, having reached their destined home, they are forced to fight their new neighbors (Turnus and the Latins, Woundwort’s Efrafans) to keep it? By basing his story on one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, [5] Adams taps into a very old myth: the flight from disaster, the heroic refugee in search of a new home, a story that was already over a thousand years old when Vergil told it (in 19 BC). [6]

Since leaving the warren of the snares they had become warier, shrewder,
a tenacious band who understood each other… There was no more quarreling…
They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities.
They knew now that it was on these and on nothing else that their lives depended…
Without Hazel [and the others] Bigwig would have died. Without himself he would have
died, for which else, of them all, would not have stopped running after such punishment?
There was no more questioning of Bigwig’s strength, Fiver’s insight,
Blackberry’s wits or Hazel’s authority.

A Band of Brothers

The most appealing feature of Adams’ book, perhaps, is his cast of characters. Many fantasies (and science fiction, mysteries, and so on) center entirely around one character, with perhaps a partner, love-interest, or sidekick to provide some interaction and the occasional plot-element (this is, incidentally, why so many of them make poor models for roleplaying games, which are all about the interaction of characters who are distinct but more or less equal). Watership Down, by contrast, is very much an ensemble book. There is never any doubt that Hazel is the main character, or that Fiver the prophet and Bigwig the warrior are almost as important (each becomes the point-of-view character for a chapter or more of his own). But Blackberry, the brains of their group, and Dandelion, the storyteller and fastest runner, are also not just likable characters but essential to the group’s success, while Pipkin, Silver, Hyzenthlay, and Blackavar are appealing in their own way, to say nothing of the impact of more eccentric characters like Bluebell the joker, Kehaar the seagull, and the sinister General Woundwort. From the Argonautica (the story of Jason & the Argonauts) and Robin Hood’s Merry Men to Star Trek and Tenchi Muyo, authors have understood the value of an ensemble of very different personalities, where almost any reader can identify with at least one of the characters and interest in and affection for the cast of characters becomes a chief appeal of the work.

Ultimately, the story works because Adams makes us care for his characters, and care passionately for what happens to them. With unobtrusively fine writing (some of his nature descriptions to set the scene and mood are outstanding, such as the passage on moonlight in Chapter 22), he manages a careful balance between very real animals and literary characters. Many beast-fables have the animals acting just like people — for example, The Wind in the Willows’ Mr. Toad drives a motor-car (very badly) and lives in a grand house (Toad Hall), while his friend Ratty (a Water-Rat) loves to go boating on the river; Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit loses his new shoes and best blue jacket in Farmer McGregor’s garden. By contrast, Adams’ rabbits do not wear clothes, do not live in houses, and do not act like people in animal’s skins. They always remain rabbits first — digging burrows, eating silflay, passing hraka, and thinking about mating.

Rather unusually for an epic fantasy, Adams keeps the fantasy elements minimal; his would be a realistic novel except for three elements.

First, his rabbits can talk — and not just with each other, but (albeit haltingly, through a hedgerow ‘common speech’) with mice, hares, rats, cats, and even birds. Here Adams taps into what Tolkien called “one of the primal desires” at the heart of fairy-stories: “the desire… to hold communion with other living things” (JRRT, “On Fairy-Stories”, 1947). Ironically, the only ones they cannot communicate with are humans, who are cut off from all other animals.

“There is terrible evil in the world” [said Fiver].
“It comes from men,” said Holly. “All other evil [predators] do
what they have to do… Men will never rest
till they’ve spoiled the earth… ” [7]

Second, in addition to talking, his rabbits can think and plan at a level far beyond that of ordinary animals. While it’s true that science is now shifting to the view that animals are far more intelligent than previously thought — see, for example, the book The Parrot’s Lament, which argues that pet owners and zookeepers have a far better grasp of animal intelligence than do lab scientists — still, Adams’ rabbits’ ability to talk to each other enables them to have an oral history and wherewithal to coordinate action that is pure fantasy. That animals have distinct individual personalities, every pet owner who’s had more than a single pet knows; Adams’ achievement is to build on that insight so that he can create his rabbit characters with a minimum of fantasy, giving his work a convincing realism that improves the plausibility of his story.

Third and finally, we have Fiver’s visions. These appear supernatural even to his fellow rabbits; it’s a form of second sight that comes with no explanation, something that simply is and has to be accepted or rejected on its own merits. Given the number of people in the real world who believe in at least the possibility of some form of precognition, even this element only becomes overtly fantastic due to the precision and accuracy of Fiver’s foretellings. If not for the visions, the story as we have it would never have taken place, but Adams keeps this an intriguing undercurrent in the book rather than mere plot device; this is a considerable achievement in itself.

[T]he Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness… he is that cold,
bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today
and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows
where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit
is not far off… [The Black Rabbit] will come in the night and call a
rabbit by name: and then that rabbit must go out to him…. Some say
that the Black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is
. . . that he, too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task
— to bring about what must be. We come into the world and we have to go
[out of it]… We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inle and only
by his will.

A Rabbit Mythology

One final memorable feature of Watership Down, which elevates Adams’ rabbits beyond clever animals into furry people (albeit still very much rabbits), is his construction of a whole rabbit mythology. Fantasy authors have been creating mythologies since Lord Dunsany created the first fantasy pantheon back in 1905 (The Gods of Pegana), but Adams does a particularly neat job of it. Rather than hashing out the standard cliches, or providing a poor adaptation of some well-known real-world pantheon (e.g., the Greek, Norse, or Egyptian deities), he worked out a creation myth, belief system, and legendarium that fits in smoothly with the actual life of a wild rabbit. They are, quite naturally, sun-worshippers, so Lord Frith (the sun) is their all-powerful Creator-God. Nighttime is when their many predators (“the thousand”) are most active, so their Grim Reaper is the Black Rabbit of Inle (Inle being their word for the moon). Adams even, in the Epilogue, gives us some idea of the rabbits’ afterlife in a moving scene describing the eventual death of Hazel from sheer old age that closes the book.

Rather than churches, doctrine, and sacraments, Adams’ rabbits have stories, legends they tell and re-tell, about El-ahrairah, “the Prince of a Thousand Enemies”, the apotheosis of Brer Rabbit into “Everyrabbit,” the ultimate trickster. In the course of the book Adams incorporates five inset tales of El-ahrairah into his overall narrative (“The Blessing of El-ahrairah,” “The King’s Lettuce,” “The Trial of El-ahrairah,” “El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle,” and “Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog”), as well as snippets from another (“The Fox in the Water”). [8] Not a deity but a cultural hero a la John Henry or Odysseus, El-ahrairah’s exploits inspire and encourage the rabbits who believe in him, while those who do not (those of Cowslip’s Warren) become profoundly unnatural, essentially losing their ability to function as wild animals. In a particularly neat touch, near the end of the book Adams includes a brief passage where Hazel hears a rabbit mother tell her children a version of part of the adventures of Hazel and his friends as an El-ahrairah story. Hazel himself remarks “I seem to know this story… but I can’t remember where I’ve heard it,” and it becomes clear that, since El-ahrairah is a celebration of all that’s clever and indomitable about rabbits, the deeds of brave and exceptional rabbits get caught up into his legend and become part of the tale, a rather fitting form of immortality for Hazel and his friends.

‘And what happened in the end?’ asks the reader who has
followed Hazel and his comrades in all their adventures…
[The authorities tell] us that wild rabbits live for two or three years
. . . but Hazel lived longer than that. He lives a tidy few summers — as they say in that part of the world — and learned to know well
the changes of the downs to spring, to winter and to spring again.
He saw more young rabbits than he could remember.
And sometimes, when they told tales on a sunny evening
by the beech trees, he could not clearly recall whether
they were about himself or about some other rabbit hero
of days gone by.

— From the Epilogue

Watership Down and Your Game

The great popularity of Watership Down among fantasy readers in the 1970s is reflected in its being the inspiration for an early roleplaying game, Bunnies & Burrows (FGU, 1976), essentially an unlicensed adaptation of Adams’ work. Many years later, Steve Jackson Games published a much expanded version of the game adapted for use with the GURPS rules system (1992); like the original, it is now long out of print. Given the appeal of the book, there have also been any number of homebrew systems for Watership Down-inspired rabbit adventures over the years, some of them quite effective. Even for those who have no desire to roleplay rabbits, Hazel and company are one of the best available models of an ensemble of characters with very different personalities and talents adventuring together.

Bibliographic Note

An extremely successful book, Watership Down is readily available in libraries and bookstores across the country, in both paperback (ISBN 0380002930) and hardcover (ISBN 068483605X). The “Perennial Classics” edition (ISBN 0-06-093545-6) of 2001, a trade paperback, has the added feature of a new Introduction by Adams describing the origins and inspiration for the book. As a sign of Adams’ success, perhaps, it is usually shelved in the Literature/Fiction section of bookstores, not the fantasy/sf section. It has never been out of print since its initial publication, now over thirty years ago.


[1] The title, “Watership Down,” refers not to some aquatic disaster but to the place where the story takes place: a down is a specific type of long, narrow hill, usually made of chalk (cf. the Barrow-Downs in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). Watership Down itself lies thirty-odd miles south of Oxford in south-central England and about thirty miles north of the neartest point of contact with “Big Water” (the port of Southampton); for those with access to a large-scale map of England, the story begins in the country of Berkshire (Sandleford Warren) but then travels into Hampshire (everything south of the river Enborne, which they cross in Chapter 8). The website www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~talami/watershp/ posts dozens of photographs of the actual, real-world landscape in which the story takes place, including the Down itself, Nuthanger Farm, the Iron Road, and so on.

[2] With the recent success of authors like Robert Jordan in America and Terry Pratchett in England, it’s easy to forget how exceptional it was for a fantasy author to hit the mainstream best-sellers’ list before the 1990s: Tolkien had done it in paperback in the mid-60s, but aside from Adams (the #2 bestselling fiction book of 1974) the only ones to achieve these heights were Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the year’s #1 in 1972 and 1973) and Tolkien himself with his long-awaited The Silmarillion (#1 for twenty-one consecutive weeks in 1977-78).

[3] Watership Down was adapted as a feature-length animated film (1978), with distinguished voice-actors such as Michael Hordern (the voice of Gandalf in the BBC Lord of the Rings), Joss Ackland (who played C.S. Lewis in the original Shadowlands), Nigel Hawthorne, Sir Ralph Richardson, Roy Kinnear, Dernholm Elliot (of Indiana Jones fame), John Hurt as Hazel, and Zero Mostel as Kehaar (his final film). The movie is actually grimmer than the book, killing off several additional characters. An interesting example of late 70s animation and a rare example of an animated film made in England rather than America or Japan, it was not a commercial success and largely disappeared until the recent explosion of back-catalogue DVD releases coupled with the revival of interest in animation and fantasy film was made it available again; it was released on DVD last year (2002).

[4] Perhaps foremost among a host of imitators are William Horwood’s Duncton Wood (1980), which is about moles, and Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (1985), about cats. Brian Jacques’ extremely successful “Redwall” series (Redwall, 1986; Mossflower, 1988, and so on), which now consists of over sixteen books, has superficial similarities but in fact harkens back more to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) than to Adams’ tradition.

[5] While the Iliad and Odyssey are more esteemed today (quite rightly, in my opinion), Virgil’s imitation of them in the Aeneid was far more influential in the Middle Ages: virtually every nation in Christendom sought to trace its ancestry back to the Trojans. Hence, the beginning of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight (c.1370s) describes how, while other refugees fled to Rome and Tuscany and Lombardy, Felix Brutus led the Trojans to Britain (a legend given in more detail in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, 1136). Even the Icelandic Prose Edda (c.1220s) includes a passage rather bizarrely tracing Odin’s descent from King Priam of Troy.

[6] This literary origin for Adams’ work also comes across in the quotations with which he prefaces each of his fifty chapters. Unlike the quotes from rock music that punctuate much of modern fantasy (or as much of it as includes quotations from other works), Adams’ come from literature (with a capital “L”): Auden, Yeats, Bunyan, Browning, Tennyson, Blake, Hardy, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, Greek playwrights, Dostoevsky, Austen, the Bible, and a host of others. These citations, which always contain extremely apt allusions to the theme of the chapter, help give a literary air to Adams’ book that many more generic fantasies lack.

[7] The evil that men do is a persistent theme in Adams’ work: his next book after Watership Down, Shardik (1974), vividly depicts the evils of slavery. The Plague Dogs (1977) is, along with an engrossing tale of yet another desperate escape, an extremely effective condemnation of vivisection and the torture of lab animals (but he did takes pains to include a few humans opposed such practices). The Girl on a Swing (1980), at once a haunting love story and horrifying ghost story, has at the hidden core of its plot an act of almost unbelievable cruelty that ultimately determines everything else that happens in the book. Traveller (1988) tells the story of America’s most brutal war, from the point of view of Robert E. Lee’s horse, rather in the manner of Robert Lawson (Paul Revere’s Horse, Ben and Me, Captain Kidd’s Cat). In a recent interview, Adams stated that he is currently, at age 83, at work on a new novel about slavery (“Where Are They Now?”, Book magazine, July/August 2003 issue).

[8] The complete tale, along with several others about El-ahrairah, are included in the eventual follow-up book, Tales from Watership Down (1996). This collection of nineteen short stories includes nine stories about El-ahrairah not found in Watership Down itself (one of which, interestingly enough, is directly based on the story “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance” by M. R. James; see the “Classics of Fantasy” column for October 2002), a nonsense tale, a rabbit ghost story (again touching on the theme of human cruelty; see [7] above), and finally eight stories that together make a sort of inconclusive novella pendant to the original book, telling what happened to Hazel and the others over the next few months (the winter, spring, and early summer following Woundwort’s defeat).

The Night Land

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Few masterpieces have been so little read, or so deeply misunderstood, yet so influential as The Night Land, John Rateliff says:

“In all literature, there are few works so sheerly remarkable,
so purely creative, as The Night Land. Whatever faults
the book might possess… it impresses the reader
as being… the last epic of a world beleaguered
by eternal night and by the unvisageable
spawn of darkness. Only a great poet
could have conceived and written
this story.”

— Clark Ashton Smith

Imagine that you were lucky enough to find true love, your destined soulmate who completed you. That you and your love were happy together as man and wife. That you lost your beloved to untimely death. Imagine that you had a vision of a future life, a reincarnation millions of year in the future, in a time when the sun had died and humankind was almost extinct. Imagine you lived on one of two great fortresses, besieged by the monsters that stalked the darkened Earth outside.

Then imagine that you discover that your beloved has been reborn into the other fortress, separated from your own by vast distances across a nightmare landscape haunted by evils that can devour the soul as well as the body. That the other fortress was being overrun and its people slaughtered, and your beloved in dire peril of not just death but annihilation, from which there would be no rebirth. Imagine that you ventured forth alone into the Night Land in an attempt to save her . . .

“. . . one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written.
The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race
concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged
by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness,
is something that no reader can ever forget. Shapes and entities
of an altogether non-human and inconceivable sort — the prowlers
of the black, man-forsaken, and unexplored world outside the pyramid
— are suggested and partly described with ineffable potency;
while the night-bound landscape with its chasms and slopes
and dying volcanism takes on an almost sentient terror
beneath the author’s touch.”

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

The Dream of X

Welcome to The Night Land. Few masterpieces have been so little read, or so deeply misunderstood, yet so influential; among the writers directly inspired by it are Clark Ashton Smith (the best of the Weird Tales writers, in his Zothique sequence), Jack Vance (The Dying Earth/The Eyes of the Overworld), and very probably Roger Zelazny as well (Jack of Shadows, possibly Damnation Alley). This is all the more remarkable for its being the first novel by an author who died after all-too-brief a career (he was blown apart by a direct hit from a mortar shell in the last days of World War I; his remnants lie in an unmarked grave on the Western Front), leaving behind only four novels and a few dozen short stories. [1]

The Night Land (1912) is an uncompromising work that demands to be taken entirely on its own terms; Hodgson even invented his own dialect of English to write the story in, anticipating the efforts of Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange, 1962, with its punker slang) and Russell Hoban (Riddley Walker, 1981, with its post-apocalypse English) by more than half a century. Based on the language of 16th and 17th century writers such as Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678) and Hakluyt (Hakluyt’s Voyages, 1589), it is as distinctive a distancing device as Tolkien’s Elvish nomenclature or Lovecraft’s 18th century affectations, immediately establishing that this is not a Connecticut Yankee or a modern-day mind translated into a fantastic setting a la Twain or Wells but a heroic figure from the past (the narrator’s “present” seems to have been late Tudor or perhaps Stuart times) relating a vision of a fantastically distant future. Even more impressively, for a language largely devoid of finite verbs (Hodgson prefers emphatic tenses and infinitives), the reader rapidly becomes acclimatized; though it appears odd when excerpted, his pseudo-archaic English reads very naturally after only a few pages. [2]

And some shall read and say this was not,
and some shall dispute with them; but to them all
I say naught, save “Read!” And having read
that which I set down, then shall one and all
have looked towards Eternity with me — aye,
unto its very portals. And so to my telling:

— The beginning of the vision

A Darkened World

A deft blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Hodgson’s imagined world depicts the End Times, when once-human monsters and otherworldly supernatural horrors inhabit a landscape unlit by the dying sun; it is as if Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones were finally free to roam the world and wreak havoc on all that fell into their grasp. Building on the ideas of Sheridan Le Fanu (and, to a lesser extent, M. R. James), Hodgson evolved a mythos that posits a malign supernatural realm abutting the human world from which we are fortunately shielded; at times Forces from that realm break through into our reality, with invariably catastrophic results. In The Night Land the barriers between this nightmare dimension and our once-mundane human world have broken down, and with it what we liked to think of as reality has come to an end. The only oasis remaining for the surviving humans are the two Redoubts, great metal pyramids within which the last humans live out their lives, besieged by Watchers (Great Old Ones), hovering like sharks around their prey, and a plethora of lesser evils: the Night Hounds, the Giants and Humped Men, the Silent Ones, and a host of other beings.

And when the Pyramid was built, the last millions, who were
the Builders thereof, went within, and made themselves a great house
and city of this Last Redoubt. And thus began the Second History
of this world… And, later, through hundreds and thousands of years, there grew up in the Outer Lands… mighty and lost races
of terrible creatures, half men and half beast and evil and dreadful . . .
And, at whiles, through the forgotten centuries, had the Creatures
been glutted time and again upon such odd bands of daring ones
as had adventured forth to explore through the mystery of the
Night Lands; for of those who went, scarce any did return;
for there were eyes in all that dark; and Powers and
Forces abroad which had all knowledge; or so
we must fain believe.

