Though I'm quite well read these days with respect to pulp fiction of the early 1900s, I'm much less familiar with those genres which followed, namely science fiction and fantasy. Occasionally, however, my literary wanderings cross my path with something of the later genres, and I take a look.
Last month, I read The Well of the Unicorn (1948), by Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956). A colorful image of the 3rd Ballantyne edition is pictured below, though I read a more recent edition:
The novel is definitely a groundbreaking work: Pratt developed an entire fictional fantasy world and history, and it appeared before Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), though not before The Hobbit (1937). But is it as memorable?
The novel takes place in the fictional land of Dalarna, and follows the adventures of a young magician of Dalecarle descent named Airar Alvarson. At the beginning of the novel, Airar is evicted from his family farm by order of Count Vulk, who is systematically driving the Dalecarles from their land and passing it into Vulking hands.
The land of Dalarna is a province of a greater Empire ruled over by Emperor Auraris. Dalarna was originally inhabited by a single people, the Dalecarles, but a heathen invasion divided the people into two distinct groups, one which became known as the Vulkings and one which kept the name Dalecarle. By the beginning of the novel, the Count Vulk has become the administrator of the Dalarna part of the Empire, and he uses his power to ruthlessly oppress the Dalecarles and seize their land. Rebellion is brewing, and the people are on edge.
Airar heads south towards the city of Naaros to find work, but on the way is intercepted and drawn to the abode of the cynical and sinister enchanter, Meliboë:
The tapestry before him parted and a man came in -- medium tall, full-bearded and grey, clad in a robe rather ruffled than neat, stained in front and with a rip in it. Thin white hair made a halo in the rising candlelight and threw shadows up deep eye-arches, but his face bore an expression determinedly friendly.
Meliboë tasks Airar to deliver a message to a group of conspirators in Naaros, and this act draws him into the rebellion, first as a footsoldier, and eventually as a leading force. An early rout on the battlefield sends the rebels into hiding, and much of the story chronicles their flight, attempts to find new allies, and reengagement with the tyrant's army.
To understand the tone of the novel, it is helpful to look at the background of its author, Fletcher Pratt, and make the obvious comparison to Tolkien. Where Tolkien was a linguist and literary academic (a philologist), Pratt was a historian of war and the military. Tolkien's works are filled with detailed and loving descriptions of the culture of Middle Earth, but Pratt's tale describes a continent burdened almost entirely by old hereditary grudges and corrupt leaders. Whereas Tolkien presents a very straightforward tale of good vs. evil, Pratt gives us a very cynical view of a war which has arisen for no good reason other then a conflict of the interests of different groups. The leaders of the rebellion are a rather uninspiring lot: we have the decadent Duke of Salmonessa, the lusty pirate king of Os Erigu, the calculating and mercenary Star Captains, and of course the shifty enchanter Meliboë.
The question, "With friends like these..." immediately comes to mind, and it is clearly intentionally asked by the author. The protagonist Airar is queried quite pointedly a number of times throughout the novel about his motivations: what, exactly, is his stake in this rebellion? He has of course been driven from his family home, but that seems hardly enough motivation to be risking his life for, as he himself seems to realize.
The titular Well of the Unicorn is a shrine at the heart of the Empire which is said to bring peace to conflicted parties if they drink from it. The heroes never travel to the Well during the course of the story, but we hear about it through four tales told during travel. Though the Well may bring peace to those who drink of it, there are plenty who would pass that opportunity by, or even reject the gift once it has been bestowed.
In the end, I'm not sure I would generally recommend Well to readers. The story is well-crafted and thought out, but lacks a certain passion, focus, and characterization that one tends to expect from fantasy tales. I suspect that this may be part of the point of the story, however. Avid fantasy readers won't want to miss this early groundbreaking tale in the history of the genre. (Then again, if you're an avid fantasy reader, you've probably read this book long before me.)
Fletcher Pratt is also known for another innovation: he was the developer in 1943 of an early miniature wargame, in which massive naval battles could be reenacted on a 1 inch to 50 feet scale using toy ships. Known simply as Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game (not a very marketable title), it even has a mention on the BoardGameGeek website. It's oddly appropriate that a fantasy writer was one of the early miniature wargamers; decades later, things would come full circle when miniature wargaming inspired the first fantasy roleplaying game.
One last observation about Well: for some reason, the writing style of this book completely confounded my speed-reading ability! Over and over again, I would find myself several pages along in the book without any idea what happened in the previous pages. I don't have a good explanation for why this is, though the significant amount of back-and-forth dialog throughout the book is a likely culprit.
P.S. In an odd bit of synchronicity, I see that an RPG blogger just recently wrote his own thoughts on the book. You can read them at GROGNARDIA.