Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #22: De Camp, Pratt, and the Enchanter

I've already looked briefly at L. Sprague de Camp's work, but it's appropriate to cover his collaborations with Fletcher Pratt separately. It was one of those too-rare partnerships in which both authors' strengths combined to produce something different from the sum of their parts. They coauthored a few minor light fantasies -- and they coauthored the 'Enchanter' novellas (****) in the early forties and fifties.

These stories pioneered the magic-as-a-science subgenre. Harold Shea, a psychologist, is the Enchanter. He and his boss work out symbolic-logic representations for the 'laws' of magic -- and find that immersing yourself in such a representation causes you to be shifted to an alternate universe in which those laws actually hold. (And since they *do* hold, anyone who knows those laws can perform magic in those universes. Not necessarily very well...)

A second premise is that our great myths and legends may correspond to universes in which they are realities. Each novella, then, has Shea (and later others) land (in trouble) in a new universe whose laws have to be figured out before they prove fatal. The first novella, "The Roaring Trumpet", has Harold Shea transport himself, completely by accident, to a universe of Norse myth. On the eve of Ragnarok, which is rotten timing. His magical triumphs in this setting are achieved more by accident than by design, but he does in the end prove more helpful to the Gods than to their enemies. It's well written, enjoyable, and maintains a good balance between scholarly accuracy and irreverent slapstick.

In the second novella, "The Mathematics of Magic", he and Chalmers (his boss) attempt a better-planned expedition to the world of Faerie, that is, the universe in which Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queen" is factual history. (Reading "The Faerie Queen" takes a degree of determination. Spenser had a genius for the right word and the telling phrase, but that never scaled up into a talent for telling a story.) Spenser's knights are forever battling evil enchanters (for reasons which make good allegorical sense and virtually no plot sense), and Shea and Chalmers find themselves infiltrating the guild of the evil enchanters in order to bring the story to a better close than Spenser's.

In "The Castle of Iron", they find themselves in the universe of "Orlando Furioso". (Ludovico Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso" was the inspiration for "The Faerie Queen". Ariosto's epic, however, is far more readable, and I recommend it highly.) Things are hard all over: Shea and Chalmers both found lady loves in Faerie, but Chalmers's inamorata is made out of snow -- not a recipe for longevity -- and Shea's has fallen under the spell of this new universe and forgotten him. As for the colleague who joins them in this story...let's just say that some universes should be avoided by people with Transylvanian ancestors.

In "The Wall of Serpents", Shea and his wife seek out the land of the Kalevala, to find some sorcerous help in retrieving a policeman they mislaid in "The Castle of Iron". They go looking for Vainamoinen -- the competent and trustworthy sorcerer. What they find is Lemminkainen, who is less competent and not at all trustworthy. Still, they find themselves committed to accompanying him to Pohjola. (Some novels based on the Kalevala portray Pohjola as a sort of netherworld -- Petaja's, for instance -- but the introduction to the translation I read suggests that Pohjola is better translated as "big farm". Pratt and de Camp fall somewhere between these extremes. Pohjola is *not* a nice place to visit.)

They leave the land of the Kalevala (with the policeman) in more of a hurry than they'd planned, and instead of returning home, they find themselves, in "The Green Magician", in the land of Irish myth, helping Cuchulainn. (For some reason or other, I didn't enjoy this story as much as the others. Maybe Celtic mythoi have to work harder to achieve their effect, because they're so overused?)

Since their magazine appearances, the novellas have been collected a number of times. The first two were published as "The IncompleteEnchanter", "The Castle of Iron" was published as a short stand-alone novel, and the last two were published as "Wall of Serpents". In 1975, the first *three* novellas were collected under the title "The Compleat Enchanter", and "Wall of Serpents" was reissued shortly after. Recently, all five were collected in the paperback omnibus "The Complete Compleat Enchanter".

It's worth seeking out. Besides serving as the inspiration for so much modern fiction (much of it bad), it still stands up as an enjoyable piece of storytelling. (The stories have also provided many readers with their first introductions to the classics which inspired them.)

For completists, there is the recent "The Enchanter Reborn" (**), a sharecropped collection of new Enchanter stories edited by de Camp and Christopher Stasheff. The stories aren't bad, for the most part, but they're missing something. (At a guess, I'd say they're missing Pratt.)

L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt collaborated on a number of other light fantasies, none of which were in the same class as the Enchanter tales. "The Carnelian Cube" (**) is about an artifact that can take you to the world of your dreams, and about a man who uses it to seek out a logical world in which to live. (Logic, however, will only take you so far: Lewis Carroll was a logician.) "Land of Unreason" (**) is about a modern who finds himself in a world of myth -- one in which he turns out to have an unexpected importance. And "Tales From Gavagan's Bar" (**) is a collection of tall tales.

%A De Camp, L. Sprague and Pratt, Fletcher
%T The Roaring Trumpet
%T The Mathematics of Magic
%T The Castle of Iron
%T The Wall of Serpents
%T The Green Magician

%O The first two of these were collected as "The Incomplete Enchanter",
%O the first three as "The Compleat Enchanter", the fourth and fifth
%O as "Wall of Serpents", and all five as "The Complete Compleat Enchanter".


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Dani Zweig