This is not the whole story, however. In a striking departure from the similar conception later evolved by Lovecraft (the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”), Hodgson believes there are forces of good as well as of evil loose in the world, though they move in mysterious ways and cannot be evoked in any way by mere mortals; they simply sometimes manifest to intervene at (some) crucial moments. Decades later, August Derleth took this concept from Hodgson (whose complete novels he published in the early days of Arkham House, along with two collections of his short stories) and grafted it onto Lovecraft’s Mythos, where it was ludicrously inappropriate, and then made matters worse by claiming that the resulting amalgam of “Elder Gods” vs. “Great Old Ones” represented Lovecraft’s true intentions. On its own terms, however, Hodgson’s mythos works exceedingly well. The unexpected interventions having the effect of sudden, unexpected, exceptionally rare miracles that relieve what would otherwise be the intolerable bleakness of his dying world:

[T]here were other forces than evil at work in the Night Land,
about the Last Redoubt… even as the Forces of Darkness
were loose upon the End of Man; so were there other Forces
out to do battle with the Terror; though in ways
most strange and unthought of by the human soul. And of this
I shall have more to tell anon.

Love Among the Ruins

The most controversial element about The Night Land, however, even more than the archaic dialect Hodgson invented to tell his story in, is the love story at the heart of his tale. A number of critics who have otherwise enjoyed and admired the book for its stunning imaginary world and the detailed description of the hero’s exploits as he makes his way across the blasted landscape, dodging horrors and battling monsters all the way, come down sharply on Hodgson’s choice to focus not purely on the setting and the hero’s quest but also on the passion that inspires it — which is rather like criticizing The Lord of the Rings for including hobbits, or Gone with the Wind for focusing on the home front. [3]

Yet, though I did call many a time unto the everlasting night,
there came no more the voice of [my beloved],
speaking strangely within my spirit; but only at times
a weak thrilling of the aether about me.
And, at the last I grew maddened with the sorrow of this thing,
and the sense and knowledge of harm about the maid;
and I stood upright upon my feet, and I raised my hands,
and gave word and honour unto [her] through all the blackness
of the night, that I would abide no more within the Mighty Pyramid
to my safety, whilst she, that had been mine Own through Eternity,
came to horror and destruction by the Beasts and Evil Powers of that
Dark World. And I gave the word [telepathically], and bade her
to be of heart; for that until I died I would seek her.
But out of the Darkness there came naught but silence.

— Our hero sets forth

Thus C. S. Lewis, discussing the very best works ever written that create their own imaginary worlds (in which he includes not just The Lord of the Rings and The Worm Ouroboros but works by Morris, Coleridge, Spenser, Malory, Homer, and Ray Bradbury, among others), ends by stating that “W. H. Hodgson’s The Night Land would have made it in eminence from the unforgettable sombre splendour of the images it presents, if it were not disfigured by a sentimental and irrelevant erotic interest” (On Science Fiction”, 1955; italics mine). This is eerily similar to Lovecraft’s remark that, for all its virtues, the book was “seriously marred by… artificial and nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality” (Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1934).[4] In deploring the “distraction” of the love-story, Lovecraft and Lewis are exactly like those wrong-headed critics Tolkien mocked in his classic essay Beowulf: The Monsters & the Critics (1936), who lamented that we had the story of Beowulf fighting Grendel and the Dragon when the poet could have written instead about internecine feuds of the Danes, a top of interest to the historians but no one else. Note that Smith, a better writer than either, did not voice the same criticism, though he did find the book a trifle long (“In Appreciation of Wm Hope Hodgson”, 1944).

And I stood upright, for there did be no more use to hide;
and I knew that I must walk forever until that I have Mine Own
to the Shelter of the Mighty Refuge, or to walk until I die;
for only with speed might I save her . . .

— His beloved is mortally wounded

That Lewis could dismiss the main theme of the story as “irrelevant” to the monster-bashing he evidently preferred is a prime example of mistaking the trappings of a tale for its core (the book’s subtitle is, after all, “A Love Tale”): it’s as if playgoers shouted out for the actors to stop saying dialogue and get out of the way so the audience could enjoy viewing the stage-sets. What unifies Hodgson’s book, all the loving detail of this strange new world, the minutia of the hero’s journey, the vivid battles, is the story of a knight-errant on a quest to rescue his lady fair. Hodgson has cunningly transported his characters from medieval or renaissance times, where his theme would fit in perfectly with dozens of similar tales, to a horrific science-fictional setting where the threat of human extinction hovers not very distantly in the background. But the essential story is the same: his hero wears armor, carries a magical weapon, and walks through a wasteland more deadly than anything Sir Gawain or Child Roland ever faced, braving every peril to rescue the damsel because nothing is more important to him than his utter devotion to their love. It’s not a theme for everyone, this story of courtly love transposed to the end of time, but in the end Hodgson’s tale is deeply moving precisely because the microcosmic human world is, after all, where we live. The grand scope and magnificent setting are, quite properly, only the backdrop for a very human story:[5]

And… I to be now scarce fifty paces from [safety];
and did be nigh to fall; for I did be all wounded with the fight,
and ill with a vast weariness and the despair and madness
of my journey; and moreover… I not to have slept,
but to have carried the Maid… through days and nights,
and to have fought oft…. [A]nd I to gather my strength, and to charge with despair and to smite and never be
ceased of smiting; so there did be dead creatures all about.
And behold! I brake through the herd, with Mine Own,
and… I stept over the Circle; and a thousand hands
did come forward to help me

— The final desperate struggle to reach the Great Redoubt

An Utterly Appropriate Miracle

In the end The Night Land is, like many works of genius, a difficult book: intensely personal, apt to provoke extreme reactions (both favorable and very much otherwise) from its readers, unlike anything else ever attempted before or since in fantasy, science fiction, or horror. It offers a supreme example of what Tolkien called “Eucatastrophe”: that heartbreaking moment when everything suddenly comes together and tragedy turns to rejoicing, when the reader feels that everything the characters have suffered has been worth it to reach this perfect ending.

For those daunted by a 583-page book that combines three genres, written in its own new dialect of English, upon which so much praise and derision has been heaped, there is fortunately a perfect way to first experience Hodgson’s sublime vision. To secure his American copyright, back in 1912 Hodgson prepared a “best parts” version of the story only one-tenth the length of the original book. Published as The Dream of X, it contains the most moving scenes from the full-length book, presented as the remaining fragments of a destroyed manuscript left behind by the hero. Reading this short version of the tale is by far the best way to enter Hodgson’s future world; those who like it will be eager to get the full tale, while those it leaves cold are better off searching out other books more to their liking. [6]

. . . for there did stand in the midst of the Hall of Honour,
. . . a Statue of a man in broken armour, that did carry a maid forever.
And I did be dumb; and how of this Age shall you know the Honour
that this to mean in that; for it did be an Honour that was given only
to the Great Dead; and I to be but a young man, and did be
so utter far off from greatness; save that I love with all mine heart and with all my spirit, and therefore death to be but a little thing
before love . . .
And I to have gained honour; yet to have learned
that Honour doth be but as the ash of Life, if that
you not to have Love. And I to have Love.
And to have Love is to have all . . .

— The final scene in the narrator’s vision.

Other Works

All three of Hodgson’s other novels are of interest: The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” recounts the horrors encountered by survivors in the two lifeboats from a sunken ship; like much of Hodgson’s other sea stories, it makes much use of the Sargasso Sea and floating derelicts of uncertain age. The House on the Borderland contains some memorable bits but unfortunately is his worst novel, since the story stops dead half-way through. The Ghost Pirates tells the grim fate that awaits all who sail on a haunted ship; it is his most straightforward novel and very effective within its limits.

Hodgson was also a gifted short story writer, having to his credit at least two of the best sea-horror stories ever written: “The Voice in the Night” and “The Derelict”. In addition, his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1910, expanded edition 1947) is still the best psychic detective series, bar none, and will be the topic of a future column in its own right.

“[T]alk about the Night Land — it is all here,
not more than two hundred miles from where you sit,
infinitely remote…. If I live and come out of this
(and certainly, please God, I shall and hope to)
what a book I shall write if my old ability
with the pen has not forsaken me.”

— Hope Hodgson, 1918, in a letter written from the Front just before his death

The Night Land and Your Game

No one has ever dared to publish a game setting as bleak as Hodgson envisioned here; even Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, nihilist as it is in theory, in practice emphasizes the heroism of the microcosmic human world, not the bleakness, while D&D‘s Ravenloft and White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade similarly keep the emphasis on the human and near-human rather than the end-of-time cosmic horrors Hodgson describes. Dark Sun, which from its name might be expected to project a Hodgsonesque world, instead focused on an uber-Conan sand-and-barbarians campaign. Perhaps the best use of his material for an ambitious DM would be to create a scenario or short-term campaign in which characters from a more typical campaign were projected into the Night Land; they will be guaranteed to be exceedingly grateful to get back out again.

By contrast, Hodgson’s Carnacki stories have been the inspiration for a Forgotten Futures expansion (Forgotten Futures #4: The Carnacki Cylinders, 1996), though this has never been made available as a print product (it originally circulated on a subscription-only disk and is currently available as an HTML download). A few concepts from Hodgson’s work have also crept into the Call of Cthulhu game, mostly anonymously; though many a Keeper has created homebrew scenarios inspired by the Carnacki stories none of these have ever seen print.


[1] Hodgson’s other three novels are The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (1907), The House on the Borderland (1908), and The Ghost Pirates (1909), all well worth reading. Although it was published last, The Night Land was actually written first, in about 1905; all of his novels have been published in reverse order.

Thanks to the wonders of the modern-day small press movement, all Hodgson’s novels are currently in print from specialty houses: The Night Land itself from Wildside Press (2001), ISBN 1587156042 (trade paperback) or 1587156059 (hardcover). Be warned that some editions of the book are censored (see note 4 below).

While Hodgson scholarship is still in its infancy, those interested in The Night Land can find an excellent website devoted to the book at http://home.clara.net/andrywrobertson/nightmap.html

[2] Hodgson was fond of writing his stories in mildly archaic dialogue; The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” takes place in the early 1700s (we are told at the beginning this account was set down a generation later in 1757) and seems to derive its style mainly from Daniel Foe (or “Defoe”, as he preferred to be called). The House on the Borderland is presented as a scavenged manuscript written sometime in the early 1800s but is generally devoid of quaintness. Only The Ghost Pirates is more or less contemporary, making excellent use of Hodgson’s years as a sailor to capture the talk of ordinary uneducated people as well as the more literate narrator.

[3] Similarly, some have criticized Jane Austin for focusing in her novels upon whom her heroine will spend the rest of her life with rather than, say, the Napoleonic Wars that raged at the time her books were written and published (and which Austin was well aware of since several of her brothers served in the conflicts). For a work in which the love-interest, while present, is firmly kept off center stage and in the background, see Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, especially the section of Appendix A called “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.” Tolkien’s point is the opposite of Hodgson’s, that sometimes quiet virtues like friendship, decency, or a simple sense of duty can motivate greatness.

[4] Lewis and Lovecraft also both expressed distaste over Hodgson’s archaic diction, with CSL calling it “a foolish and flat archaism of style” and HPL “painful verboseness, repetitiousness,. . . an attempt at archaic language” he found “grotesque and absurd”. That Lovecraft, with his own bizarre idiosyncratic vocabulary (including “eldritch,” “squamous,” and “rugose,” to name only a few, occasionally with New England rural dialect and 18th century orthography thrown in), should criticize another writer’s style is simply an example of how tastes differ. Some writers prefer a bluff plainstyle such as Lewis typically employed, while others craft a more ornate style tailored for a more individualized flavor (e.g. Dunsany and Morris). Both approaches can be extremely effective; insisting all writers subscribe to one or the other is simply foolish.

[5] Which is not to say the book is perfect by any means. Those two chapters where Hodgson describes the sexual politics of ninety-plus years ago and the petty struggles for dominance between the lovers once they are united (Chapters One and Thirteen) in particular has not aged well, and first-time readers might do well to skim through these sections on a first reading. In fact Lin Carter, despite otherwise being a Hodgson fan, disliked this part of the story so deeply that in his two-volume edition of the book for Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series (1972) he deleted most of Chapter Thirteen, thus creating essentially a 500-page abridgment of a 550-page book, which is an extremely unsatisfactory solution. LC also included The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” in the AFS (1971), wisely choosing Hodgson’s two best novels for his series.

[6] The Dream of X was reprinted by Donald Grant publishing in 1977 in a handsome slim edition very effectively illustrated by Stephen Fabian. This edition is unfortunately long out of print but well worth tracking down, and you may find it readily available through online used book searches (e.g., www.bookfinder.com) for little more than the original cover price. A new edition has been announced as forthcoming from Night Shade Books as part of volume five of their Collected Fiction of Wm Hope Hodgson project, the first volume of which is due later in 2003.

The Face in the Frost

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

John Rateliff discusses another almost-forgotten classic of fantasy, The Face in the Frost:

Several centuries (or so) ago,
in a country whose name doesn’t matter,
there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero,
and not the one you’re thinking of, either.[1]

At the very back of the original 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide by Gary Gygax et al. (1979), tucked just before the index and glossary, was a little half-page section called “Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading.” This suggested reading list combined works that were major, direct influences on D&D (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Howard’s Conan series, Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, Vance’s The Dying Earth) with works filled with characters, monsters, villains, plots, magic items, and the like that aspiring DMs could happily loot for their own campaigns. Gygax’s list ranged from hacks like August Derleth, Gardner Fox, and Lin Carter to sublime fantasy masters like Lord Dunsany and Tolkien and most points in-between (Zelazny, Moorcock, Poul Anderson, de Camp & Pratt, Lovecraft). Most of the twenty-nine authors he listed were either well-known pulp writers or recognized masters of the genre, but one obscure little gem made his list: John Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost.

Prospero and Roger Bacon, the two main characters
in a story that seems crammed with wizards, were wizards.
They knew seven different runic alphabets, could sing the Dies Irae
all the way through to the end, and knew what a Hand of Glory was.
Though they could not make the moon eclipse,
they could do some very striking lightning effects
and make it look as though it might rain
if you waited long enough . . .
Both of them had used [magic] mirrors to visit
or look at other times and places;
this naturally affected their speech, their mannerisms,
and (God knows) the character of Prospero’s house.

– from the Prologue

Possibly the single best fantasy novel to come out of the 1960s, and by my reckoning one of the ten best fantasy works of the century, The Face is the Frost has never achieved great fame. Lin Carter, editor of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series (which from 1969 to 1974 reprinted most of the best of classic fantasy and helped launch the careers of up-and-coming writers like Beagle and Kurtz), went so far as to rate it one of the three best books since The Lord of the Rings,[2] but noted that it “has received virtually no recognition as yet, overlooked alike by reviewers and fantasy buffs.” Despite praise from Le Guin (who wrote the blurb for the paperback edition), Peter S. Beagle[3], and others, it remains obscure and, ironically, one of its author’s few works to slip out of print. His young-adult novels are found in most neighborhood libraries and proved so popular that another author has been commissioned to continue his series since Bellairs’ death, while his only work of adult fantasy is now only available secondhand, in e-book form, or as an audiobook.[4]

In the roadside towns, the wizards picked up stories and rumors.
One man told how frost formed on the windows at night,
though it was only the middle of September.
There were no scrolls or intricate fern leaves, no branching
overlaid starclusters; instead people saw seasick wavy lines,
disturbing maps that melted into each other and always seemed
on the verge of some recognizable but fearful shape.
At dawn the frost melted, always in the same way: At first
two black eyeholes formed, and then a long steam-lipped mouth
that spread and ate up the wandering white picture.
In some towns people talked of clouds that formed long opening mouths.
One man in the town of Edgebrake sat up all night, staring
at a little smiling cookie jar made in the shape of a fat monk;
it stood on a high cupboard shelf, smiling darkly amid shadows.
The man would not tell anyone what was wrong, or what he thought was wrong.
Doors opened at night inside some houses, and still shadows
that could not be cast by firelight fell across beds and floors.
People who lived near forests and groves dreamed
that the trees were calling to their children;
in the daytime, pools of shadow that floated trembling
around the trees seemed darker than they should have been,
and when the children showed an unusually strong desire to play
in the woods, panicked parents locked them indoors.
Voices rose from empty wells,
and men locked their doors at dusk.

The Face in the Frost tells of Prospero, a kindly old wizard who wakes up one morning to the sudden realization that someone is trying to kill him. With his best friend and fellow wizard Roger Bacon, he sets off on a quest to find out who is behind the sinister magical attacks. After a few harrowing encounters, he learns that an old rival has acquired a magical book so powerful that with it he can do any number of terrible things. In fact, the evil book is too powerful; a book that reads you and ends up devouring its owner’s mind, turning him into a channel whereby it can eventually destroy reality itself by letting things enter our world that do not belong here — ancient elemental forces bound long ago that now seek to escape:[5]

He had been staring for some minutes when the clouds
began to move very strangely. They came apart in places,
in stringy rips and seams, like torn cloth. The sky that showed
behind was dark red . . . The shadows below contracted to pinpoints
and shot suddenly out into acre-wide blots. Across the road that ran
toward Brakespeare the ground opened, a huge saliva-strung mouth,
and out of it crawled shapes with arms and legs. . . In a loud splintery
ripping of wood . . . the front door flew open and something
Prospero refused to look at stepped in . . .

Stopping the evil wizard seems impossible, since he seems to have died some seventy years before, but Prospero vows to try at whatever cost to himself, journeying on through a darkening landscape to challenge an enemy who grows stronger and stronger the more he reads of the magical book. Perhaps one of the most effective things about The Face in the Frost is that the heroes are thoroughly human and heroic only in their determination. Despite being powerful wizards, Roger and Prospero are not superhuman but only two old men. They get cold, wet, tired, and frequently frightened and are grateful for simple comforts such as a pipe or a soft bed and a good meal after long hungry days on the road. They lack the rather austere dignity of a Gandalf or Merlin — it’s hard, for example, to imagine Gandalf putting up with a cranky but competent magic mirror, summoning the ghosts of flowers, or living in a house filled with “such things as trouble antique dealers’ dreams,” or Merlin having a weathervane shaped “like a dancing hippopotamus” that when the wind blows makes “a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof.” Eddison’s Lord Juss (The Worm Ouroboros; see March’s column) has a bed proper for a hero, carved with scenes of derring-do; Prospero’s bed has “a bassoon carved into one of the . . . headposts, so that it could be played as you lay in bed and meditated.” In short, Bellairs’ heroes are frankly rather silly old men — more hobbit than magi.

“. . . and so I went to work on a brazen head
that was going to tell me how to encircle England
with a wall of brass, to keep out marauding Danes
and other riffraff. I think something went wrong . . .
At any rate, when I chanted the formula the next day
. . . I heard a sound like crumhorns and shawms, and behold!
All of England was encircled with an eight-foot-high
wall of Glass! . . . The first boatload of Vikings
that came over after the wall went up turned around
and went back, because it was a sunny day
and the wall glittered wonderfully.
But the next day, when they came back,
it was cloudy. One of them gave the wall
a little tap with an ax, and it went tinkle, tinkle,
and now there is a lot of broken glass on the beach.
Not long after that I was asked to leave.”

– Friar Bacon and the Brass Head

Humor . . .

