Epic Fantasy: the Start of the Journey

Link - article by Avi Abrams

Grey Starshine: Part 2 of our "Best Classic Fantasy" series

And again we embark on our search for the most inspiring, and maybe frustratingly hard-to-find early high fantasy and weird fantasy masterpieces. Read the Part 1 here, and take care not to fall off the mortal coil of this world looking for all things Elvish and beautiful, or - on the contrary - unmentionably weird and darkly Lovecraftian.

(illustration credit: Life magazine, 1951)


"The Return of the King and the Downfall of the Lord of the Rings"
(also known as "The Red Book of Westmarch")

...even better known as "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings":

The early drafts and poems for that book appeared in 1915, providing the first glimpses into Tolkien's magical country of the Shire. Some epic poems and individual chapters of the "Silmarillion" took shape even earlier, so we can safely say that Tolkien was already "hooked" on Middle-Earth and adventures wherein way back in the 1910s, even though "The Hobbit" was not written down until 1935. (What's even more intriguing, Tolkien wanted to create a full-scale mythology for England itself - he felt that the English language lacked a really exciting set of myths, compared to other languages - a magical environment for other writers to explore and play in... Which is exactly what happened, if we look at the amount of epic fantasy stories set in Middle-earth during the last few decades).

J. R. R. Tolkien
"The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again" (nv)
(Lord Of The Rings; Middle-Earth)
© 1937, Allen & Unwin
poems also in - Oxford Poetry, 1915
Leeds University Verse, 1924
book: Allen & Unwin, 1937
--all time fantasy novel : 1987 Locus All-Time Poll /2
--fantasy novel (before 1990) : 1998 Locus All-Time Poll /2

--/ third place fantasy novel

Much has been written about The Hobbit, from the influence of World War 1 on Tolkien's creation and development of Middle Earth, to literary and stylistic reviews. What is there left for one to say about this, the most charming of Tolkien's works and probably the entire genre? Though it was written for children, it appeals to the "Tookishness" in everyone: that deep down desire for more than just a comfortable hobbit hole - for adventure, and legends of long ago to wake up and invade breakfast. Who wouldn't want to be whisked away without even a handkerchief on some wild adventure?

The storyline is not without its faults and a tendency towards "Deus Ex Machina" solutions, but they are carried off with such unapologetic aplomb that one cannot help enjoying every image and word. Tolkien's treatment of human emotion and motivation - filtered through his hobbit and dwarves - is without fault and honest: courage, greed, pride, resourcefulness, wit, humor, despair, love, loyalty and duty are all met and measured. Bilbo, who is so comfortable in his hobbit life that his neighbors don't even have to ask him what his opinions are, finds himself the odd one out among a pack of dwarves and with the awful label of burglar. He "lives up" to this challenge in ways which show his true character and surprises everyone. This book is truly one to curl up with on a February evening when it seems life has dulled into a cramped, damp hobbit-hole... it's always helpful to remember, you could be stuffed in a barrel and dumped in a river.
(review by Rachel Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend)

(Not exactly the Shire from "The Hobbit", but this 1873 painting by Caille Pissaro nevertheless has that sparkling and innocent feel...)


When the Middle-earth Trilogy and "Silmarillion" are just not enough...

J. R. R. Tolkien
"The Book of Lost Tales. Parts I & II" (coll)
(Middle-Earth History 2 & 3)
© poems written in 1914-1918
book: Allen & Unwin, 1983-1984
--fantasy : 1985 Mythopoeic award
--/ third place fantasy collection

It was surprising to learn that a significant part of the Middle-Earth history, and a general feel and atmosphere of the Tolkien's world (including most poignant of his poems) - all were completed between 1914 to 1920, at the time when Tolkien was in love and when he experienced the terrors of war - but then, this is not really surprising, is it? I think that it is only proper - considering the intensity of feeling, freshness of emotion, vast scale of vistas and romanticism of the highest order that went into that "world-that-never-was-and always-is", the Middle-Earth.

