Monday, October 6, 2008

Dragons, Elves and Heroes

edited by Lin Carter

Lin Carter, alongside British novelist Michael Moorcock, stands as one of the truly great editors of science fiction. He’s one of the handful of editors who aggressively and articulately established an environment for progressive and eccentric fantastic literature. If Moorcock can be said to have ushered in contemporary science fiction as we know it, nurturing both modernist experimentation and subterranean transgression within the field, then Carter represents a Janus-like turning point. He is a bridge between the earlier generation of eccentric fantasists, such as George MacDonald, and a younger crop of writers working within a codified genre. Through his generous excavation of fantastic literature’s past, Carter helped nudge science fiction towards a wider milieu – into the critical acceptance it enjoys today.

Carter wrote and published prolifically within the field, usually in stylistic pastiches of the fantasists he most admired. But it is in his capacity as editor that he is best remembered. He launched the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line in 1969 – a true watershed for the genre. Carter exploited the stupendous popularity of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” to spearhead a landmark series of reissues. The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series tackled a dazzling array of esoteric and bizarre novels, many of them contemporary to Tolkien’s, but for the most part neglected. The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, under Carter’s editorship, reissued seminal works by William Morris, James Branch Cabell, David Lindsay, and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as countless other writers of peculiar and visionary skill. Though these editions are long out of print, the series was terminated in 1974, diligent readers should be able to find them in the fantasy and science fiction section of their used bookstore.

Some of the titles have since been reissued, such as Lindsay’s “A Voyage to Arcturus,” but their gorgeous covers alone make these editions worth hunting down. The covers mix psychedelia and more traditional design to craft memorable visions of imaginative fantasy. The cover to “Dragons, Elves and Heroes,” an anthology of traditional ballads and epic tales, is not as spectacular as some of the others, but it still manages to captivate. Notice the gruesome detail in the lower right-hand corner.

But what about the book inside?

“Dragons, Elves and Heroes” was released simultaneously with another anthology edited by Lin Carter, “The Young Magicians.” The two anthologies taken together illuminate Carter’s vision of fantastic literature. “The Young Magicians” comprises the work of the field’s modern originators- Jack Vance, Lord Dunsany, et al., while “Dragons, Elves and Heroes” investigates fantasy’s classical roots. Carter argues, convincingly, for the preeminence of socialist and political activist William Morris. As he says in his introduction, “The dividing line [between traditional fantasy and modern fantasy and science fiction] is the floruit of William Morris. Morris (1834-96) was the first modern writer… to devote himself to tales of war, quest and adventure laid in purely imaginary worlds where magic works.” The authors and anonymously composed ballads of “Dragons, Elves and Heroes” therefore map the prehistory of the genre before Morris contemporized the fantastic.

The collection, intriguing though its premise may be, is unfortunately uneven in execution. Selections such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Puck’s Song,” and excerpts from James McPherson’s “The Poems of Ossian” strike me as more concerned with constructing a national identity through verse than a pursuit of visionary imagination– something more akin to the “word-horde” of the Anglo Saxons as an affirmation of a political place. They don’t really fit within his vision of the genre, and neither do selections from Shakespeare and some others. Carter misrepresents the material and skews its context. He does make some excellent points as he insists “It is the idea of giants we are after: the essence of the thing - the very giantness of them.” That statement is fantastic. The reader could almost stretch Carter’s concern with the imaginative power of the idea in and of itself to a comparison with the Objectivists, or perhaps Ezra Pound. But not quite.

You see, Carter is in his finest capacity as a big-hearted cheerleader of the genre's potential. It’s when he begins to voice his aesthetic grievances that he falters. He comes off as ignorant, where elsewhere he proves that that is obviously not the case. Unfortunately, Carter stoops to reactionary anti-intellectualism, admitting a willful and proud ignorance of the world, that “…Blunderbore (in Jack the Giant-Killer) interests me more than Benito Mussolini…” Carter’s above-voiced concern for intrinsic “idea” over rote fact speaks to me; he makes a strong case for fantasy’s assured, mature voice and relevance. But then Carter shirks from the thorny potential of fantasy and retreats into the whimsical escapism characterizing the worst of, say, fantasist Lord Dunsany’s oeuvre. Fantastic literature can be provocative and progressive. It can be incendiary. Look at Samuel Delany.