The preceding description of the book probably conveys the impression that it is more horror than fantasy — a grim little work describing a desperate attempt to stave off the end of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in fact a comic masterpiece — a hilarious account that constantly celebrates its author’s love of out-of-the-way historical trivia. Parodies of Lovecraft and various fantasy cliches punctuate the story, sandwiched between the horrors in such a way that it increases the effectiveness of both the humorous and the scary portions of the work. No other work known to me is both funny and frightening at the same time; it’s a mixture that has reduced any number of would-be horror movies to the status of shlock. Bellairs shows that, contrary to common opinion, it can be done, and done brilliantly.

That The Face in the Frost is, on its surface, such a funny book no doubt accounts for its being relatively ignored by critics and historians of the genre. There has always been a bias against taking comic works seriously and of recognizing them as great art comparable in quality with their more solemn peers. Even those few comic masterpieces that gain an indisputable place in English or American literature (e.g., the work of Mark Twain or Chaucer) are valued by critics more for their social commentary than for the humor that keeps people reading them even after all these years. Similarly, Bellairs’ achievement has been underprized, despite being (in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin) “Lively, witty, unpretentious.”[6]

Once he was actually inside the forest . . . Prospero knew
what was wrong. There are times when you feel that you hear
doors slamming in the distance, voices calling your name;
you see blurred things, far away or very close up,
that look like people until you focus on them. That was
the trouble. The whole place seemed slightly out of focus,
very slightly off . . . [Prospero] had to stare at a tree
for several seconds before it looked like a tree
and not a leaning furry shadow . . . The light on
the forest floor, even at noon, was dim, with little
wavering circles in clusters here and there.
The circles moved back and forth in a way
that Prospero did not like; the branches
shifted and did strange things
just out of his line of vision.

– Prospero enters the Empty Forest

. . . And Horror

Side by side with the story’s humor lies its horror. Unlike Lovecraft, whose quaint, mannered fictions are intellectual curiosities that leave the reader completely unmoved, Bellairs’ book is truly frightening; The Face in the Frost has been known to give impressionable readers nightmares. Many sections read like transcriptions of actual nightmares, described with such evocative power as to capture some of the actual feeling of the original dreams. Like M. R. James, who seems to have influenced him more than any other author, Bellairs grounds his horrors in mundane settings — a darkened cellar, an empty road, a wooded clearing, an unfamiliar room in a roadside inn. But beneath the comfortable veneer lurks the nightmare, able at any moment to warp the scene in disturbing ways as the evil pursuing our heroes manifests itself once more. Despite taking place in a fantasy world, his horrific scenes are filled with realistic touches that make them easy to imagine transferred to our own surroundings, giving his more nightmarish sequences considerable impact. All in all, it’s a good book not to read when alone in a darkened room.

Perhaps Bellairs’ most impressive technique is his mastery of the adjective. Bellairs demonstrates over and over again how heaping on carefully selected adjectives can create sharp mental pictures and vivid impressions of scenes, and how evocative details help the reader imagine the scenes as if it were happening to him or her. There is nothing vague about his disquieting descriptions:

He had not gone a mile when he saw . . . the light of a campfire . . . and
stepped off the road into the swishing wet grass. But as Prospero got near
the fire, he saw that . . . it was burning in a very strange way. The flames
moved back and forth as if blown by suddenly shifting breezes . . . he
noticed a little stream running nearby. He was drawn by what he first took
to be a reflection of the firelight on the water . . . There on the bottom,
in a speckled green trembling light, was a smooth triangular stone,
and on it was painted his face. The moving water was slowly flaking away
the paint . . . and the face appeared to be decomposing. He saw a thin film,
like a piece of dead skin, wriggle off the portrait-mask and float away
down the stream . . . . [T]he fire . . . was dancing faster now — it was moving
to the rhythm of his own heartbeat. He knew the words that must have
been said: “When the fire dies, let him die too.” . . . [T]he whole stream
began to boil, and out of the lurching, hissing water rose a smoke shape
with arms. It moved toward Prospero and settled around him . . . He felt
as if his eyes were made of blank white chalk . . . Prospero stared
with open eyes into that stony nothingness, and he shouted a word
that sorcerers can only speak a few times in their lives . . .

The Face in the Frost and Your Game

As Gary Gygax himself put it in his review of The Face in the Frost (The Dragon #22, February 1979), the book is “an absolute must for any D&D player . . . can not be recommended too highly.” If Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth provided D&D with its fire-and-forget magic system, Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost certainly provided the concept of the traveling spellbook. Beyond this, Bellairs’ setting of the South Kingdom (a medley of autonomous duchies and the like) and the seven kingdoms of the North makes a pretty good ready-made campaign world for a homebrew campaign, and both his good wizards and the villains employ any number of interesting spells that would make interesting additions to the d20 system. From small details like animated leaves detaching themselves from trees and attacking travelers to the grand scheme of the evil wizard using the book to melt reality into something unpleasantly nightmarish, the book is full of things to enrich a D&D game. The mysterious undecipherable book obviously owes something to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, and the whole plot could easily be transferred to a modern-day d20 Call of Cthulhu or d20 Modern game.

Other Works

While The Face in the Frost is Bellairs’ only fantasy novel for adults, he wrote fifteen young-adult horror-fantasy novels which also contain a number of interesting motifs that could be adapted for an ongoing dark-fantasy or horror RPG. Among the best of these are The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the first of the Lewis Barnavelt books (all set in Michigan in the 1940s) and The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, one of the Johnny-and-the-Professor series (set in Massachusetts in the 1950s); a third series, the Anthony Monday books, was set in modern-day Minnesota. After Bellairs’ death in 1991, Brad Strickland completed four more books in the first two series (one of which, The Doom of the Haunted Opera, is especially recommended) and has since written six more books on his own using Bellairs’ characters, with a seventh due this August. The more recent of Strickland’s stories are essentially Cthulhu Mythos books for young adults, odd as that sounds (The Beast Under the Wizard’s Bridge is a sort of recasting of or sequel to “The Colour Out of Space,” for instance), and it provides an interesting extension of the Lovecraft Circle into new territory.

Bellairs also wrote two books before The Face in the Frost: a thin Thurber-ish tale called The Pedant and the Shuffly (not recommended) and a delightful collection of parodies of pre-Vatican Council Catholicism called St. Fidgeta & Other Parodies (highly recommended).


[1] “The one you’re thinking of” is, of course, Shakespeare’s Prospero, the hero of The Tempest (c.1611) and probably the most famous wizard in English literature if we exempt traditional figures such as Merlin or modern creations like Tolkien’s Gandalf.

Roger Bacon is, by contrast, a real person and one of the most learned men of his time (the thirteenth century — among other things, he was the first European to discover gunpowder); after his death, legends gathered about the name and transformed his reputation into that of a master wizard whose deeds were retold a few centuries later in an old Elizabethan chapbook (Friar Bacon) and play (Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay by one of Shakespeare’s early rivals, Robert Greene).

[2] Lin Carter, Imaginary Worlds (1973), pages 165-167. The other two absolutely first-rate fantasies to appear in the preceding twenty years were, in his estimation, Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) and Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain (1971), both of which he published in the Adult Fantasy Series. It’s worthwhile to note that he rates these two and The Face in the Frost above other worthy competitors he discusses such as Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy and Kurtz’s Deryni, the latter of which was a discovery of his and also published in the series.

[3] “To read [Bellairs] is to realize what a loss his death was — not simply to fantasy . . . but to the English language, and to the art of storytelling, which he served so well in the short time he had.”– Peter S. Beagle, tribute quoted on a Bellairs tribute site. (Another Bellairs tribute site is the Compleat Bellairs site.)

[4] The original hardcover (Macmillan, 1969) is long out of print, and the most readily available version is probably the Ace paperback editions (1978 and 1981, IBSN 0-441-22529-2) through one of the many used book services. There have also been two later small-press editions in various classics-of-fantasy series. Ironically, while unavailable in book form, an unabridged audio reading is available (Recorded Books Incorporated #94434, 1995, read by George Guidall).

[5] The mysterious book, with its odd pictures and undecipherable script (of which Bellairs provides a sample in the book), is almost certainly inspired by the Voynich Manuscript, a book written in an unknown alphabet and an unknown language that exists in a single copy of unknown origin (now in the Beinecke Library at Yale). It has been traced back to Bavaria in the 1570s but not beyond; Voynich himself, who discovered it in Rome in 1912, believed it belonged to Roger Bacon (d.1292). No one has ever been able to prove this, but Bellairs clearly availed himself of the legend when constructing his book, as Clark Ashton Smith had done thirty years before when he based his imaginary tome “The Book of Eibon” upon it (see “The Holiness of Azedarac”, Weird Tales, 1931).

[6] Ursula K. Le Guin, blurb for the Ace paperback edition. Le Guin also appreciates the book’s darker side, since she goes on to say “The Face in the Frost takes us into pure nightmare before we know it — and out the other side. This is authentic fantasy by a writer who knows what wizardry is all about.”

A Wizard of Earthsea

Friday, February 10th, 2012

John Rateliff describes A Wizard of Earthsea:

“[T]hat which gives us the power to work magic
sets the limits of that power. A mage can
control only what is near him, what he can
name exactly and wholly. And this is well.
If it were not so, the wickedness of
the powerful or the folly of the
wise would long ago have sought
to change what cannot be changed,
and Equilibrium would fail. The
unbalanced sea would overwhelm
the islands where we perilously
dwell, and in the old silence
all voices and names
would be lost.”

— Master Namer of the School on Roke

Sometimes, the most important thing an author can know is when to stop. Fans will always want more, publishers love a sure thing, and it’s always easier to repeat yourself than to try something new, which makes those authors who do continually reinvent themselves so important. The pressure to convert a stand-alone work into a series can be enormous, so much so that during the 1980s and ’90s stand-alones became the exception, not the rule, in a field dominated by sprawling open-ended single-story series by authors like Jordan, Eddings, Card, Turtledove, et al.[1] Ideas that might once have been a single book were expanded into multiple volumes, all of which had to be read to get the complete story. Those authors who stuck to trilogies often let them swell in bulk to fit the trend of the times — Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (also known as The Dragonbone Chair series) is a case in point. Its three volumes come in at 2,400 hardcover pages (more than twice the length of The Lord of the Rings); it would have been a masterpiece if compressed to one-third that length. Even series of finite length, like Rowlings’ Harry Potter series (a projected seven volumes, each larger than the last) and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (also known as the A Game of Thrones series; the three dense volumes published so far, out of a projected six, are already longer than Tad Williams’ entire trilogy, with at least as much more still to come), stand in contrast to the single books and trilogies of fantasy’s early days.

Only a few writers have bucked the trend, such as Guy Gavriel Kay (whose work has consisted of one trilogy, one duology, and three stand-alone novels, including the brilliant Tigana) and, more recently, Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials being a single trilogy, with a fourth volume of essays and commentaries forthcoming). Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series seems to conform to the Jordanian sprawl but though they share a setting and sometimes even characters, each of his books is a complete story, rather in the style of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves stories, or James Branch Cabell’s “Mind of Manual” series, rather than the single story spread over as many volumes as sales will justify.

For many years Ursula K. Le Guin was among this small but esteemed company who was content to let her famed Earthsea trilogy stand alone while she moved on to other heroes and heroines, other settings, other stories. Recently, however, she has begun adding new volumes to the series, unfortunately diluting the whole. Unlike some of her more commercially minded peers, however, Le Guin’s return to Earthsea is motivated not so much by a desire to sell more books as by a change of heart. Like W. H. Auden, who went back in his old age and rewrote his most famous poems (often taking out the best lines) to reflect his evolving political beliefs, Le Guin has become convinced she got it wrong; her latter books in the series are a deliberate attempt to recast the world into something more politically correct so that she can make amends for not having been doctrinally pure enough in her original conception. [2] In effect, the author deconstructs her own world, undermining her myths and replacing them with something she thinks might be more acceptable to her present-day audience.

Given her latter-day uneasiness with her original books, Le Guin had several options. She could have gone back and altered the original trilogy, a la George Lucas, into a “special edition” that reflected the way she would have written it if she were doing it over again today — rather like the fate of the Doctor Doolittle books, only censored versions of which are available today.[3] Fortunately, she instead decided to let her original work stand but to frame it with other tales that would change the character of the setting as a whole; it’s as if C. S. Lewis had gone back and written seven more Narnia books arguing that Christianity was no better or worse than Islam, Wicca, or Buddhism; the new stories are designed to change the message and the world as a whole. The effect has been rather like taking a fine watercolor and tacking on new canvas with less subtle designs that stand in stark contrast to the original. In this column, therefore, we will by and large disregard her latter-day afterthoughts and concentrate on the original book, wherein the series’ claim to greatness lies.

The Making of a Wizard

“Wizards do not meet by chance.”
“Weak as women’s magic.”
“Wicked as women’s magic.”

— Sayings of Earthsea

Second in popularity only to Tolkien in most readers’ polls, Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy is among the most widely read of all fantasy and is found in virtually every public library in this country.[4] Despite officially being labeled as “young adult” books, they have always attracted a wide audience of adults as well as teens, as have other outstanding fantasy authors that have sometimes been similarly pigeonholed, like Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Phillip Pullman, John Bellairs, et al.[5] Initially the “series” consisted of two short stories (still the artistic high point of the whole): the beautifully bleak “The Word of Unbinding,” which introduces Le Guin’s vision of Earthsea’s Afterlife, and the wickedly funny little cautionary tale “The Rule of Names,” which tells the story of the Dragon of Pendar (whom we meet again in Chapter 5 of A Wizard of Earthsea) and the time he spent among the hobbitlike folk of Sattins Island in what became the East Reach.

To these two tales she several years later added our novel, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), describing the trial and errors of a supremely talented young wizard as he learns how to control both his power and himself. Three years later she added a second book, The Tombs of Atuan (1971), with a new point-of-view character and her former hero reduced to a supporting role (he does not even appear until more than a third of the way through the book). The third and final book of the original series, The Farthest Shore (1972), introduces yet another point-of-view character; he is a sort of young prince Arthur, who embarks with the wizard (now an Archmage at the height of his powers) on an epic quest that leads them into the land of the dead and back again. In the end the world of the living is saved but at the cost of all the wizard’s power; henceforth he retires to live the life of an ordinary mortal. Although officially a “trilogy,” it might be more accurate to describe these three books as a triptych: three independent episodes from a single character’s life, with other major adventures referred to in passing but not included in one of the narratives.

Several elements made A Wizard of Earthsea stand out when it was originally published, and still make it remarkable today. First and foremost is the excellence of Le Guin’s writing: she remains among the very best fantasy and science fiction writers of her generation. Second was the evolution of her character: She takes him from a precocious child to sullen teen to rash youth to confident, capable adult to wise elder — a rare case of an entire life passing in snapshots, as it were. Then, too, there is Earthsea itself: a strikingly different fantasy world from the Tolk-clones that dominated fantasy for so long. The world is built of a hundred or so major islands (and many more small ones), each different, each with its own potential story, and all linked by the great sea. Although Le Guin never truly fulfilled its potential, it remains one of the all-time best fantasy settings. Finally, the book is a “bildungsroman” or coming-of-age story, going behind the white-bearded wise old wizard stereotype (Gandalf, Merlin, and so on) and showing the character as sorcerer’s apprentice, full of talent without the knowledge of how to use it, and with very human fears, flaws, and ambitions. She never loses our sympathy for the character even when he does something foolish, perhaps because he is always willing to pay the consequences for his actions. Le Guin succeeds in bringing the stereotype to life; her Sparrowhawk is a fully realized, three-dimensional character.

Death is a Dry Place

[S]uddenly he thought the child
was dying in his arms.
Summoning his power all at once
and with no thought for himself,
he sent his spirit out after the child’s spirit,
to bring it back home. He called the child’s
name… Thinking some faint answer came
in his inward hearing he pursued, calling once more.
Then he saw the little boy running fast and far
ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of
some vast hill. There was no sound. The stars
above the hill were no stars his eyes had ever seen.
Yet he knew the constellations by name…
They were those stars that do not set, that
are not paled by the coming of any day.
He had followed the dying child
too far.

— Ged inadvertently visits the land of the dead

Like most works that stand the test of time, A Wizard of Earthsea has more than one interesting idea underlying it. To the striking fantasy-world-as-archipelago setting and making-of-a-mage story she adds imaginative depth: Earthsea has a sense of history behind it, artfully sustained by passing reference to a number of works reciting the deeds of great heroes from the distant past, with clear indications our hero’s tale will one day wind up remembered through just such a tale, the Deeds of Ged. From Tolkien’s ents (and dwarves) she takes the concept of True Names and builds her entire magic system around it: to know the name of a thing is to control it; to know True Speech is to know reality itself, and how to manipulate it — her hero’s greatest challenge in the book comes when he accidentally summons a shadow-creature that seems to have no name and thus cannot be defeated. This striking concept gives Earthsea’s magic a very distinct flavor that is unlike that of any other fantasy setting.

Perhaps the most impressive element of her fantasy world is her description of its afterlife (a topic usually neglected if not outright ignored by fantasy authors). Presumably inspired by images out of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” she creates a bleak land of the dead that is silent, unchanging, and dry: a place where no rivers flow through dry streambeds and the dead simply wait, emotionless, forever. This grim vision, already fully formed in “The Word of Unbinding” (1964), underlies a striking scene in A Wizard of Earthsea and the entire plot of The Farthest Shore (1972). Beyond this, she graces Earthsea with dragons that succeed in being truly Other, not merely nasty monsters for the hero to fight; they are a genuine contribution to fantasy dragon-lore. And she unifies the whole with a strong philosophical underpinning deriving from her Taoism: Le Guin is as doctrinaire as C. S. Lewis, but few readers realize it since the average reader is more likely to recognize Gospel stories than maxims from the Tao Te Ching (the closest thing Taoism has to holy scriptures; Le Guin published her own translation of Lao Tzu’s book in 1998). In a sense, the entire Earthsea trilogy is a Taoist fable that celebrates abrogation, in which the hero learns to how to attune himself to “the Equilibrium” (what Lao Tzu called “The Way” or Tao) and learns when to act and when to refrain from acting. Thus, her hero’s loss of all his magic at the end of the third book, which strikes most readers as poignant if not downright tragic (rather like Frodo’s being forced to give up the Shire and sail into the West), is meant to be more like a passage into sainthood and a willing embrace of passivity.[6] He has finally learned the lesson of his first master, Ogion the Silent, as saintly a figure as Le Guin has ever created. The wisest of his fellow wizards sums it up thusly: “He is done with doing.”

Earthsea and Your Game

[He] wondered
what was the good of having power
when you were too wise to use it.

