The new Ultimate Fantasies sequence (Orion) gave me a good excuse to explore the Golden Age of Fantasy. Some of these titles I had already read – albeit as a boy – and others I had come to by proxy, as in the case of Conan, familiar with the character through comic books and film. There is, of course, the Fantasy Masterworks Series, which includes these eight volumes in the Ultimate Fantasies sequence. Nevertheless, arranged chronologically, the Ultimate Fantasies sequence presents an excellent overview of the genre and a basic map of its evolution. An interesting consequence of this journey was a deeper understanding of influence in fiction. From the outset, I could read between the fairy-dusted pages of Lud-in-the-Mist and see the seeds of other novels, whether these seeds were intentional, actual or not. Bilbo Baggins appears to have had a ruddy-cheeked forebear in Nathaniel Chanticleer, the pot bellied, daydreaming mayor of Lud. The fairy fruit smugglers upset Mayor Chanticleer’s everyday world in an anarchic manner I’d not encountered since An Unexpected Party. And in Lud, it seems, are the ripples that later touched such magical tales as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.
Moving into the 1930’s and beyond, Robert E.Howard’s Conan comes swinging his sword out of Cimmeria and into the pulps, giving birth to a different kind of Fantasy, the savagery of the Hyborian Age. As mentioned, I came to these stories backwards, through a tattered collection of Marvel Comics, L.Sprague de Camp novels, Schwarzenegger’s oafish screen rendition (which, as it happens, bears little in common with the fictional character) until finally coming to drink from the source. One of Lovecraft’s regular pen pals, when Robert E.Howard writes of the Old Gods beyond the stars, whose remnants haunt the primitive lands of Zamora, Koth, and Shem, the influence of Howard the Elder is clear. Lovecraft describes the Conan tales as ‘pure adventure yarns’, and he wasn’t wrong. My imagination roamed free through guileless forests, climbed bejewelled towers to carry out unsophisticated robberies and face magicians in unaffected conflicts. In hindsight, time has lent Conan a darker edge. My eyebrow lifted more than once over the apparent racism
peppered in the narrative. In The Vale of Lost Women (not published in Howard’s lifetime), there is an unashamed reference to ‘black sluts’. At one point, Conan even remarks, 'I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man’. I’m aware that Howard has faced such criticism before, but to my mind these stories remain classic, and as misguided products of their age, perhaps we should not judge them too harshly. Robert E.Howard committed suicide aged 30 and the world and the genre lost a gem.
1954 saw the publication of Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. In retrospect, the tale seems almost wilfully naïve. A sweeping epic that draws heavily from Norse myth in a more direct fashion than Lord of the Rings, Anderson captured the flavour of those myths with energetic narrative and lyrical prose. Faery changeling Skafloc, embroiled in a long war between the elves and trolls, seeks to remake the cursed sword Tyrfing, despite warnings of tragedy to come. In that tragedy, there appears to be a stark prototype of Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer – a blade that must draw blood whenever it is drawn, that screams and sings and will one day turn upon its wielder. Moorcock nods at The Broken Sword as an influence, but Anderson’s novel lacks the cosmic scope and depth of emotion of the Elric tales, and it seems to me that Moorcock merely enhanced the idea. From the vantage point of this progressive age of Steampunk, New Weird and Dark Fantasy, I found it interesting to come across clichés before they had become so, and in light of that, I very much enjoyed The Broken Sword.
The innocence of these early stories starts to give way under the wit of Fritz Leiber. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser first appeared in 1939 and their published adventures span five decades. A favourite of my youth, revisiting Lankhmar, The City of Seven Score Thousand Smokes, was nothing less than a thrill. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were as vivid as I remembered them, their boldness and bravado unchanged. Not to mention their dry humour and sarcasm. Leiber adopted a literary approach in crafting his stories, an approach that seems fresh even by today’s standards. He remains credited with single-handedly creating Sword and Sorcery, the first – but far from the last – offshoot of the modern genre. Fantasy was changing, keeping pace with more cynical times, and the mythically based tales of yore made way for those of a less haughty flavour. In the verbal sparring of the red haired barbarian and scrawny wizard thief, there is still a terrific touch of maturity. When
Moorcock claimed that Leiber is ‘still the greatest writer of us all’, I felt inclined to agree with him.
With Elric, Amber and Lyonesse still to come, the Ultimate Fantasies sequence is a treat, whether read in chronological order or not. I have emerged from these books with a deeper understanding of the genre I love, but have also been tremendously inspired. These stories are the seeds which encouraged me to write, and for that, I will always be grateful.
Vive le Fantasy!