The true scale of Tolkien's mythology and its poetic qualities can only be appreciated outside the confines of a single trilogy (and definitely outside of Peter Jackson's movies, which seem to emphasize dark aspects of Middle-earth rather than its beautiful High Elves side). So, go ahead and get hooked on exploring in depth the epic history and the mysterious knowledge in the "Silmarillion" and the "Books of Lost Tales"; after all, this is how Middle-earth was originally intended to be experienced - better than in 3-D.

The "Return of the King and the Downfall of the Lord of the Rings" trilogy (that being the original and proper title of "The Lord of the Rings") should be regarded as only the front-piece, the gate, the first step into... as big a world as human imagination can contain, or put on paper. In Tolkien's life, love became a catalyst to imagining and realizing monumental works, and love can only grow with time.

(photos of J. R. R. Tolkien in 1911 and his beloved wife Edith)


"Treasure Island...or Planet... or Universe" - take your pick!

Robert Louis Stevenson
"Treasure Island" (nv)

© 1883
Current Publ., 1906

I include this book here as the example of an enchanting adventure in exotic setting, which may just as well have been set in outer space - as was recently proved by a marvelous Disney movie "Treasure Planet" (I quite like the poster for this movie, too, see below). The story itself is timeless, its plot endlessly fascinating. A Treasure Hunt against all odds, quickly moving through multitude of exotic environments, and facing many (mostly pirate) monsters. By the way, the "weird fantasy" sub-genre has always been fond of a pirate lifestyle and often made a good use of it (take, for example, the "Pirates of Caribbean" movies, which at times can even have the same effect as reading a good old issue of "Weird Tales", almost matching the visual intensity and inventiveness of the 1930s pulps).

The 1906 year saw the first "pulp-style" edition of the "Treasure island" (in a popular "yellow-back" series format), quickly achieving legendary status and starting a flow of reprints... the flow that will only cease when Davy Jones himself would mutter "enough already" out of the murky depths.


H. P. Lovecraft
"The Strange High House In The Mist"

© written in 1926
Weird Tales, Oct 1931

Dagon & Others, 1965
--/ fourth place fantasy story

This is the mother of all "haunted house on a seashore" tales. Just try this short quote for size:

"And when tales fly thick in the grottoes of tritons, and conches in seaweed cities blow wild tunes learned from the Elder Ones, then great eager vapours flock to heaven laden with lore; and Kingsport, nestling uneasy on its lesser cliffs below that awesome hanging sentinel of rock, sees oceanward only a mystic whiteness, as if the cliff's rim were the rim of all earth, and the solemn bells of the buoys tolled free in the aether of faery".

As you can see, the wonder and mystery in this story are not confined to a singular "strange house" alone. In a most insidious way Lovecraftian tales will stay with you for hours, infusing your reality with a faery glow, and (in an even bigger measure) enhancing the shadows, till they grow to be sentient and grimly intent, bound to coalesce around you, if you do not swiftly flee into reality.


(right image: painting by Nicholas Roerich, 1946)

Kenneth Morris
(as by Wentworth Tompkins)
"The Rose And The Cup"

© The Theosophical Path, Apr 1916
The Phoenix Tree, ed. R. Boyer, 1974
The Secret Mountain and Other Tales, 1926

The Rose and The Cup of the title is a theosophical symbol, interchangeable with the Ace of Hearts, the openness to all emotion. The story illustrates this principle, using a few sublime fantasy elements. Kenneth Morris was a theosophist himself, seeking (and finding) secret symbols all over our reality. In some ways, such mining of esoteric knowledge is not unlike fantasy, when you are really following the constructs of your mind, satisfied with mind games, exploring various possibilities, seeking for the truth, but wandering among twisted (and endlessly fascinating) mirrors. For many members of the society the "uncovering of similarities" was a reward enough, and some of them came to the knowledge of God in due time. As for this story, it's average in my opinion, although Le Guin calls Morris "one of the master prose stylists of fantasy in the twentieth century."