— Sparrowhawk, age 13

Despite its continuing popularity for over three decades, there has never been an Earthsea game — perhaps in part because of Le Guin’s contempt for swords-and-sorcery fantasy and perhaps because a setting in which the more experienced you become, the less you do is a poor model for RPG adventuring. Nevertheless, Earthsea is such an appealing world that it would make an ideal place for a highly unusual D&D campaign — one focused more on roleplaying and exploration than hack-and-slash. Each island would become its own “dungeon” distinct from the rest, with the PCs’ wanderings taking them from isle to isle. Characters such as Serret the sorceress (one of the book’s most elusive figures); foes such as Cob and the Dragon of Pendar, the stalking shadow and the shadow-possessed gebbeth; places associated with the Old Powers of Earth (such as the dark labyrinth at the Tombs of Atuan or the secret room of the Stone beneath the Court of the Terrenon) and the silent lands of the dead: all would contribute to a vivid, evocative game world. Any quest set in such a world, however, would have to be more than a treasure hunt to be worthy of the setting.


The original two Earthsea stories, “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names,” are both available in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975). The Earthsea trilogy — A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972) — can be found in most bookstores and almost any library. The three later books are Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990; an ill-conceived direct sequel to The Tombs of Atuan), Tales from Earthsea (2001; five stories plus “A Description of Earthsea,” an appendix making explicit much that was previously implicit about the world), and The Other Wind (also 2001), which starts well but soon devolves from poignantly mythic to cozily domestic. Fans of the original series should be warned that all three of the latter books sabotage the assumptions underlying the earlier stories in various ways; the final book even backs away from her original bleak concept of Earthsea’s afterlife and substitutes a warm and fuzzy fate for the dead in its place. Those who may be fascinated by how far an author can twist her creation to suit her evolving beliefs (by the fifth and sixth book the wizards, who were her paragons of wisdom in the original book, have been revealed as the source of virtually everything that’s wrong with the world) will want to read all six books, but most readers of fantasy would be well advised to stop after the third.

[1] This trend may now be reversing since the success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies. Hollywood is eagerly searching for more fantasy titles to film, and stand-alone books stand a much better chance of being adapted than does a volume from an interminable series.

[2] In her essay “Earthsea Revisioned” (1992, published as a pamphlet 1993), Le Guin discusses the charge that she wrote Tehanu, the fourth Earthsea book, as “penance” and prefers to call it “affirmative action.”

[3] Lofting’s books were altered by his estate long after his death. The changes mostly involve deleting any artwork that shows his comic African prince, Bumpo. One of the rare cases of a book being improved by an author’s afterthoughts is The Hobbit, a chapter of which (“Riddles in the Dark”) Tolkien replaced more than a decade after the book’s original publication with a far superior version. In his old age Tolkien began rewriting the entire Hobbit in the style of The Lord of the Rings but wisely abandoned the project after only a few chapters, preferring to let his earlier work stand on its own merits.

[4] The original trilogy’s ubiquity can be attributed to the second volume’s having won the Newbery Award for the best children’s book of 1972; every public library with a children’s literature section strives to stock a full set of Newbery Award winners. It is ironic that The Tombs of Atuan, the weakest volume in the trilogy, won the award rather than the far superior A Wizard of Earthsea or even the flawed but ambitious The Farthest Shore, but fortunately the win of a single volume has meant libraries have the full three-volume set (just as a similar win for Lloyd Alexander’s The High King, the final volume in his Chronicles of Prydain, helped keep all five volumes on library shelves).

[5] Recently, the success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series inspired publishers to actually put different covers on the books designed to appeal to different age groups, so that each book has multiple covers each aimed at a distinct group of readers.

[6] Or, as Le Guin puts it elsewhere, “Fullness is a fine thing, but emptiness is the secret of it” (Ursula K. Le Guin, quoting Lao Tzu, in “Earthsea Revisioned,” 1992).

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft has become something of a geek staple over the years for his “sanity blasting” horror stories. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, on the other hand, is a fantasy classic:

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvellous city,
and three times he was snatched away while still he paused
on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in
the sunset… Mystery hung about it… the poignancy and suspense
of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things…
When for the third time he awakened with… those hushed sunset
streets still untraversed, he prayed long and earnestly to the hidden
gods of dreams… But the gods made no answer and shewed no
relenting, nor did they give any favouring sign when he prayed to
them in dream… [A]fter even the first [prayer] he ceased wholly
to behold the marvellous city; as if his three glimpses from afar
had been mere accidents or over-sights, and against some hidden
plan or wish of the gods.
At length, sick with longing for those glittering sunset streets… nor able
sleeping or waking to drive them from his mind, Carter resolved to go
with bold entreaty whither no man had gone before, and dare the icy
desert through the dark to… unknown Kadath

— H. P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The only fantasy novel from an author not known for his subtlety, this bizarre, witty, elegant little gem is an odd tale with an odd history. That we have the story at all is amazing, since Lovecraft wrote it for his own amusement and never submitted it to any publisher, refused to circulate it among his friends (contrary to his normal practice), and did not even bother to type it; it was not published until years after his death.[1] Written in deliberate imitation of another author (the inimitable Lord Dunsany), it is nonetheless distinctly, even quintessentially Lovecraftian. It never mentions Cthulhu, yet paradoxically it’s fair to say it’s the best Cthulhu Mythos novel ever published.

“When Barzai the Wise climbed Hatheg-Kla
to see the Great Ones dance and howl above the clouds
in the moonlight, he never returned. The Other Gods were there,
and they did what was expected. Zenig of Aphorat sought
to reach unknown Kadath in the cold waste, and his skull
is now set in a ring on the little finger of one
whom I need not name.”

Lovecraft himself — a pulp horror writer who ironically earned his living as a ghost writer — is mainly remembered today for his creation of the Cthulhu Mythos, an idea for an open-ended shared universe which continues in popularity today, a good seventy-five years and more since it first took form.[2] As a horror writer, he suffered the major handicap that none of his stories are actually frightening. However promising an idea might sound in the abstract, any tension is sabotaged by his deliberately quaint style (marked by overuse of a few favorite words, such as “foetor” and “eldritch” and a tendency to end the last line of his story in italics),[3] an assumption the readers share his phobias (about foreigners and anything that lives in the sea), and the ease with which his all-powerful fiends are defeated (Wilbur Whateley, the precocious half-human half-alien who plans to open the way for his alien kin to swarm into the world and eliminate mankind, is killed by a dog while sneaking into a library; Great Cthulhu himself, a godlike being whose advent will usher in the End Times, is sent packing by being rammed with a yacht). But read as fantasy, his stories have more appeal, especially the idea of a secret history (which strikes a cord in these paranoid, conspiracy-theory-ridden times) and another world that underlies our own and occasionally threatens to flood over into it — in his horror or science-fiction/horror stories, always with tragic consequences; in his fantasies, with moving poignance. His early work reads as imitation Poe, but without the immediacy and psychological insight that has kept people reading Poe for over a century and a half. His later work became a pastiche of motifs borrowed from his favorite contemporaries (ironically this is a major part of its appeal today; reading Lovecraft is like reading an anthology of the best horror writers of his times). In between the two, he wrote a series of otherworldly fantasy stories that mark the unappreciated high point of his literary achievement. Fans of his horror tend to disparage his fantasy because it is so very different from his other work; fans of fantasy rarely discover it because they only know of him through his reputation as an eccentric hack. Only relatively few have discovered its merits on their own, making the Dream-Quest paradoxically a seldom-read classic by a much-read author.

The Dreamlands

By noon, after a long uphill ride, he came upon
some abandoned brick villages of the hill-people . . .
Here they had dwelt till the days of the old tavern-keeper’s
grandfather, but about that time they felt that their presence
was disliked. Their homes had crept even up the mountain’s slope,
and the higher they built the more people they would miss
when the sun rose. At last they decided it would be better
to leave altogether, since things were sometimes glimpsed
in the darkness which no one could interpret favourably.

Lovecraft’s Dreamlands sequence, of which the Dream-Quest forms the core and capstone, consists of no more than a dozen or so stories and fragments written between 1919 (when he first discovered and began imitating Dunsany’s work) and 1926-27; the sequence ends with “The Strange High House in the Mists” (his single best story) and the Dream-Quest itself, the culmination of all that had gone before.[4] For while the concept of the Dreamlands and whole mode of writing is borrowed directly from Dunsany’s masterpieces, [5] Lovecraft also looted his own earlier stories for motifs, locations, and characters in a way that was new to him. While he was fond of reusing locations (e.g., Arkham, Miskatonic University), items (The Necronomicon), and of course the gods of his evolving Mythos (which he called “Yog-Sothothery”), aside from the Dream-Quest it was rare for Lovecraft to use the same character twice: the chief exceptions were Herbert West (whose six stories had explicitly been commissioned as a series) and Randolph Carter, who appears in five tales altogether [6] and seems to have been an idealization or projection of Lovecraft himself.

By contrast, the Dream-Quest features return appearances by a slew of characters from earlier stories: Carter consults with the aged priest Atal of Ulthar (surviving companion of Barzai the Wise from “The Other Gods”), gains the aid of King Kuranes (the hero of “Celephais”), is rescued from the Dark Side of the Moon by the cats of Ulthar (“The Cats of Ulthar”), and recruits the ghoul who was once the great painter Richard Upton Pickman (“Pickman’s Model”) to lead a ghoul-army on an invasion of Kadath.

There, on a tombstone of 1768 stolen from the Granary
Burying Ground in Boston, sat the ghoul which was once
the artist Richard Upton Pickman. It was naked and rubbery,
and had acquired so much of the ghoulish physiognomy
that its human origin was already obscure. But it still
remembered a little English, and so was able
to converse with Carter in grunts and mono-
syllables, helped out now and then by
the glibbering of ghouls.

All these and many other elements are woven together into a continuous narrative, without any chapter breaks: Lovecraft’s stated model for this was Walter Beckford’s Vathek (1786), a short decadent Arabian-nights novel, but obviously the smooth flow of the story, passing from scene to scene and sequence to sequence with never a pause, perfectly captures the nature of the dreams it imitates; in real nightmares, abrupt breaks are rare (except, of course, at the end) and surprising segues can happen at any time. Sometimes, as in his descriptions of Randolph Carter’s capture by the night-gaunts, HPL drew on actual nightmares of his own and incorporated them into the story, with considerable effect:

[H]e thought he saw a very terrible outline of something
noxiously thin and horned and tailed and bat-winged….
Then a sort of cold rubbery arm seized his neck
and something else seized his feet… and Carter knew
that the night-gaunts had got him . . .
They made no sound at all themselves, and even their
membraneous wings were silent. They were frightfully cold
and damp and slippery, and their paws kneaded one detestably.
Soon they were plunging hideously downward through
inconceivable abysses… He screamed again and again,
but whenever he did the black paws tickled him
with greater subtlety…
[H]is captors… were… shocking and uncouth black beings
with smooth, oily… surfaces, unpleasant horns that curved inward
toward each other, bat-wings whose beating made no sound,
ugly prehensile paws, and barbed tails that lashed needlessly
and disquietingly. And worst of all, they never spoke or laughed,
and never smiled because they had no faces at all…
but only a suggestive blankness where a face ought to be.
All they ever did was clutch and fly and tickle;
that was the way of night-gaunts.

Given the horror they inspire in him, it is all the more surprising that Carter latter allies himself with the night-gaunts; one of the understated themes in the book is the “hero’s” willingness to make common cause with various loathsome beings when it suits his purposes — first with the zoogs (small, vicious, cannibalistic forest creatures), then the ghouls, and eventually the night-gaunts. He has wholesome allies, too — the cats of Ulthar and King Kuranes — but on the whole he seems willing to avail himself of the aid of anyone who can further his quest and feels no remorse about abandoning erstwhile allies once he no longer needs them. He needs such help, because the foes who oppose his quest are fearsome indeed: the not-quite-human Men of Leng, the Moon-beasts, the masked priest of the forbidden monastery (inspired by Dunsany’s Thulba Mleen and in turn later contributing to the Mythos figure The King in Yellow), as well as mindless dangers such as dholes, gugs, ghasts, and shantaks. But the greatest threats he faces are not mortal but divine and wholly malevolent: the sinister guardians of earth’s gods, known as the Other Gods.

The Other Gods

“[Earth's] gods kept from you
the marvellous sunset city of your dreams
… for verily, they craved the weird loveliness of that which
your fancy had fashioned. They are gone from their castle
on unknown Kadath to dwell in your marvellous city
… and walk no more in the ways of the gods.
The earth has no longer any gods that are gods,
and only the Other Ones hold sway on unremembered Kadath.
You have dreamed too well, O wise arch-dreamer,
for you have drawn dream’s gods away from the world
of all men’s visions to that which is wholly yours…
Fain would the powers from Outside bring chaos and horror to you,
Randolph Carter… but that they know it is by you alone
that the gods may be sent back to their world.”

The object of Carter’s quest, while simplicity itself, is startling in its audacity. Once the gods have taken away his vision of the sunset city that so draws him, he vows to find the gods’ dwelling in Kadath and force them to grant his wish (as with Dunsany’s Small Gods, the gods of earth, while powerful, are no match for a forceful individual or “experienced dreamer” such as our hero). To complicate matters, no one knows where Kadath might be located, so he must first quest for information. Since the story takes place in the Dreamlands — an alternate world we can enter only when dreaming, which has rules and laws all its own — he meets with many strange, beautiful, and terrible things along the way; these incidents provide much of the story’s charm. Some of the people he meets, like Kuranes, are dead in the real world but live on in Dreamland, while others have never existed except in dreams (and nightmares).

Unfortunately, the mild gods of earth, or “Great Ones,” are protected by the strange and terrible “Other Gods” and their minions, who destroy those who in any way trespass on the Great Ones. Evil and powerful beings like Azathoth (the embodiment of chaos itself “at the centre of all eternity”) and Nyarlathotep (messenger of the Other Gods, also known ominously as “the Crawling Chaos”) who dwell in the abysses of darkness between the stars, the Other Gods are the equivalent here of what eventually came to be known in Mythos stories as the Great Old Ones or Outer Gods. There are hints of yet another group in the god Nodens (what later redactors dubbed the “Elder Gods”), but his status is unclear; he delights in Nyarlathotep’s discomfiture and his minions, the night-gaunts, are feared by Nyarlathotep’s servitors, but he may simply be an unusually powerful and independently minded Great One or a rival Other God, not an altogether different order of being.

“So, Randolph Carter, in the name of the Other Gods
I spare you and charge you… to seek that sunset city . . .
For know you that your gold and marble city of wonder
is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth
… This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of
memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets.
Go now… Forget not this warning, lest horrors unthinkable
suck you into the gulf of shrieking and ululant madness.
Remember the Other Gods; they are great and mindless
and terrible, and lurk in the outer voids. They are
good gods to shun… and pray to all space that you
may never meet me in my thousand other forms.
Farewell, Randolph Carter, and beware; for I am
Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos!”

The ending of the tale, which comes immediately after Carter’s confrontation with Nyarlathotep himself, is interesting for several reasons, and full of ironies. First, Carter finally achieves his goal, only to find it fruitless; after many exploits he reaches Kadath but discovers it deserted, the gods having abandoned their Dreamland equivalent of Mount Olympus to revel in the city of his vision. Then he discovers that the city he dreamed about was actually of his own creation, something his mind made out of memories of his own past and all the nostalgia he felt for the things lost over the years. Nyarlathotep pretends to send him on a mission to recall the errant gods, but this is only a trap; too late Carter discovers he is flying through space on a one-way trip to Azathoth “for madness and the void’s wild vengeance are Nyarlathotep’s only gifts to the presumptuous.” But in the final twist and revelation, Carter suddenly remembers that he is dreaming — this is after all a dream-quest — and at the last minute forces himself to wake up. We have been reminded from time to time that the whole story is a dream (at one point Carter is even advised to wake up and start again but demurs because he’s afraid he might forget too much he’d already learned in his quest), but such a simple solution to his direst of straits and immanent destruction of body and soul together is so obvious it never occurs to most readers. In an ending borrowed straight from Dunsany’s “Where the Tides Ebb & Flow,” but none the less effective for that, Randolph Carter “leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room” to the beauty and light and life of the real world:

And vast infinities away,
past the Gate of Deeper Slumber and the enchanted wood . . .
the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep strode broodingly into the onyx castle
atop unknown Kadath in the cold waste, and taunted insolently
the mild gods of earth whom he had snatched abruptly
from their scented revels in the marvelous sunset city.

The Dream-Quest and Your Game

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one of those rare classics of fantasy which any gamer can sit down and play immediately, since it’s the inspiration for Chaosium’s “Dreamlands” setting for the classic Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. While Chaosium has never replicated Randolph Carter’s quest (or indeed any of Lovecraft’s stories) as an epic RPG adventure, the setting derived from it and its associated short stories has gone through four editions (1986, 1988, 1992, 1997), with a fifth due out shortly; they have also published thirteen adventure scenarios using the setting. In addition, the Dreamlands setting was the basis of a stand-alone set of Chaosium’s collectable card game, Mythos (1997).


Lovecraft’s work is available in multiple overlapping editions, and the Dream-Quest is no exception. The standard edition is that published by Arkham House as part of a three-volume set of all HPL’s fiction; DQ forms part of the third volume, At the Mountains of Madness (1964, corrected text 1985; the other two volumes being The Dunwich Horror and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales; a fourth volume, The Horror in the Museum, reprints his ghost-written work that appeared under other author’s names). The story is also available in trade paperback as part of The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft (Del Rey, 1995), which also collects virtually all the stories related to the Dream-Quest, either by being set in the Dreamlands or by featuring a character whom Lovecraft later re-used in his novel (for example, “Pickman’s Model” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter”). The most attractive edition, however, is the first mass market paperback, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (Ballantine, 1970), where our novel is the featured story and not buried toward the back of some other collection. (Cover shown is of the 1996 reissue of this [Ballantine Books, July 1996; reissue edition; ISBN 0-3453-3779-4.]) Along with its companion volume, The Doom That Came to Sarnath (1971), this was part of Ballantine’s famed “Adult Fantasy Series” and unlike the hardcover has the advantage not only of a better cover (an evocative wraparound piece by Gervasio Gallardo, replaced in 1982 by an even more striking one by Michael Whelan) but also fittingly ends with Lovecraft’s single best story, “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

[1] We have R.H. Barlow to thank for the story’s survival; a teenage fan who became one of Lovecraft’s closest friends and eventual literary executor, Barlow persuaded Lovecraft to loan him the manuscript, which he surreptitiously typed; he also preserved Lovecraft’s manuscripts after his death and presented them to the John Hay Library in Providence, as well as providing the text that was posthumously published by Arkham House.

[2] Scholars debate endlessly about exactly which stories by Lovecraft and his imitators do and do not belong to the “Mythos,” but the seminal story remains Lovecraft’s own “The Call of Cthulhu,” published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales. Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG takes the sensible approach by equating the Mythos and “Lovecraftian” — e.g., anything in Lovecraft’s fiction. In part, the Mythos seems to have begun as a sort of game whereby Lovecraft and his friends could link their stories and exchange ideas. It also seems to have been a means whereby Lovecraft signaled that ghost-written stories were his work, by inserting elements of his Mythos into them. The Mythos has become more popular than ever in the last twenty years, largely because of the roleplaying game sparking a revival of interest in Lovecraft; in both quality of scenario-writing and its impact on the gaming and fantasy-fan communities the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game exceeds the contributions of all but the very best of the fiction writers using the Mythos (e.g., Clark Ashton Smith).

