Thursday, April 12, 2007

At the sign of the Unicorn's Head...

These days, if you fancy reading a fantasy novel, you'll be pretty well-served by the big bookshops. Walk into most branches of the national chains and you'll find whole walls of genre fantasy - trilogies by the yard - and every word of Tolkien endlessly re-presented in new editions. (Must get that leather-tooled box set of 'Unstarted Tales'.)

But it wasn't always like this. Back in the mid-Seventies, finding fantasy was like prospecting for gold before the goldrush - long weary quests for occasional reward (like many of the books that were to come.) Your WHSmiths would have Tolkien himself, but if I'm honest he got pretty uninteresting outside of LOTR itself (specially in the oddly-sized editions of the time, which looked like worthy works for precocious children, printed on cardboard.) There was science fantasy - loads of Michael Moorcock, reprints of ER Burroughs and his imitators. Conan and lesser barbarians (Brak! Thongor! Kothar! Kandar! Kyrik! etc.) flexed their sword-and-sorcery muscles somewhere between SF and adventure. But fantasy of the kind we are now overserved with (I suppose I mean novels of adventure in imagined worlds where magic works) needed seeking out.

And seek we did (me and my pals) - no bookshop, indeed any physical structure which might conceivably sell books, was safe from our search for any volume with a hint of a magic sword or a map printed in the endpapers. (As you can imagine this made us the most popular kids in school - proudly unearthing a copy of George Meredith's 'The Shaving of Shagpat' was a shortcut to guaranteed acceptance and popularity.)

And now and again, if we quested diligently and our hearts were pure, the magic portals would open and we would find - the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. This was a series of 65 paperbacks issued between 1969 and 1974. Given the dearth of new fantasy the series mostly published literary works that were the precursors of Tolkienian fantasy (which is a lousy term but the alternatives are all pretty crummy - 'adult fantasy' sounds sleazy, 'high' or 'literary' fantasy sounds snobbish.) With a unicorn-head logo and some great trippy covers, the series brought us Lord Dunsany, William Morris, Hannes Bok, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson and many more. I devoured these at the time, lost them all somewhere along the line and am now trying to get them again. Apart from reclaiming lost youth and the sheer thrill of the chase, I particularly enjoy the introductions by series editor Lin Carter - whose enthusiasm makes them the literary equivalent of a double espresso with a shot of mead on the side.



Looking at the row of spines that line my stairs, it strikes me that the Ballantine authors were the real thing - few of them were writing into any kind of genre. And they're a crew of characters - landed gentry, clergymen, scholars, dissolute visionaries, retired adventurers, Board of Trade officials, social activists - with Lin Carter ushering them into the 1970s like a hyperactive Prologue. By comparison today's trilogy-jockeys seem like a pallid breed.

3 comments:

Rob Spence said...

I remember buying ER Eddison's trilogy - don't think I got past book 1 though. No staying power...

Mister Roy said...

Me too - I really like the 'Overture', an earthbound preamble to the whole thing, which I have read several times. As a teenager I expected adulthood to be like this - grand drama, characters effortless quoting classical poetry and enigmatic dark women silently entering rooms. (Perhaps if I worked in the English department?...)
But the prose of the main story defeats me, and I have never mastered the metaphysics of the tale (what can 'Wastdale distilled in Zimiamvia' mean?) Time for another go perhaps.

Rob Spence said...

"grand drama, characters effortless quoting classical poetry and enigmatic dark women silently entering rooms. (Perhaps if I worked in the English department?...)"
Of course - that's daily life here...
"what can 'Wastdale distilled in Zimiamvia' mean?"
Powerful stuff - one glass of that and you're on the floor...