Elia W. Peattie
"The Crime Of Micah Rood"
© 1902, original
also in - Dangerous Vegetables, ed. K. Laumer, 1998

Who could've known that an exciting fantasy, detailing strange growths in and around abandoned gardens, was published as early as 1902 - with great narrative tension, the overall feel of "Weird Tales" magazine and even some of the "look" of modern-day computer special effects, but here it is. Surprise! I wonder how many other top-notch and imaginative stories are languishing in antique magazine piles, passed over by critics and collectors as a simple "mass-market" entertainment.


1920s-1930s "Weird Tales" pulp issues are out-ot-this-world, and similarly hard to find in any form

Frank Belknap Long - a member of the Lovecraftian school of the weird and macabre tales, Frank Belknap Long was a highly visual and entertaining writer, though the quality of his output declined with the end of the Pulp Era. During the Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1930s-1950s), however, his stories were highly entertaining and thrilling pieces.

Frank Belknap Long
"The Horror from the Hills"

© Weird Tales, Jan-Feb 1931
Odd Science Fiction, Belmont 1964
Night Fear, 1979
--/ third place sf novella

When I started to read "The Horror from the Hills" I was expecting a great deal of vintage Lovecraft-ian atmosphere and wide-eyed sense of wonder (it was published first in "Weird Tales" in 1931), and the story lived up to all these expectations, and more. Technically, it is science fiction as well as fantasy, as it rationalizes its thrills as travel between multiple dimensions by means of some intimidating machine. "Unspeakable" and "unmentionable" beings (all decked out in a true H. P. Lovecraft's descriptive style) abound in this novella, flaunting their blob-like, octopus-like and living hills-like manifestations - all wrapped up in a greatly entertaining mix.

A blob-buster indeed, from the golden period of "Weird Tales": ancient mysteries, horror in a museum, mad scientist with his multi-dimensional machine, spectral "Others" haunting past and present, hills come alive... A classic.


(left: "Spring Sleep" by sis; right images: "Monastery Graveyard In The Snow" and "Watzmann" by Caspar David Friedrich, via)

Henry Kuttner
"Wet Magic"

© Unknown Worlds, Feb 1943
--/ third place fantasy novella

This novella proves once more that Henry Kuttner could write top-notch fantasy better than most acclaimed writers in the past, present and foreseeable future. Most of you know about his magnum fantasy opus "The Dark World", but here the narrative tone is lighter, humor is ever-present, and the suitably convoluted, inventive plot is crowned with an epic ending - which may arguably show this whimsical, playful piece to be the best Arthurian fantasy ever written.

I could add here "dear reader, read it and judge for yourself" - but unless someone puts this novella online, there is little chance you'll get your hands on it. Other than its original publication in a rare pulp, it's only been reprinted once, in an obscure anthology (so perhaps it's all a conspiracy to hide the embarrassing fact of how well a "high fantasy" adventure can be written? - so that massive brain-dead volumes of modern "epic" fantasy could continue to flood bookstores, to be bought by readers who simply don't know any better)

Truly, misadventures of a WWII pilot who stumbles into a Magical Kingdom (hidden inside a humble English country lake), then proceeds to mess up with Morgan Le Fay and gets his hands on the Excalibur, are amusing enough - but as the ending approaches, a reader would want this hilarious romp to continue and not turn the last page; as is often the case with Henry Kuttner's all-too-short short fiction.

(left: art by Annie Stagg; right: art by Dale Terbush)


The True Meaning of High Fantasy: A Yearning for the Undying Lands

J. R. R. Tolkien
"Bilbo's Last Song (At the Grey Havens)"

© 1946, original book: Allen & Unwin, 1974

A poem written by Bilbo Baggins just before he boards a ship from Middle-earth to the Undying Lands at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Very stirring, in the elegaic mood, full of riveting imagery. Something that will make you cry and your heart sing. The poetry itself perhaps is not as important as the thoughts conveyed here - everyone can listen to the music of these thoughts. A perfect piece for a genius composer.

Article by Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.



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Anonymous Lenox said...

That's it? Read 'The Worm Ouroboros' by Eric Rücker Eddison, 'A Voyage to Arcturus' by David Lindsay and above all, the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake.


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