[3] In one unintentionally funny example of Lovecraft’s technique undercutting the desired effect (in this case, to describe events with the Poe-like immediacy of a first-person narrator), “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” ends with the main character writing in his journal a description of being dragged away to a horrible death — as if a character in such circumstances would calmly stop to write in his diary while grappling with a monster. Most of Lovecraft’s fiction is completely humorless; the Dream-Quest is a rare and welcome exception, and it mainly generates its humor through the deliberately inapt choice of adjectives (a technique Lovecraft may have learned from Clark Ashton Smith, who uses an over-elaborate vocabulary to great comic effect in tales such as “The Colossus of Ylourgne” and “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”).

[4] Stories in the sequence include “Celephais” (Kuranes), “The Other Gods” (the fate of Barzai), “The Cats of Ulthar” (a cautionary tale explaining just why cats are sacred in Ulthar), “The Silver Key” (the eventual fate of Randolph Carter), “The Strange High House in the Mist” (Nodens), “The White Ship,” “Polaris” (Lomar), “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” “The Quest of Iranon,” “Ex Oblivione,” and possibly “Beyond the Walls of Sleep.” Closely related but not part of the sequence are tales like “Pickman’s Model” (the pre-ghoul Pickman), “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (introducing Carter himself), “Nyarlathotep” (featuring a modern-day appearance by the Crawling Chaos), and “Azathoth” (a novel fragment that seems to have provided the Dream-Quest‘s climax).

[5] Dunsany’s great contribution to fantasy are the eight volumes of fantasy short stories he published between 1905 and 1919: The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908), A Dreamer’s Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), Fifty-one Tales (1915; a collection of fables also known as The Food of Death), The Last Book of Wonder (1916), and Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919). Lovecraft drew heavily from all these, but especially A Dreamer’s Tales, The Book of Wonder, and The Last Book of Wonder, plus the “Idle Days on the Yann”/”A Shop in Go-by Street”/”The Avenger of Perdondaris” sequence (collected in Tales of Three Hemispheres under the general title “Beyond the Fields We Know”).

[6] The five Randolph Carter stories are “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1919), “The Unnamable” (1923), “The Silver Key” (1926), The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926-27), and “Through the Gate of the Silver Key” (1932-33), the latter a weak collaboration with E. Hoffman Price.

The Worm Ouroboros

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

The Worm Ouroboros is the ancient image of a serpent consuming itself by its own tail — and the name of one of the almost-forgotten classics of fantasy:

“[T]he grandest heroic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery
tale in the English language”

— Fritz Leiber

“[F]orty-odd years ahead of its time…
the single greatest novel of heroic fantasy”

— L. Sprague de Camp

Before there was D&D, before there was Tolkien, and before fantasy even existed as a distinct, recognized “genre” of literature with its own imprints, dedicated small presses, and reserved shelves in libraries and bookstores, there was The Worm Ouroboros (1922). If today Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the work that defines fantasy, then once upon a time Eddison’s book was a major contender for the archetypal epic fantasy.

["I have read all that E. R. Eddison wrote."
"I... think of him as the greatest and most convincing
writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read."

— J.R.R. Tolkien on Eddison

Admired by fellow fantasists like Tolkien, C. S. Lewis (who liked the Worm so much he invited Eddison to visit the Inklings and read his works-in-progress[1]), H. Rider Haggard, James Branch Cabell, James Stephens (“he has added a masterpiece to English literature”), Fritz Leiber (who admitted preferring Eddison to Tolkien), and Ursula K. Le Guin (who placed him first among her examples of superb fantasy stylists, above Kenneth Morris, Tolkien, and Dunsany), Eddison pioneered what has come to be thought of as “Tolkienian fantasy,” the grand invented-world epic novel. His book, written over eighty years ago, even comes with the now-requisite paraphernalia: Although the Worm lacks a map, it does come with a timeline and guide to pronunciation, while Eddison’s later books (the Zimiamvia series) include not only these but maps of his imaginary realms, genealogical charts, and lists of dramatis personae, as well as a guide to citations. (Eddison’s characters, whatever world they’re from, have a tendency to quote Shakespeare or Donne or more obscure 16th and 17th century poets and playwrights.)

“[N]either allegory nor fable
but a Story to be read for its own sake”

— E.R.E.

“So Excellent Well Writ”

Eddison’s most outstanding characteristic is, of course, his language. The Worm Ouroboros is the only great fantasy novel written in Shakespearean prose. Other fantasies have been set in the 16th and 17th century (or fantasy-world analogues to Tudor times, give or take a half-century or so), such as Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), and Briggs’ Hobberty Dick (1955), but none featured characters who speak as if they were spontaneously reciting lines from Shakespeare. Eddison was particularly fond of Shakespeare’s lesser contemporaries, especially the Jacobean revenge dramatists, his favorite being John Webster (The Duchess of Malfi). He absorbed their vocabulary and phrasing so thoroughly that he could reproduce it perfectly to suit his own purposes:

Now spake Spitfire saying, “Read forth to us, I pray thee, the book
of Gro; for my soul is afire to set forth on this faring.”
“‘Tis writ somewhat crabbedly,” said Brandoch Daha, “and most damnably long.
I spent half last night a-searching on’t, and ’tis most apparent no other way
lieth to these mountains save… (if Gro say true) but one . . .”
“If he say true?” said Spitfire. “He is a turncoat and a renegado.
Wherefore not therefore a liar?”
“But a philosopher,” answered Juss. “I knew him well of old . . .
and I judge him to be one who is not false save only in policy. Subtle
of mind he is, and dearly loveth plotting and scheming, and, as I think,
perversely affecteth ever the losing side if he be drawn into any quarrel
… But in this book of his travels he must needs speak truth,
as it seemeth to me, to be true to his own self.”

Few writers display so much love of words for their own sake: Eddison at one point spends an entire page describing the hero’s bed, and he thinks nothing of devoting a paragraph or two to the magnificence of a villain’s clothes and accoutrements; his most prosaic passages are filled with vivid similes and memorable phrases. This verbal luxuriance helps create a heightened sense of drama that befits his larger-than-life cast. For if Tolkien celebrates everyman, the “little people” of our world, through his hobbits, then Eddison glories in the high and mighty: regarding “common men,” he has one of his more sympathetic characters say “better a hundred such should die than one great man’s hand be hampered.”[2] Accordingly, just as Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth focus on the doings of kings and princes, lords and ladies, rather than ordinary people, so too Eddison’s tale concentrates on the great lords and sensuous, strong-willed ladies of his invented world. Everything in Eddison’s world is grander, more intense, and more dramatic than in our mundane reality, from their speeches to their deeds to their passions.

Demons and Witches, Goblins and Imps, Pixies and Ghouls, Oh My

Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain
the King passes by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain
mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold…
On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the
semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail…
His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together
with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold.
The iron crown of Witchland weighed on his brow, the claws
of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels
was many-coloured like the rays of Sirius
on a clear night of frost and wind
at Yule-tide.

— King Gorice XII of Witchland enters a banquet-hall

While most readers will have little trouble with the archaisms (those who do would be well advised to read the book in Paul Thomas’s excellent annotated edition,[3] which glosses the more unusual expressions), even those who get swept up in Eddison’s style and story often balk at his nomenclature. Rather than use real-world nations (English, French, Spaniard, and so on) or transparent equivalents (for example, Montaigne, Castille, Eisen, Vodacce in 7th Sea), Eddison opted to dub the heroes of his book the Demons and the villains the Witches, thus creating much confusion (the Demons are heroic and in his eyes wholly admirable; the Witches while treacherous are great warriors and most definitely male). The other nations are called the Goblins (who include the brilliant traitor Lord Gro), the Pixies (most notably the beautiful Lady Prezmyra), the Imps (a wild folk who have names like Fax Fay Faz, Philpritz Faz, and Mivarsh Faz), and the Ghouls (who have been exterminated to the last soul in a genocidal war by our heroes just before the story begins), but these names are just odd window-dressing: all these folk are human.

Besides the names of the nationalities, the personal names are also notably eccentric — the four heroes of the story, for example, are the brothers Lord Juss (king of Demonland), Spitfire, and Goldry Bluzco, along with their cousin Brandoch Daha (their subordinates include the lords Vizz, Volle, and Zigg). The villains include not only Gorice XII, Witchland’s sorcerer-king, but his generals Corund, Corinius, and Corsus (very distinct in personality but with names easily confused on a first reading) and the advisor Lord Gro. Place names similarly range from grand (Carce, Krothering) to simply bizarre (Kartadza, Melikaphkhaz, Thremnir’s Heugh). Occasionally Eddison’s eclectic, haphazard way of naming characters and places (not unlike those used by most modern-day fantasy novelists, or most DMs for that matter) strike gold (for example, Lady Mevrian), but all too often they flop (who can take seriously swashbuckling adventurers named Spitfire and Gaslark?).[4]

There but not Back Again

There was a man named Lessingham
dwelt in an old low house in Wasdale, set in
a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished
that had seen Vikings… in their seedling time

— Opening sentence of The Worm

One other element has deeply puzzled readers for eighty years: the “Induction.” Today most invented-world stories simply start in the world of the story, but that’s part of Tolkien’s legacy — earlier fantasy often devoted precious pages to establishing the relationship or “bridge” between the fantasy world and our own (cf. Alice’s falling asleep at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland). Eddison’s bridge is odd indeed: his story begins with a man named Lessingham, who falls asleep and is carried to Mercury in a dream, where he witnesses the events of the story. However, after the second chapter Eddison stops mentioning the invisible watcher and never returns to the frame story at the end. Many critics have simply assumed Eddison forgot about his point-of-view character since they are at a loss to otherwise explain his disappearance.

In fact, Eddison’s broken frame is a deliberate part of the book’s plan — yet another homage to the Elizabethan and Jacobean plays he loved. In this case, his model was Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which begins with an “Induction” where a sleeping beggar is dressed in a rich man’s clothes and told he’s a lord who had dreamed he was a beggar. The baffled beggar, a man named Christopher Sly, is convinced by what the hoaxers show him and begins to watch a play: this play is “The Taming of the Shrew” itself. In the anonymous play Shakespeare based his own play on, the story returned to Christopher Sly at the end, but Shakespeare includes only the set-up, not the pay-off. Performances of the play invariably omit the Induction and single later reference to Sly. Like Shakespeare, Eddison in his own Induction introduces us to an inset story which then takes on a life of its own, eviscerating the need for any return to the real world.

Similarly, though the narrator says he has been transported to Mercury (not via a conventional spaceship but in a chariot drawn by hippogriffs), he’s very obviously not on the first planet from the sun but a quicksilver fantasy variant of our own world — not only do the characters in the book quote Herrick, Donne, Shakespeare, old ballads, and the like but several references to telling time by the phases of the Moon establish that they are on Earth (albeit a weird fantasy version of our Earth). Eddison’s world is mercurial, not Mercury: quicksilver, ever-changing.

Perhaps the truest indication of Eddison’s intent lies in the poem with which he prefaced his work: a fragment from the ballad of Thomas the Rymer (14th century), telling of his meeting with the Queen of Elfland, who has come to carry him off to a strange world, neither Heaven nor Hell but full of marvels unguessed at by mortal men. The poem is unaccountedly omitted from the annotated edition, but its presence in the original suggests that Eddison intends to show the reader, like Lessingham, a wondrous new world somehow linked to our own but standing apart, with its own rules.

A Flawed Masterpiece Is Still a Masterpiece

“‘. . . none may come alive unto [Koshtra Belorn],
for the mantycores of the mowntaines will certeynely
ete his brains ere he come hither.’”

“What be these mantichores of the mountains
that eat men’s brains?” asked the Lady Mevrian.

.”. . . ‘The beeste Mantichora, whych is as much as to say
devorer of menne… These be monstrous bestes,
ghastlie and ful of horrour, enemies to mankinde,
of a red coloure, with ij rowes of huge grete tethe
in their mouthes. It hath the head of a man,
his eyen like a ghoot, and the bodie of a lyon
lancing owt sharpe prickles fro behinde. And hys
tayl is the tail of a scorpioun. . . And hys voys
is as the roaryng of x lyons.’”

– Brandoch Daha reads of manticores in Lord Gro’s book

For all its virtues, The Worm Ouroboros is too eccentric to capture a mainstream audience as Tolkien did. Despite being much admired, it is little imitated (though a few bits inspired by it did find their way into The Lord of the Rings — cf. Pippin’s theft of the palantir and Saruman’s attempted assassination of Frodo). Perhaps this is because the style, a major part of the story’s appeal, is simply too hard to fake; only someone who lived and breathed Jacobean drama could pull it off.

That the book, despite a revival in the 1960s (which saw its first paperback publication) and for a decade or two thereafter, has begun to sink out of sight in recent years is a great pity: there really is nothing else quite like it. For those who like adventure fantasy, the Worm has it all: evil sorcery, battles with monsters, impossible quests, battles by land and by sea, with swords and with bare hands, battles with the elements (particularly in an epic mountain-climbing sequence), a varied and powerful cast of well-motivated villains (including King Gorice, who is reincarnated in a new body each time the heroes slay him — e.g. Gorice X, Gorice XI, Gorice XII), scheming ladies perfectly capable of setting their own agendas, some discreet sex (most notably Brandoch Daha’s encounter with the Lady of Ishnain Nemartra, which he thinks lasts a single night only to be surprised afterwards to find an entire week has gone by; or Lady Sriva of Witchland’s avoiding her fiancé to arrange a tryst with his rival, only to stand both men up and go seduce her King instead), dungeons to escape from, kidnapped friends to rescue, powerful enchantments to be broken, and much, much more. Eddison sets the stakes high: whoever comes out triumphant in the all-or-nothing three-year struggle he chronicles will rule the world.

[W]ith a horrid bellow [the mantichore] turned on Juss, rearing
like a horse; and it was three heads greater than a tall man…
The stench of its breath choked Juss’s mouth and his sense sickened,
but he slashed it athwart the belly… so that the guts fell out. Again
he hewed at it, but missed, and his sword… was shivered into pieces.
So when that noisome vermin fell forward on him roaring like a thousand
lions, Juss grappled with it… [I]t might not reach him with its murthering
teeth, but its claws sliced off the flesh from his left knee downward to the
ankle bone, and it fell on him and crushed him on the rock, breaking in
the bones of his breast. And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, . . .
thrust his right hand, armed with the hilt and stump of his broken
sword… until he searched out its heart… , slicing [it] asunder
like a lemon.”

– Lord Juss’s hand-to-hand combat with a mantichore on a mountain-side

But of all his varied and vivid cast, none stands out like the treacherous Lord Gro, one of fantasy’s great villains. A former adventurer of spectacular accomplishments, Gro is smart, brave, witty, likable, and learned; an author and an explorer, popular with the ladies and invaluable when plotting strategy. Unfortunately, he has one fatal character flaw: he cannot stand to be on the winning side. When the side he’s on begins to win (often through Gro’s own efforts), he feels compelled to betray it and go over to their enemies. Rather than gain him a reputation as the champion of the underdog, this makes him a despised outcast, the eternal traitor, distrusted even by those who depend upon his help. Even so he continues to perform great deeds at extreme risk for first one side and then the other of this cataclysmic war, allying first with the Witches to help them conquer Demonland, then with the Demons to help them expel the invaders, and finally with the Witches again in their final extremity; he simply cannot help himself. Rarely has a fantasy author created such a sympathetic villain.


“This sword Zeldornius gave me. I bare it at Krothering Side
against Corinius, when I threw him out of Demonland. I bare it
… in the last great fight in Witchland. Thou wilt say it brought me
good luck and victory in battle. But it brought not to me…
that last best luck of all: that earth should gape for me
when my great deeds were ended.”

– Brandoch Daha laments the passing of his enemies

“Would [the blessed Gods] might give us our good gift, that should be
youth for ever, and war; and unwaning strength and skill in arms.
Would they might give us our great enemies alive and whole again.
For better it were we should run hazard again of utter destruction,
than thus live out our lives [in peace] like cattle fattening
for the slaughter, or like silly garden plants.”

– Lord Juss wishes his enemies alive again

The most extraordinary thing of all about The Worm Ouroboros, however, comes at the very end; a final surprise that trumps everything that’s come before and leaves the reader stunned — either delighted or appalled. Eddison had provided a clue of his intent in the name he gave the book, “the wyrm (dragon) which devours its own tail”[5] — that is, the Midgard Serpent, who encircles the entire earth; anyone tracing its length would come in time back to his or her starting point and begin all over again. And this is exactly what Eddison’s novel does. Granted a wish by the gods after their great deeds, Lord Juss, Brandoch Daha, and the others cannot think of anything they would like more than the chance to do it all over again. Accordingly, time is looped back; their foes brought back to life; all their hard-fought victories undone and waiting to be achieved again.

To Eddison, and the Demons, this is the happiest of happy endings: the final paragraphs of the book repeat the scene from the first chapter, and his heroes will be able to battle his villains forever. It’s a frame of mind familiar to any D&D player who’s just completed a long, hard, challenging, but ultimately successful campaign: a tinge of regret that it’s all over and that combination of characters, players, DM, NPCs, and plot will never come again. Eddison offers a means by which his fictional heroes can go back and enjoy it all over again. Seventeen years before Joyce pulled the same trick in Finnegan’s Wake, The Worm Ouroboros loops back in a closed circle, and its events repeat over and over again forever.


[1] In addition to inviting him to Inklings meetings as an occasional guest, Lewis struck up a correspondence (in Middle English) with Eddison that lasted the remainder of Eddison’s life (he died in 1945). The “E. R.”, by the way, stands for Eric Rucker (Rick).

[2] Eddison and Tolkien debated their respective positions when they met, as Tolkien recounted long afterwards: “I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit… I disliked his characters (always excepting the Lord Gro) and despised what he appeared to admire… Eddison thought what I admire ‘soft’ (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that… he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty.” (JRRT, letter 24 June 1957). It’s hard to imagine, for example, that Frodo, or indeed any of Tolkien’s heroes, at the end of The Lord of the Rings would wish to repeat all the horrors experienced during the quest, as Eddison’s heroes do.

[3] The best edition of The Worm Ouroboros is the 1991 trade paperback edited, with annotations, by Paul Edmund Thomas (Dell; ISBN 0-440-50299-3; 1991, 448 pages). Unfortunately, this edition leaves out not only the prefatory poem (an excerpt from the ballad of True Thomas) but also all the illustrations that accompanied the original 1922 edition. While most of these are of only minor interest, the brooding portrait of Gorice XII and the swirling picture of his destruction (“The Last Conjuring in Carce”) are both sadly missed. Fortunately, they are included in the mass market paperback edition from Ballantine (ISBN 0-345-25475-9; April 1967, 520 pages), which is still readily available through used bookstores (and online through Amazon.com’s used books and bookfinder.com). (The mass market edition cover is shown in this article.) Two editions are currently in print: one in the Fantasy Masterworks series, published in Britain by Millennium Books (ISBN 1857989937; April 2000, 520 pages, £6.99); while only available in a limited number of bookstores in this country, it can be ordered direct from England via amazon.co.uk. The other is by Replica Books (ISBN 0735101396; 1999, 445 pages, $32.95).