“Dragons, Elves and Heroes” is definitely problematic, but there are wonderful treasures here, and this book is all the more enjoyable because of the obscurity of many of Carter’s selections. He’s obviously done his research. For instance, I was completely ignorant of “The Kalevala,” a Finnish warrior-epic in which Wainamoinen, our hero, plunges into the mouth of the giant Wainola to learn the lost words of power. He needs these words of power to complete a heroic task necessary to wed the maiden he loves. These purloined incantations will allow him to have “…built a boat with magic only,/ And with magic launched his vessel,/ Using not the hand to touch it,/ Using not the foot to move it,/ Using not the knee to turn it,/ Using nothing to propel it.” What a strange and wonderful epic.

Other selections, such as excerpts from “The Shah Namah of Firdausi” and “The Kiev Cycle” are also a bizarre and delectable treat for readers of both fantasy and esoterica. The primordial strangeness of Carter’s selection from “The Kiev Cycle” just floored me. Our hero Ilya, a former paraplegic imbued with unearthly strength, travels the Russian landscape with his companion, Svyatogar, the last of the race of Giants. As the two of them “…journeyed among the Holy Mountains, they found a great coffin in the way, and upon the coffin was this writing: ‘This coffin shall fit him who is destined to lie in it.’” And of course, Svyatogar lays in the coffin, thereby sealing his fate. This writing taps into the same vein of pure, visionary imagination of early Surrealist texts. I have unfortunately been unable to find much information about this bizarre epic poem online.

Also, many of the selections are marred by poor translation. Norma Lorre Goodrich’s prose version of “Beowulf” displays none of the verve and mystery I encountered last month in Michael Alexander’s “The Earliest English Poems.” Carter defends such leaden translations, writing that “I have chosen her translations over all the rest, because, despite certain infelicities of phrasing and word-choice, the Goodrich version tells the story of the poem with a vigor and pace and color and excitement that I have not seen equaled elsewhere.” I would argue that an acute attention to the veracity of the word itself, an attunement to the song and breath of the incremental unit would carry this vigor, this pacing, this color and excitement that Carter seeks. Unfortunately a good many of the translations in the book are just as flat, if not more so.

The obscurity and eccentricity of the text has its rewards, and there is strong material here, I simply found it diluted alongside so much clumsy prose. The selections from James McPherson’s forged Gaelic ‘masterpiece,’ “The Poems of Ossian” are certainly interesting, but they are also poor poetry. MacPherson countered claims that the poem cycle was a fake (which they are) by asking what modern man could write such poetry. The ever-irascible Samuel Johnson’s rejoinder was “Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children." Harsh in an inimitably Samuel Johnson fashion, but also honest.

Elsewhere we see a selection from S. Baring-Gould’s “The Grettir Saga.” The tale is memorable for its sepulchral eeriness. The rousing narrative follows the hero Grettir as he descends into a haunted tomb to retrieve its treasure. But the story is routinely interrupted by Gould, who “…incorporates his footnotes into the text…and interrupts his tale to interject a note of personal experiences….” This all sounds fascinating. That is, until one discovers how dry and didactic these interpolations really are, and how they often condescend, offering information that insults the reader instead of educating.

Due to the inconsistencies in the selections and Carter’s questionable anti-intellectualism, I can’t recommend this anthology to the casual reader. “Dragons, Elves and Heroes” is a valuable resource for those interested in obscure and eccentric fantastic literature of the past, despite such mandatory caveats. Carter’s antiquarian zeal is infectious, and his introductions to each selection contextualize the piece and (for the most part) convincingly place them within his well-conceived schemata of fantastic literature.

A strange book and definitely one of the more eccentric volumes yet discussed on this blog, despite its rather generic title. The subterranean history of weird fiction unfortunately remains a neglected. Anyone interested in such highly visible figures as Robert Howard or H.P Lovecraft would do well to venture further into this visionary, sometimes problematic, occasionally clumsy, though often startling brilliant alcove of eccentric fiction. Investigate the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, but skip over “Dragons, Elves and Heroes” unless traditional literature of the fantastic is an express interest of yours.

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