[4] Part of the book’s eccentric nomenclature might be due to the fact that Eddison made up the story as a child and only wrote it down and published it years later, when he was forty. An unpublished picture book survives that he drew when he was ten (e.g., c.1892), which clearly illustrates scenes out of The Worm; it is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

[5] Tolkien paid tribute to Ouroboros years later by borrowing the name for Farmer Giles’ sword, Caudimordax, or Tailbiter, these simply being the Latin and English equivalents, respectively, of the Greek “ouroboros” (JRRT, Farmer Giles of Ham, 1949). It is important to note that “the worm ouroboros” does not refer to a creature in Eddison’s book but the book itself — the story that never ends but always loops back and begins anew.

Other Works: Readers who enjoy Eddison might want to explore his other works. These include an attempt to create an authentic Icelandic-style saga (Styrbiorn the Strong, 1926), a translation of an actual saga (Egil’s Saga, 1930), and the Zimiamvia series: Mistress of Mistresses (1935), A Fish Dinner at Memison (1941), and The Mezentian Gate (1958), the latter left unfinished at Eddison’s death and published posthumously; all three were gathered with some additional material into an annotated edition, Zimiamvia, by Paul Edmund Thomas in 1992. The Zimiamvia series has tenuous connections to The Worm (Lessingham, the observer in the Induction, is a major character in Mistress and Fish Dinner) but is wholly different in tone, being more Eddison’s presentation of his private religion (a form of Aphrodite-worship) than an adventure novel. Still, the series does include two great characters: the elderly wizard-philosopher-councilor Dr. Vandermast (inspiration for a character in the Forgotten Realms Cormyr novels) and the villainous Horius Parry, a.k.a., “The Vicar,” as well as a bizarre and impressive scene in which King Mezentius creates Earth as a parlor-trick at a dinner party. Most readers of The Worm find the Zimiamvia books repellent, but they also have their admirers who consider them far superior to the better-known book.

Bridge of Birds

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, is an unusual fantasy classic in that it takes place in a fantastic pre-modern East:

“My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not
to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea.
Everyone calls me Number Ten Ox.”

“My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao,
and there is a slight flaw in my character,”
he said matter-of-factly. “You got a problem?”

— Number Ten Ox meets Master Li for the first time

Sometimes, superlatives fail us.

There are a great many good books in the world, and even more books that are worth reading for one reason or another. But truly great books are rare; books that, once read, join that permanent shelf of books we read and reread over and over again. Such books are as good a century after first publication as the day they first appeared, as good on the tenth reading as the first. There have only been a handful of them in our genre in the century and a half or so since modern fantasy first appeared, and by almost any standard Bridge of Birds is one of them. I personally rank it among the ten best fantasies ever published.

Like most great books, Bridge of Birds came out of left field; it bore little resemblance to other fantasies published at the time or in the years preceding it (or, despite a few feeble imitations, since). Meeting with instant acclaim, it won the World Fantasy Award — a considerable feat for an author’s first novel[1] — tying with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (a book with a brilliant concept marred by poor execution) for the year’s best novel. The following year, it won the Mythopoeic Award as well. Unfortunately, Hughart’s follow-up, The Story of the Stone (1988), was as bad as Bridge of Birds was good, a tired rehash of themes and motifs from the first book that utterly fails to recapture the spark that made the original stand out. By the time the third book, Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991), appeared and proved Hughart could write a worthy companion to the first book, his popularity had waned and publishers had lost interest. Dancing Girl, the fourth book in the projected seven-book series, was never published and Hughart, who’s now approaching seventy, has abandoned authorship, meaning that the three books already published (collected in 1998 into the three-in-one omnibus The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox) stand as a truncated but completed whole.

“In the carefree days of my youth I once sold [the Emperor]
some shares in a mustard mine.”
We stared at him.
“A mustard mine?” the abbot said weakly.
“I was trying to win a bet concerning the intelligence
of emperors,” [Master Li] explained.


Oriental fantasy, of course, has a long and honored history, dating back to the first stirring of interest in myth and folklore in the 1760s, the reaction against the Age of Reason that would eventually lead to modern fantasy a few generations later. China’s use as an exotic setting for wonder tales goes all the way back to The Arabian Nights (most readers forget that Aladdin is Chinese and ends up marrying the emperor of Cathay’s daughter) and possibly beyond — e.g., the 14th century Travels of Sir John Mandeville (which are pure fantasy but were regarded by some gullible souls as factual) and 13th century Journey of Marco Polo (which, though fact-based, were read as wonder tales by disbelieving Europeans).

Probably the best pre-Hughart example of “Chinoiserie” are Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung stories (The Wallet of Kai Lung, 1900; Kai Lung’s Golden Hours, 1922; Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat, 1928), which employ for humorous effect an ornate, mock-polite language that is deliberately quaint in its tone — as, for example, when a ruthless highwayman takes the storyteller Kai Lung prisoner with these words: “Precede me, therefore, to my mean and uninviting hovel, while I gain more honour than I can reasonably bear by following closely in your elegant footsteps, and guarding your Imperial person with this inadequate but heavily-loaded weapon.” Oriental fantasies were so popular in the pulp era, in the hands of writers like E. Hoffman Price (a minor member of the Lovecraft circle), that Weird Tales at one point spun off a sister magazine, Oriental Stories (later renamed Magic Carpet). Fantasies set in China were also popular in children’s literature, in works such as Shen of the Sea (winner of the 1925 Newbery) and the illustrated fable The Five Chinese Brothers (1938).

More popular than any of these, however, were various series that were not fantasies set in China but mysteries with a Chinese hero (or, more often, villain). Foremost among these was the Fu Manchu series by Sax Rohmer (1911ff) and its many imitators, giving vent to “yellow peril” xenophobia by recounting the fiendish plots of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (whose master plan, it turns out, is to replace the British Empire with self-rule by indigenous peoples — something latter-day readers can contemplate without undue horror). Directly opposed to these are the Charlie Chan stories of Earl Derr Biggers (mostly written in the 1920s and inspiring two movie series that spanned the 1930s and 40s), featuring a Chinese-American detective from Honolulu who always sees through the obvious but false to the essential truth beneath. Chan may speak in pidgin-English (“Confucius say . . .”, contrasted with Number One Son’s slangy American), but Biggers leaves no doubt that he’s a brilliant detective — much smarter than the Anglo-Americans surrounding him. Less well remembered, but perhaps the only one of these to exercise an influence on Hughart, is Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series (1950s-60s). Like Hughart’s books, the Judge Dee stories are set in 7th century China during the Tang dynasty, an era later remembered as a golden age; they also share a generally plainstyle dialogue and rather earthy approach toward sex (Master Li from time to time mutters “ah, to be ninety again” when observing Number Ten Ox’s latest female companion), violence, torture, profanity, and so on.

It turned out to be more difficult than he expected…
Master Li… scorched the air with the Sixty Sequential Sacrileges
with which he had won the all-China Freestyle Blasphemy
Competition in Hangchow three years in a row.

An Ancient China That Never Was

One element in Hughart’s success is that his book does not start as fantasy but as a historical novel in a very specific time and place: the village of Ku-fu in the Year of the Tiger (A.D. 639), the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, during the silk harvest.[2] When every child in the village between the ages of eight and thirteen is struck with a strange plague and falls into a coma, our narrator, young Lu Yu (better known as Number Ten Ox) sets out on his nineteenth birthday to find a sage in Peking who can tell them “how a plague learned to count.” The drunken sage he returns with, an ancient little old man of about a hundred and ten named Master Li, quickly works out that only the Great Root of Ginseng can cure the ill children, and so the mismatched pair undertake an epic quest to find the priceless ginseng root.

Unlike so many quests — for revenge, for money, for power — Number Ten Ox’s quest is well-motivated: Whenever he falters, he thinks of the dying children and their grieving parents and presses on, whatever the danger ahead. This adds a very human (or even humane) element to the story and gives it a realism more generic fantasies may lack: The heroes are forced to continue when they might otherwise have turned back because their conscience cannot let them accept the consequences of failure. This is not to say that they are sterling characters. Master Li, after all, has “a slight flaw in his character” and has no hesitation about swindling, forging, stealing, burglary, murder, impersonation, or assassination in a good cause. As he says to Number Ten Ox as they enter one town:

“Unfortunately… we will have to murder somebody
… We must pray that we will find somebody
who thoroughly deserves it.”[3]

— Master Li

Number Ten Ox, by contrast, is relatively innocent when the book starts and remains uncorrupted throughout by his experiences. Huge, gentle, attractive to the ladies, and extraordinarily strong, he is wiser but essentially unchanged in the end. True, he joins in Master Li’s frauds and impersonations and cheerfully beats to death or chops up any number of guards and other malefactors, but this is because his local abbot told him to (“Number Ten Ox, our only hope is Master Li…. You must do as he commands, and I shall be praying for your immortal soul.”). In a brilliant masterstroke, Hughart made Number Ten Ox the story’s narrator and point-of-view character. This not only gives Ox the opportunity to explain things about Chinese culture to Western (“barbarian”) readers but enables us to see the story through the eyes of a normal person, of average intelligence and typical reactions. Master Li is the genius, the Holmes to Ox’s Watson — always remembering that in the original stories Watson is an intelligent man, not the sputtering dunce that later movie adaptations made of him, whose reasonably quick wits serve as a foil for Holmes’ brilliance. As the story develops and they survive increasingly sticky situations, it develops into a kind of buddy movie: the brave, strong, undaunted Ox providing the muscle (and heart) and the clever, ancient, cynical Master Li the brains.

“Master Li, how are we going to murder a man who laughs at axes?” I asked.
“We are going to experiment… Our first order of business will be to find
a deranged alchemist, which should not be very difficult.
China,” said Master Li, “is overstocked with deranged alchemists.”

The Quest for the Great Root of Ginseng

For roughly the first third of the book, the fantasy element is kept to a minimum, but gradually impossible events begin to occur with greater and greater frequency. We get a cursed ghost, forced to reenact her last moments night after night unless the heroes can break the cycle (which leads to the spectacular Sword Dance challenge); a flooded city filled with treasure but guarded by the animated corpses of murdered women; a ruined city in a desert haunted by “The Hand That No One Sees,” a huge invisible monster that silently stalks and destroys any who come there (one of Hughart’s most effective creations); an evil tyrant who has reigned for a thousand years with no one seeing his face, who has removed his heart and hidden it so that he is unfazed by axe-blows, the deadliest poisons, or any other attack; and perhaps most dangerous of all the Old Man of the Mountain, an evil immortal sage who will sell any secret — for a price (the sign outside his cave reads “Here Lives the Old Man of the Mountain./Ring and State your business./His Secrets are not sold cheaply./It is Perilous to waste his time.”), not to mention a dangerous underground labyrinth flooded by the tide at regular intervals (so those trying to navigate its maze have strictly limited time in which to do so before being battered to death or drowned) and the occasional anachronism like the Bamboo Dragonfly (a sort of gunpowder-powered autogyro, useful in escaping from Certain Death).

“I suggest we hurry, because with every passing moment
I grow closer to expiring from old age.”

— Master Li

At the same time, the protagonists and readers are introduced to a memorable array of characters: not just Ox and Master Li but also Miser Shen (who briefly joins them in their quest), Hen-Pecked Ho (the second greatest scholar in China, who eventually becomes a heroic axe-murderer), the Ancestress (horribly bloated, thoroughly evil, and the most dangerous woman in China), Lotus Cloud (open-hearted, promiscuous, and capable of capturing the life-long devotion of any man who sees her), the Key Rabbit (the cowardly and much-put-upon chief henchmen of the evil Duke of Ch’in), Doctor Death (the aforementioned deranged alchemist), and of course the vividly drawn people of Ox’s village. The setting remains exotic, but through the characters Hughart succeeds in the difficult task of making the world of 7th century China come alive and enabling the reader to immerse himself or herself in it, until we think of the characters as real, believable people, just like modern-day folk from our own culture.

[I]t was a relief when the mirages began,
because they gave us something to look at.

— Number Ten Ox

The quest Li and Ox thought they had undertaken becomes entangled with a greater mystery. As the villain of the piece, the Duke of Ch’in, puts it, they have undertaken “the right quest for the wrong reason. You and your antiquated companion have followed paths that cannot be followed, defeated guardians that cannot be defeated, escaped from places where escape was impossible, and you have not had the slightest idea of what you were really doing, or where you were really going, or why!” To the original quest, to save the children of Ku-fu, is added another: to rescue a forgotten goddess, lost for a thousand years. Unfortunately, to do so it is necessary first for them to defeat the greatest tyrant China has ever known, the First Emperor, the man who gave China its name (Ch’in) — an equivalent Western parallel would be for medieval characters (say 8th century A.D.) to be forced to combat an undead Alexander the Great.

Happily Ever After

I suppose there is only a slight chance that a person will be called upon
to rescue a goddess, but the odds will increase dramatically if the person
is as illustrious as my readers, so I will offer two pieces of advice.
Beware her divine light, and take cover.

— Number Ten Ox

What makes Bridge of Birds stand out in the end is its unique mix of the realistic and the fantastic, the funny and the tragic, the grand and the sordid, the epic and the intimate. The seeming anarchy of its endless profusion of invention and wild events suddenly reveals an inner symmetry as all the pieces click together. Hughart’s timing is perfect: Just when the reader is beginning to feel the characters have enjoyed one lucky coincidence too many, Master Li himself voices the same concern and in it discerns divine manipulation forcing our heroes along a specific path. But the epic quest works only because Hughart makes us care deeply for the people met along the way however briefly, as when a dying Miser Shen whispers a prayer to his murdered daughter, dead forty years; or when Number Ten Ox has a touching encounter with the ghost of his childhood love, the girl he would have married had she lived. The book is studded with such moments, hilarious or poignant vignettes that all tie together in the end into one great climax, the purest eucatastrophe[4] known to me in fantasy, where all the threads come together and every single plot point is resolved. There’s really nothing else quite like it in all of fantasy literature.

Bridge of Birds and Your Game

A well-motivated quest. Dozens of vividly drawn, believable characters: heroes and villains and simple ordinary folk. Labyrinths and monsters and treasure, immortal malefactors, and settings both bizarre and memorable — what’s not to like? Bridge of Birds is ready-made as an epic fantasy campaign, and it is beautifully paced with enormous variety. For those not quite ready to abandon their familiar pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe setting for an oriental one, there are still plenty of individual elements worth borrowing. The Hand That No One Sees (which players are liable at first to mistake for a Bigby’s Hand spell that’s gone horribly wrong) has found its way into several of my campaigns. The drowned city and the tide-haunted labyrinth beneath the Duke of Ch’in’s palace are extremely creepy dungeons ready-made for exploring. The Old Man of the Mountains is a fine example of using an evil sage in a campaign — his information is infallible, but will the characters be willing to pay his price? Hughart’s later books in the series also provide wonderful elements for any fantasy roleplaying game, such as the madman called The Laughing Prince and a magnificent and sinister tomb modeled on that of the First Emperor (both from The Story of the Stone), or the mysterious figures from the distant past who give their name to Eight Skilled Gentlemen, a book which also features a memorable shamanka (female shaman) and a truly apocalyptic ending — a case where events of three thousand years before must be discovered and the last achievements of a destroyed civilization repeated if disaster is to be averted. Eight Skilled Gentlemen also contains Hughart’s finest villain, Sixth Degree Hostler Tu, a memorable combination of mass-murderer, serial killer, cannibal, and food-obsessed madman who combines elements of Hannibal Lector with Gollum (the book begins on the day of his execution and ends with his deification) — a worthy foe for any hapless party of adventurers who let their guard down when they come to stay at a nice quiet inn.

Best of all, of course, are Master Li and Number Ten Ox: mismatched partners whose journeys could take them almost anywhere and who might give or need help, calling for a short-term collaboration with your own PCs. Hughart’s book is rich enough that the possibilities are nearly endless; had Bridge of Birds existed when D&D was being created, it’s likely that monks would not have been a discordant element in early editions but that the whole “matter of China” would have been as core to the game as, say, dwarves or berserkers or rangers.

A Voyage to Arcturus

Monday, February 6th, 2012

John Rateliff describes an obscure fantasy classic, A Voyage to Arcturus:

Not every classic is immediately recognized as such upon publication. Some find great success from the very start, like Richard Adam’s Watership Down (1972), Hughart’s The Bridge of Birds (1984), and Cabell’s Jurgen (1919). Others meet with a small but enthusiastic reception that steadily grows, such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) or Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922). Still others make little impact on their debut and languish in obscurity; awaiting their time, known to only a few: Wm. Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), and David Lindsay’s masterpiece, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920).

Few great works of fantasy can have been so initially unsuccessful as A Voyage to Arcturus. Published in 1920, it sold only about five hundred copies in its author’s lifetime. [1] But lack of sales does not equal lack of influence, especially among a genre as dependant upon word of mouth recommendations as fantasy. Those few surviving copies of Lindsay’s book were passed around from reader to reader among aficionados of fantasy and science fiction in England. C. S. Lewis, for example, spent a long time looking for the book before he finally found a copy, which he promptly loaned to his friend Tolkien. Lewis credited Lindsay with “first suggest[ing] to me that the form of ‘science fiction’ could be filled by spiritual experiences” — that is, that a pulp genre could be co-opted as the vehicle for presenting a sophisticated philosophical message. The example of Lindsay and Charles Williams together directly inspired Lewis to write his own science fiction trilogy, the first two books of which-Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra (1943) borrow heavily from Lindsay’s work (although Lewis prettified what he borrowed in Christianizing it).

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

But Lewis’s work, though heavily influenced by A Voyage to Arcturus, is tame and conventional in comparison with the original. In a time when most science fiction had hardly moved beyond Verne and Wells, Lindsay broke the mold, moving so far beyond what most people thought of as the new genre of “scientifiction” (the conventions of which gelled a few years later in Hugo Gernsback’s not very deft hands) that the result is really not science fiction at all but fantasy. At the time it was first published, A Voyage to Arcturus would probably have been classified as “planetary romance,” a now extinct genre that included works such as Burroughs’ Barsoom series (1912ff), where John Carter falls asleep in a cave and thereby travels to a Mars that is a pure fantasy world. In such stories, the “science” is only a device to get to the adventure and is paid no more than lip service if that. [2] Thus C.S. Lewis’s Ransom travels to Mars in a sphere that works “by exploiting the less observed properties of solar radiation” and is carried to Venus in a crystal coffin by an angel. Lindsay, typically, had already gone this one better: Maskull, Nightspore, and Krag travel to Arcturus via “backlight” — the theory being that, since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then light must have a complementary negative light, or backlight, that makes the return journey at the same speed.

“[Lindsay] is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are
really good for in fiction. No merely physical strangeness or
merely spatial distance will realize that idea of otherness
which is what we are always trying to grasp in a story about
voyaging through space… To construct plausible and
moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real
‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.”

— C. S. Lewis

This confusion over exactly what category the book belongs in is neatly reflected in its first paperback publication: Ballantine originally issued the book as “A Ballantine Science Fiction Classic” (first printing, 1968); a few years later, the book was incorporated into their Adult Fantasy Series line and reprinted with the “unicorn head” sign that marked the series (second & third printings, 1973). For my part, I suggest ignoring the pseudo-science fiction trappings of the frame story, which Lindsay himself swiftly discards, and concentrating on the main tale: not a voyage to a distant star (which is covered in less than a single page of the book) but the epic fantasy of one man’s journey through Tormance, to which are devoted fourteen of its twenty-one chapters.

“You are looking for mysteries,” said Krag, “so naturally you
are finding them. Try and simplify your ideas, my friend.
The affair is plain and serious.”

— Krag to Maskull, before the departure

Stranger in a Strange, Strange Land

There are two ways to read A Voyage to Arcturus: as a simple if rather baffling adventure story, brutal and bloody-handed enough to satisfy even a Robert Howard fan, and as the purest Gnostic tract ever embodied in a fantasy novel between Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger (1919) and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (three volumes: 1995, 1997, 2000). Perhaps the best method, as with Spenser’s Faerie Queene, is to read through first for the sheer exuberance of the story, ignoring any allegorical or symbolic implications, then re-reading it again looking for the deeper meanings. It is, at any rate, impossible to discuss the book in any meaningful way without including spoilers, so anyone wishing to experience the story unguided should stop now and resume this piece after reading the novel.

“You will go, but he will return.”

On the surface, A Voyage to Arcturus is the story of Maskull’s quest. The story opens with a séance in London attended by shallow, uninteresting people and crashed by three strangers: Maskull, his friend Nightspore, and Krag, who is known to Nightspore but not Maskull. The medium summons a protoplasmic spirit, whom Krag throttles and kills; after the break-up of the séance, Maskull and Nightspore decide to accept Krag’s invitation to accompany him to Arcturus. But once there, Maskull wakes to find himself alone, wandering through a strange landscape and meeting stranger people; much the best way to read the book is to simply skim through the first five chapters and start reading in earnest with chapter six, when Maskull wakes to find himself on Tormance, as the planet circling Arcturus’s two suns is called. Once there, he makes up his mind to seek Surtur, the god of harsh reality, no matter what the cost or what obstructions Crystalman, the god of pleasant illusions, may put in his way.

“Am I a secondary character?… I must make up my mind that this is
a strange journey, and that the strangest things will happen in it. It’s no use
making plans… everything is unknown… nothing but the wildest audacity
will carry me through, and I must sacrifice everything else to that… . And
therefore if Surtur shows himself again, I shall go forward to meet him,
even if it means death.”

Maskull’s journey across Tormance, seeking to learn how to distinguish between what is real and what is not, takes him through a riot of experience. He grows new sense-organs as he makes his grim pilgrimage from land to land: a poign or heart-tentacle that later turns into a third arm and still later withers and falls off; a breve with which he can telepathically communicate but which he later can transform into a sorb or third eye. He meets natives of various lands, from the gentle Joiwind (so sensitive that she lives on water so as to not harm any other living creature) to the dangerously persuasive Tydomin (who tries to take his body for herself so she can live as a man; his projected spirit becomes the “ghost” at the opening séance before it is sent back by Krag’s killing its spirit-body) to the passionate Sullenbode (who exists in potential and is only called into individual life and personality by his attention, dying when he is temporarily distracted; she literally cannot live without his devotion). He briefly becomes a disciple of the prophet Spadevil, only to stone him to death shortly thereafter. He meets both of Tormance’s gods, and distrusts them both; each seeks to claim him as his own. He encounters a plenitude of new creatures (an arg or seal-dog, a shrawk or predatory giant flying reptile, a cuttlefish tree, a flock of floating blue jellies), bizarre landscapes and natural features (fountains where the water goes up but never falls back down, evaporating from the top; male and female stones that act as a charm against the opposite sex; a sea made up of a swirl of waters of varying densities; a lake with a solid surface that can be played like a drum by jumping up and down on it), new kinds of weather never experienced on earth (including green snow-shades of Dr. Seuss’s oobleck?). He even, in one of Lindsay’s tour de forces, encounters new primary colors cast by the smaller and fiercer of Tormance’s two suns, Alppain: jale and ulfire.

“I am wading through too much blood,” said Maskull.
“Nothing good can come of it.”

In all Maskull’s quest, although crammed full of incidents, lasts only for a total of four and a half days (with a break at mid-day due to the twin suns’ heat), or the equivalent of about nine Earth days, instead of the weeks or months spent on a typical fantasy quest (Tormance being three times the size of our planet). He throws himself into each new viewpoint he comes across, committing crimes in the process that even Vance’s Cugel the Clever might blanch at — for example, he murders Joiwind’s brother so that the latter will not distress his sister with a report of Maskull’s recent activities. He vows to execute Tydomin, then changes his mind and spares her, then winds up killing her after all. He embraces hedonism, then asceticism, then a life of simple pleasures, all in quick succession. Through it all, though, he never forgets his quest: to find Surtur and reach Muspel[3]; twice he is compared to Prometheus, seeking to find and bring back divine fire whatever torments await him personally. Gradually both Maskull and the reader come to understand that both our world and Tormance are somehow tainted: reality itself is false, and the world we see and touch and smell is a prison, corrupt to its roots. It is Crystalman’s world: like that of Wm. Blake’s Urizen, something forced into being that prevents us from connecting with the cleaner, purer underlying existence. For this reason, the corpse of everyone who dies (and they are many — for example, four of the five women Maskull encounters die, though he only actually deliberately kills one of them himself) takes on a mocking grin, the sign of Crystalman: the flesh is his, though the departed spirit is not. Only pain has the redemptive power to break this world’s grip on us and help us see through its illusions. Hence Krag’s seemingly motiveless brutality on each of his brief appearances; he is Surtur himself, inflicting desperate remedies to free likely allies from Crystalman’s lures. In the end Maskull himself dies and, in a scene that has baffled readers for decades, Nightspore at last appears, having in some sense been Maskull’s other self who could only appear when his primary died. Gazing upon Maskull’s body, he asks Krag/Surtur:

“Why was all this necessary?”
“Ask Crystalman,” replied Krag sternly. “His world is no joke.
He has a strong clutch… but I have a stronger…
Maskull was his, but Nightspore is mine.”

The final chapter of the book, and the most apocalyptic, consists of Nightspore undertaking the last stage of Maskull’s quest. With Krag’s help he reaches a tower and climbs it to look out over Muspel, the only land opposed to Crystalman’s domination:

He pulled his body up, and stood expectantly on the stone-floored
roof, looking round for his first glimpse of Muspel.
There was nothing.
He was standing upon the top of a tower… Darkness was all around him… .
Suddenly… he had the distinct impression that the darkness around him, on
all four sides, was grinning… [H]e understood that he was wholly surrounded
by Crystalman’s world, and that Muspel consisted of himself
and the stone tower on which he was sitting.

And, with that revelation, Nightspore descends the tower, rejoins Krag, and alone but indomitably the two sally forth to resume their struggle against the foe.

Lindsay’s Legacy

For all its bizarre detail and cosmic underlying plot, the greatest legacy from Lindsay’s book is as an example of sheer audacity. Most writers are content to shuffle around a few conventions of whatever genre they work in, rarely daring anything really new. Lindsay shows just how far a writer can go if he or she abolishes all self-limits. A single example will suffice: late in the story, Maskull meets Leehallfae, the last surviving phaen — “though clearly a human being… neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but… unmistakably of a third positive sex.” Since the phaens are neither male nor female, Lindsay promptly makes up a new set of pronouns to refer to the character: ae (=he/she), aer (=his/her), aerself (=himself/herself), using them so naturally that within a paragraph or two the reader completely accepts them. Compare, by contrast, the difficulties a gifted but conventional author like Le Guin runs into trying to apply pronouns to the hermaphrodites of The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) with the ease with which Lindsay resolved the same issue fifty years earlier. Nor are the phaens included simply as an exercise in experimental grammar: like Tolkien’s elves, they are immortal but can be killed, which combined with their unique physiology gives them an interesting outlook on life (and death) — and all this vivid, indelible impression within the space of roughly half a chapter from the time Maskull meets Leehallfae to when ae dies:

“I am not frightened,” said Leehallfae quietly… “but when one has
lived as long as I have done, it is a serious matter to die. Every year
on earth one puts out new roots.”

In short, Lindsay’s example invites readers, writers, and gamemasters to become more daring, more iconoclast, and this is where A Voyage to Arcturus really stands out. There has always been a small, appreciative audience for the truly weird, whether Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Barker’s Tekumel (Empire of the Petal Throne), or Jorune. Some may applaud and others cringe at his bizarre nomenclature, but even here he is utterly distinctive — in addition to those characters already mentioned in passing above might be added Panawe, Oceaxe, Crimtyphon, Catice, Dreamsinter, Polecrab the fisherman (one of the few genuinely likeable characters in the whole book), Gleameil, Earthrid, Haunte, Corpang, and so on; not to mention places (Poolingdred, the Lusion Plain, the Ifdawn mountains, Sant, the Wombflash Forest, Swaylone’s Island, Matterplay, Threal, Barey, and of course Muspel), and things (the two suns, Branchspell and Alppain; Teargild, the single moon; the Sinking Sea; Irontick; Blodsombre, the midday heat; and so on). The literary critic Harold Bloom, a great admirer of Lindsay’s, produced an overtly Gnostic fantasy novel called The Flight to Lucifer (1979) that recreates the events of A Voyage to Arcturus as Bloom understands them on a one-to-one basis, but a truer tribute would have been to create something wholly new with its own apocalyptic plot, personalized nomenclature, and unblinking commitment to its own vision, whatever it might be — and the same uncompromising willingness to accept the marketplace obscurity that is likely to result.

A Voyage to Arcturus and Your Game

Lindsay’s entire thrust is to reject the generic in favor of your own unique personal vision. As such, his book is packed full of ideas that can be adapted into an ongoing fantasy, science fiction, or horror game. They have the added feature that relatively few have read Lindsay’s book and thus the average gamer will have no clue what some new thing inspired by Lindsay’s work might be when he or she encounters it; it’s far enough outside the normal gaming experience to be virtually impossible to second-guess. Be warned, however, that Lindsay is best administered in small doses, lest it completely weird out your gamers.


[1] Lindsay (1878-1945) was already in his forties when A Voyage to Arcturus, his first book, was published, having quit his job at Lloyd’s of London to devote himself full time to authorship. The book’s failure, and the similar failure of his later books (the best two of which remained unpublished at his death and for thirty years thereafter from his inability to find any publisher willing to issue them), embittered his life — according to one legend, he died from blood poisoning from a rotten tooth, having become so pessimistic and fatalistic that he refused to see a dentist. Of his seven books, The Haunted Woman (1921) centers around a strange room in an old house that only sometimes exists; Devil’s Tor (1932) relates the consequences of re-uniting two parts of an ancient amulet; The Violet Apple (1976) tells what happens when a modern-day man and woman eat the fruit grown from seeds said to be from one of the trees in the Garden of Eden; The Witch (1976) is difficult to describe, since the only edition available omits the ending that explains the whole, but definitely worth reading.

[2] The tradition of inserting fantasy worlds into science fiction settings is still alive and well today, with Darkover and Pern being only two of many examples. Although notable exceptions exist, most science fiction stories do not bother themselves about the “science” and its plausibility or otherwise. This has, in fact, been a feature of science fiction since its inception: Verne complained bitterly at being grouped with Wells, since Verne considered his own pseudo-science superior to Wells airy inventions (Wells never bothers to explain how Cavorite repeals gravity or just how the Time Machine works). Unfortunately for purists, those very works which are least faithful to science — e.g. Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who — also tend to be the most popular of all science fiction.

[3] The names Surtur and Muspel both come from Norse myth (as readers of the old Deities & Demigods will be well aware). According to the Eddas, Surtur is the king of the fire-giants, who live in the land of Muspel, the first world ever created. During Ragnarok, Surtur leads the fire-giants against the gods; after the Midgard Serpent, the Fenris Wolf, Loki, Thor, Odin, and Tyr are all dead and after Surtur himself has killed Frey, Surtur will burn up the entire world. This ancient prophecy makes Surtur an apt harbinger of destruction for Lindsay, one who will sweep away the false worlds created by Crystalman the demiurge and leave only the first world, Muspel, behind.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

John Rateliff discusses Fritz Leiber’s fantasy-classic Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories:

“I have a treasure… [a] diamond as big as a man’s skull. Twelve rubies each as
big as the skull of a cat. Seventeen emeralds… [a]nd certain rods of crystal and
bars of orichalcum… Let fools seek it. They shall win it not. For although
my treasure house be empty as air… yet I have set a guardian
there. Let the wise read this riddle and forebear.”

— “The Jewels in the Forest”

Sword and sorcery may not be the most critically acclaimed mode within the fantasy genre, but it’s one of the most enduring and has proven perennially popular. The first sword and sorcery story was probably Dunsany’s novella “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1907), which brought together all the basic elements: an evil wizard, a brave young hero, a magic sword, and a host of obstacles preventing the hero from getting at the wizard with the sword. Sword and sorcery was a mainstay of the fantasy pulp magazines, best exemplified in the work of Robert E. Howard, whose Conan series (1932-36) pretty much set the standard for decades to follow. Howard may have been a hack, but he was an honest hack, able to vividly convey his own wild-eyed enthusiasm for violence as a solution to virtually any problem. Conan himself is a paean to the virtues of the Noble Savage who grows in character throughout the series, culminating in the novel Hour of the Dragon (also known as Conan the Conqueror) where a middle-aged Conan has acquired a sense of responsibility and fights to defend the subjects of his usurped kingdom.

Howard had many imitators, most of whom aped his style and lacked both his imagination and his sincerity, like modern-day musicians engineering pops and crackles into their songs to make them sound more like bygone artists they admire. One follower who avoided this trap was Michael Moorcock, who in the early 1960s attempted to re-invent the genre by inverting its conventions with Stormbringer (1963), the first (and best) of the Elric of Melniboné series. Instead of an uncivilized barbarian, Moorcock gives us an overcivilized decadent; instead of rising from adventurer to king, Elric declines from emperor to peopleless wanderer; instead of the straightforward Conan’s loyalty and occasional gallantry, the subtle Elric betrays and brings about the death of every friend, subject, relative, or subordinate who puts their trust in him. In fact, Elric is just the sort of treacherous wizard whom Conan specializes in lopping the heads off of. Unfortunately, instead of stopping after the impressive feat of writing the epic tale of Elric’s death, Moorcock proceeded to churn out a flood of prequels, all essentially retellings of the same story, diluting the impact of the original with every regurgitation.

“I have heard tell that death sometimes calls to a man in a voice only he can hear.
Then he must rise and leave his friends and go to whatever place death shall
bid him, and there meet his doom… He might look at two such as you
and say the Bleak Shore. Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore.
And when he said it three times you would have to go…. “

— “The Bleak Shore”

Long before Moorcock, however, another author had found a way to combine Howard’s gusto with a more literate sensibility: Fritz Leiber. Even before Howard’s death, Leiber and his friend Harry Fischer had in 1934 created the characters of Fafhrd, a clever barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, a consummate thief — both expert swordsmen, both adventurers extraordinaire, and both relying in more or less equal parts on their skill at swordplay, their brains, and their luck, but above all, on their partner. The two young authors even in 1936 submitted a story apiece (Leiber’s “Adept’s Gambit” and Fischer’s “Quarmall”) to H. P. Lovecraft, famous as an encourager of young artists, who thought Fischer had more imagination but judged Leiber the better writer. Fischer soon abandoned writing to become a salesman of corrugated cardboard boxes (any job being precious in the Depression),[1] but despite rejection notices from Weird Tales Leiber pressed on, honing his style and developing a whole world (Newhon, an anagram from “No when”) as a backdrop for the pair’s adventures. With the advent of John W. Campbell’s Unknown,[2] Leiber finally found the perfect venue for his tales: an audience that craved adventure but demanded witty dialogue and plot twists, above all insisting that the stories obey their own internal logic. The five stories that appeared there are still among the best in the entire series (and, by extension, the entire sword and sorcery genre): “Two Sought Adventure” (later renamed “The Jewels in the Forest”), “The Bleak Shores”, “The Howling Tower”, “The Sunken Land” (which contains the inspiration for D&D‘s cloakers), and “Thieves’ House” (from whence all subsequent Thieves Guilds derive).

“That was unwise, as I have many times warned you. Advertise often enough
your connection with the Elder Gods and you may be sure that some
greedy searcher from the pit… ”
“But what is our connection with the Elder Gods?” asked the Mouser,
eagerly, though not hopefully. . .
“Those are matters best not spoken of,” Ningauble ordained. “. . . However,
I can tell you this much: the one who has placed the ignoble spell upon
you is, insofar as he partakes of humanity, a man. . . and an adept.”
The Mouser started. Fafhrd groaned, “Again?”

— “Adept’s Gambit”

In its early days, the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series had ties to the Cthulhu mythos — Leiber’s first book, Night’s Black Agents (1947), was actually published by Arkham House, the small press publisher created to put the ephemeral tales that made up the Lovecraft Tradition in more permanent form (e.g., hardcovers). Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, Fafhrd’s sorcerous patron, is probably a minor Elder God (among his titles is “Gossiper of the Gods”), and Fafhrd himself hails from the Cold Wastes (Kadath?). Over time, however, Leiber developed his own mythology; the Mouser’s patron, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, is like nothing in Lovecraft, owing more perhaps to tales of Baba Yaga, but with Leiber’s own distinctive twists:

“Close by the southern side of the road a rather large, rounded hut stood
on five narrow posts… [L]ightning glared, revealing with great clarity
a hooded figure crouched inside the low doorway. Each fold
and twist of the figure’s draperies stood out… precisely.
… If the hood had been empty, the draperies at its back
would have been shown clearly. But no, there was only
that oval of ebon darkness, which even the levinbolt
could not illumine.”

— “The Circle Curse”

Leiber’s major contribution to sword and sorcery, however, may well be Lankhmar itself: the great city that is the adoptive home of his two heroes and to which they return time and time again. Lankhmar is the direct ancestor of all the great crowded, sprawling, wicked cities that have formed backdrops in fantasy ever since, from the City State of the Invincible Overlord and Waterdeep to Thieves’ World‘s Sanctuary and Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork (in fact, the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd guest-star in the very first Discworld story, “The Colour of Magic”, under the pseudonyms of The Weasel and Bravd). It is fitting, therefore, that the only novel in the series, The Swords of Lankhmar, is set almost entirely within and beneath the city, from the palace of its decadent (and crazed) Overlord to the rat-tunnels underneath the city (home to the wererats, a new type of lycanthrope Leiber created that has proved extremely popular) to the temple of the Gods of Lankhmar themselves (sinister evil skeletons who emerge only on rare occasions to destroy some threat to the city or some rival faith that has dared to challenge their supremacy).

“Too much good luck was always dangerous.”

— “The Sunken Land”

Between their greed for treasure, their lust for adventure, their weakness for a pretty face, and the troublesome quests their sorcerous patrons send them on, neither the Mouser nor Fafhrd ever lack for things to do. Through one novel, four novellas (“Adept’s Gambit”, “The Lords of Quarmall”, “Stardock”, and “Rime Island”), and some thirty short stories,[3] his heroes win and lose treasures, girls, and occasionally their dignity (“Lean Times in Lankhmar”, “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar”), but their friendship always carries through. Eventually they even meet the right girls, acquire henchmen, and settle down, embracing middle age and responsibility with the enthusiasm they once devoted to battling monsters and foiling the plots of evil wizards; Leiber’s work is unusual in that his characters are well-rounded enough to change over time, the more than fifty years he spent writing the series being matched by several decades passing within the internal chronology of the stories.

By the time he had finished it, Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series had transcended its pulp roots to become the epitome of “sword and sorcery” — a genre he not only defined but which Leiber is actually credited with naming. By the simple expedient of shifting from a single hero to a duo of equal partners, he opened up a world of possibilities: with two main characters, he had vastly expanded opportunities for dialogue (something at which Leiber, with his background in theatre, excelled) — something of a problem with the strong, silent, brutish types of Howard’s direct imitators. He can also play with perspective: some tales are told primarily from Fafhrd’s point of view (“The Sunken Land”), others from the Mouser’s (“The Howling Tower”), while most switch back and forth between the two, often with interesting and sometimes humorous effect (e.g., “Bazaar of the Bizarre”). Leiber’s attractive mix of humor, horror, and action have kept his stories from aging as badly as most pulp tales have done: even the pair’s many girlfriends (different in every story, until about the middle of the sixth book) tend to be extremely capable, less damsels in distress than interesting companions encountered along the way. And, finally, to the appeal of his intelligent and essentially good-hearted if larcenous heroes must be added the range of great supporting characters (particularly Sheelba and Ningauble), the many surprises his imagination provides as foils for the heroes (a living building, a malign cloud that possesses the susceptible, body-swapping master sorcerers, sword-armed monsters that hatch out of giant eggs, and Death himself), and of course the sheer quality of the writing: no one has ever done sword and sorcery better.[4]

Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and Your Game

Leiber was a major influence on the creation of D&D (he even contributed some pieces to The Dragon), and it’s no surprise to find many elements of the series found their way into the game. The D&D magic system may derive from Vance, the player character races and whole concept of an adventuring party (characters with vastly different skills working together as a team) from Tolkien, but what heroes actually DO in a typical D&D game is pure Leiber: fighting, sneaking, purloining, exploring, and trying to get out alive when a plan goes bad. In fact, the closest thing Leiber has to an heir for his literary legacy are the D&D novel lines, who have thoroughly assimilated his influence and carry on the sword and sorcery tradition more closely than anyone else writing today.

Not surprisingly, given the close relationship between TSR and Leiber, a great many game products have been published based directly on his work: the Lankhmar boardgame (1976; a simplified version of the wargame created in 1937 by Leiber and Fischer), Dragonsword of Lankhmar (1986, a one-on-one pick-a-path book in which one player plays Fafhrd and the Mouser and the other the two poor sods from the Thieves’ Guild who are going up against them), the “Newhon” entry in the original Deities & Demigods (1980, offering game stats for Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, Sheelba, Ningauble, and various gods and monsters). Lankhmar was even an official AD&D setting; the line (1985-86, 1990-96) went through three editions and eleven modules (adventures or sourcebooks, the best of which was probably Slade Henson’s Slayers of Lankhmar) but failed to really find an audience, probably because it tried to twist the setting to work with standard AD&D character classes rather than reinventing a variant of AD&D that would work well with very small groups (a DM and one or two player characters), which would have been truer to Leiber’s world.

That missed opportunity aside, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series is chock-full of great ideas for player characters and DMs alike. Many a PC has been based on a child of one or the other of the two heroes, the result of one of their many casual encounters throughout the series (Leiber himself introduced just such a character in the seventh and final book). Sheelba and Ningauble are ideal motivators for adventures, and settings such as Stardock, Quarmall, The Castle Called Mist (from “Adept’s Gambit”), Thieves’ House, and the Treasure House of Urgaan (“The Jewels in the Forest”) would make fine dungeons. Leiber’s work is also rich with villains, from the Old Man Without a Beard to the Seven Black Priests, from Atya priestess of Tyaa to Hisvet the seductive wererat. In short, anyone who can read a volume of F&GM stories without coming up with a dozen ideas to work into their existing game simply isn’t trying.

[1] Fischer returned to authorship late in life, contributing a short piece on the Mouser’s childhood and another story about a modern-day family of sorcerers to early issues of The Dragon.

[2] Unknown (1939-1943) ceased publication after only four years due to paper shortages during World War II, but its influence on mid-century American fantasy can hardly be overstated. The quality of its contents were such that it has been estimated that over half the stories appearing in this magazine were later reprinted in short story collections and anthologies — a record no other pulp magazine ever came close to matching. Among the authors who appeared here were Heinlein, de Camp, Sturgeon, Kuttner, Pratt, Arthur, Hubbard, del Rey, van Vogt, Bester, Bloch, Boucher, Wellman, Williamson, Wollheim, and many, many others; both Bradbury and Asimov had stories accepted that would have appeared had the periodical run a few more issues.

[3] The first F&GM collection, Two Sought Adventure (1957), collected eight of the best tales. In 1970 Donald Wollheim of Ace Books, who was also responsible for the first paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, persuaded Leiber to assemble a five-book collection of all the pair’s adventures, put in chronological order from their adolescence to their peak: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death (a reissue of Two Sought Adventure with a few new stories added), Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, and The Swords of Lankhmar. To this was added a sixth volume (Swords and Ice Magic, 1977), carrying the heroes into middle age, and finally a seventh (The Knight and Knave of Swords, 1988), which shows them coping with the approach of old age.

The seven books have since been repackaged in a three-volume (trade paperback) and four-volume (mass-market paperback) set from White Wolf, the titles in the latter being Ill Met in Lankhmar, Lean Times in Lankhmar, Return to Lankhmar, and Farewell to Lankhmar, with introductions by the likes of Neil Gaiman (“one of my very favourite books”), Moorcock, and Raymond Feist. Most recently the entire series has been made available in a two-volume omnibus, part of the Fantasy Masterworks series.

Those interested in sampling the series would be well advised to skip over the stories in Swords and Deviltry (late additions to bring the two characters together and provide them with “origin stories”) as well as the frame story for Swords Against Death and plunge right into the heart of the series with “The Jewels in the Forest” and the stories that follow in the second volume (Swords Against Death). Other outstanding stories include “The Cloud of Hate” (Swords in the Mist), “The Frost Monstreme”/”Rime Isle” (Swords and Ice Magic), and most of The Swords of Lankhmar. Like the first volume, the final (The Knight and Knave of Swords) is best avoided by all but completists.

[4] Leiber’s work is not limited to sword and sorcery, of course; he also wrote a number of important horror stories (“Smoke Ghost”, Conjure Wife) and at least one major science fiction series, the Change War stories — one of the most interesting takes on time-travel, and the probable inspiration for the old Pacesetter roleplaying game, TimeMaster. He also wrote one of the single finest Lovecraft pastiches, “To Arkham and the Stars.”

Collected Ghost Stories

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

John Rateliff describes M. R. James’s “fantasy” classics, his Collected Ghost Stories:

“The reading of many ghost stories has shown me that the greatest successes
have been scored by the authors who can make us envisage a definite time
and place, and give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but who,
when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark…”

— M. R. James

The lines between modern fantasy and its two literary cousins, the genres of science fiction and horror, have always been blurred. If science fiction is essentially concerned with presenting possibilities (however improbable) and fantasy with the impossible, it must nonetheless be admitted that many works considered science fiction by their authors (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series) are read by their fans as fantasy, pure and simple. Similarly, fantasy and horror can both be divided into two main types, with considerable overlap between the two genres. In the case of fantasy, the division lies between Wordsworthian Fantasy, in which fantastic elements intrude into our own mundane world, and Coleridgean Fantasy, which are works set in some imaginary world like Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Eddison’s Zimiamvia or Dunsany’s Pegana. With horror, the break comes between stories where it is revealed that monsters walk among us (say, a certain Transylvanian Count) or where the threats break into our world from beyond (like a Great Old One or its mindless maleficent minions), and those where the “monsters,” while grotesque, are all too human, like Hannibal Lector or Norman Bates or Jack the Ripper. Naturally, between Wordsworthian fantasy and Lovecraftian horror there is a good deal of common ground, and often only tone and emphasis determine whether a work is fantasy (like Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks) or horror (like King’s Salem’s Lot).

“… the merits… of a perfectly ordinary setting, a horrid catastrophe,
and a curiosity legitimately excited, and not satisfied, in the mind
of the reader.”

The quintessential case of some monster entering into our world with dire consequences is the ghost story. And when it comes to ghost stories, no one does them better than Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), who is universally hailed as The Master.

Unlike more prolific writers, James’s output was relatively small, primarily because he wrote only one story a year. [1] He would mull over various plots and ideas, eventually select the best one, and then write it up, reading the results aloud to friends on Christmas Eve. [2] When he had enough to make up a volume, he would publish a collection: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904, eight stories), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911, seven stories), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919, five stories), and finally A Warning to the Curious (1925, six stories), the whole collected along with four other tales and an essay (“Ghost Stories I Have Tried to Write”) into Collected Ghost Stories (1931). His work has never gone out of print in all the years since — a “classic” status very few books achieve. [3]

“[H]ow does he contrive to inspire horror? It is partly, I think, owing
to the very skillful use of crescendo, so to speak. The gradual removal
of one safeguard after another, the victim’s dim forebodings of what
is to happen gradually growing clearer…

– M. R. James on fellow writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu

James’s style and technique was diametrically opposed to the gore-besplattered serial killer/slasher direction taken by late twentieth century horror. Instead of the gross-out, he advocated reticence, preferring to let the reader work out for himself or herself exactly what happened. In some calm, everyday setting — a university library, a seaside hotel, the garden of a country house, an old church — his protagonist unwittingly comes into contact with the supernatural, often by unknowingly violating some prohibition or removing some barrier. This might take the form of clearing away an unsightly post in your rose garden that had kept a ghost pinned quiescent beneath it (“The Rose Garden”), damaging an old tomb while renovating a church (“An Episode in Cathedral History”), or deciding to reopen the old maze on the grounds of your new house, allowing something no longer human to slip out (“Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance”).

Unlike the ghosts of folklore, James’s ghosts are always malevolent, hungry, and vengeful things that are no longer human and that often take bestial or monstrous forms. To draw their attention is nothing short of disastrous, as the vacationing professor finds when he unwisely blows the curious whistle he finds in the ruins of an old medieval church by the sea in “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. A similar lesson is learned, too late, by the gentleman who stands next to a tomb and whimsically expresses out loud a wish to meet its occupant (“Count Magnus”); we are told that seven members of the coroner’s jury fainted upon seeing the ultimate result. Only rarely are the warning signs obvious, except in retrospect, when, of course, it is far too late. Instead, we get little disquieting hints that all is not right, slowly building to a climax which, if he is lucky enough to survive at all, leaves the protagonist badly shaken and firmly determined never to meddle in such matters again.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of a James ghost story is its deliberately limited range. The horrors in a typical Lovecraft story threaten the entire world, if not reality itself, with tiresome regularity. By contrast, the ghost in an M. R. James story seeks the destruction of the single victim that has exposed himself to its power. By keeping the focus on the personal rather than the cosmic, James brings home the horror in a way that a grander but more diffuse focus could not — in his own words, the reader should think “If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!” (Preface to More Ghost Stories). He furthers this goal by describing events with nightmarish clarity; at least one of his tales was based on an actual nightmare, and they have certainly inspired many a nightmare among his readers. Consider, for example, such instances as reaching under your pillow at night and touching “a mouth, with teeth… not the mouth of a human being” (“Casting the Runes”), or seeing a hole in a piece of paper which grows larger and larger and out of which comes “a burnt human face… with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple there clambered forth… a form, waving black arms prepared to clasp the head that was bending over them” (“Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance”), or “see[ing] a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed” (“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”).

To achieve the same goal of reader identification with the characters, James held that ghost stories should be set within the lifetime of their audience, although he often violated this rule in his own work — thus “The Mezzotint,” “A Warning to the Curious,” “The Uncommon Prayer-Book,” “Casting the Runes,” and others are set in or near the present-day (in other words, the 1890s through the 1920s), while “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” takes place as far back as 1837, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” about 1810-1817, “Lost Hearts” in 1811, “An Evening’s Entertainment” sometime back in the early 18th century, and the bulk of “Martin’s Close” in the 1680s. This variety is actually one of James’s great strengths as an author: Since the events that lead to a haunting often took place long ago, he masterfully creates old documents telling of long-past events and inserts them in his stories, reconstructs dialogue to fit various eras, and generally brings to life a wide array of folk of grand or humble estate, each of whom has something to contribute to the evidence of what happened and why.

For James often does not give us the whole story — only such fragments as his narrator is able to piece together. In “Martin’s Close,” for instance, the local who knew all about the haunting has died before the narrator ever appears on the scene, and the latter must reconstruct the long-past events from old court records and the like. Judicious research and the lucky discovery of pertinent documents can cast some light, but some questions are always left unanswered — what exactly was the “Black Pilgrimage” that Count Magnus is said to have undertaken? And what manner of creature exactly was the familiar he brought back with him, described only as “a strange form… for the most part muffled in a hooded garment that swept the ground. The only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm… [but a] tentacle”? What was the “secret” the creator of the maze boasted of in “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance” or the goal of the secret worship undertaken by the two cultists in “An Evening’s Entertainment”? These answers died with the characters, but the gaps in the readers’ knowledge actually adds to the verisimilitude of the stories — after all, in the real world we always have to make do with partial information yet can form conclusions from what we do know; James’s technique makes his stories more believable (and hence more disturbing) than the neater, more pat efforts of lesser imitators.

In the end, of course, there is no substitute for simply reading the stories, savoring the prose, and risking a few nightmares. Those who merely want a taste should start with three of his very best: “Casting the Runes” (tracing the course of a very unpleasant curse on a hapless victim) “The Tractate Middoth” (a masterpiece about a ghost-haunted book), and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Those with a little more time should add “The Mezzotint” (a sinister little picture whose scene keeps changing), “Count Magnus,” “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (about the fate that befalls a pious murderer) “Martin’s Close,” “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance,” “A Neighbour’s Landmark” (“That which walks in Betton Wood/Knows [not] why it walks or why it cries”), “A View from a Hill” (e.g., a gallows hill, and the danger in looking through a dead man’s eyes), “A Warning to the Curious” (“Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don’t, just as he pleases, I think: he’s there, but he has some power over your eyes”), and “Rats” (“Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on their shoulders?… Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor…”), rounded out with the plots described in “Stories I Have Tried to Write” (“There is a touch on the shoulder that comes when you are walking quickly homewards in the dark hours, full of anticipation of the warm room and bright fire, and when you pull up, startled, what face or no-face do you see?”). Those who like what they read should devour all thirty stories; even James’ lesser tales have vivid images, interesting concepts, and striking lines compared with run-of-the-mill authors.

Readers who like James may also want to check out the work of John Bellairs, who was heavily influenced by James and uses many of his motifs to good effect, creating the same nightmarish feel in The Face in the Frost (1969) and his later young adult horror books; his series has since been carried on by Brian Strickland in such works as The Doom of the Haunted Opera. “Casting the Runes,” arguably James’s best story, has also inspired some film adaptations: the old black and white movie Curse of the Demon (which makes the mistake of actually showing the monster at the end), a scene in Cast a Deadly Spell, and the more recent Japanese film The Ring. His influence is heavy on both the ghost story and horror gaming such as Call of Cthulhu. His stories have transcended their own time and become classics of the genre, much imitated but never equaled.

“Do I believe in ghosts?…
I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.”

— M. R. James

M. R. James and Your Game

Essentially, any M. R. James story is a top-notch ready-made Call of Cthulhu scenario focusing on conventional horrors rather than the Mythos (thereby confounding those who see a Great Old One behind every mystery). His bestial ghosts (who only rarely maintain their human form and cunning) and demonic familiars could complicate the life of any horror RPG character and quite possibly bring it to an abrupt end. The method of cursing a character described in “Casting the Runes” presents an interesting dilemma of passing along the curse before the time limit runs out. James himself would make an interesting NPC in a Gaslight (1890s) or 1920s Call of Cthulhu campaign set in England — after all, he has access to every library in the United Kingdom and presents himself over and over in his stories as the sort of person to whom others confide their odd or occult experiences. The writings left behind by such Jamesian villains as Mr. Abney (“Lost Hearts”) and Karswell (“Casting the Runes”) could easily be transformed into minor Mythos tomes. But above all, James’s technique of gradually building suspense as the barriers separating the ghost from the protagonist’s world fall one by one serves as a model for any Keeper or DM on how to well and truly creep out your players.

[1] James’s literary output was small because he devoted most of his time to other pursuits; a librarian and museum director at Cambridge and later a senior official at Eton, he was famous for organizing and cataloguing collections of manuscripts throughout England and for his interest in Biblical apocrypha. Among his publications are a catalogue of Dr. John Dee’s library and an edition and translation of noncanonical books of the Bible. His scholarly activities exercised a strong influence on his ghost stories, and the tradition of an erudite scholar discovering horrors while conducting his research in Call of Cthulhu derives directly from his work (as well as the importance of researching a haunting before trying to confront it).

[2] The English have a tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmastime, not Halloween (which is more of an American holiday). This may derive ultimately from the old belief that ghosts did not appear at Christmas, perhaps making it safer to discuss them on that day. At least one modern writer followed James’ example, the Canadian Robertson Davies, whose High Spirits (1982) collects his own once-a-year ghost stories, which are all of a humorous bent.

[3] For true James enthusiasts, the definitive collection is A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings (Ash Tree Press, 2001), which includes all his published stories plus uncompleted fragments of stories, a few uncollected tales, some medieval ghost stories James found in a 14th century manuscript, essays (mostly on the work of Sheridan Le Fanu, James’ favorite ghost story writer), his only novel (a short children’s fantasy called The Five Jars, 1922), a critique of Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, and various other odds and ends. For more on James, see Ghosts & Scholars, a literary journal devoted to his work that recently transformed itself into a website.