Imaginary Worlds: a secondary-world history (#SFWApro)

IMAGINARY WORLDS: The Art of Fantasy by Lin Carter (wonderful cover by Gervasio Gallardo, all rights remain with current holder), a history of secondary world fantasy for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, didn’t blow me away as much as when I read it as a teen. But I expected that.

Back then, the literary world Carter mapped was terra incognita to me. All these amazing authors — James Branch Cabell, Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt, E. R. Eddison — that I’d read maybe one or two books by, and now I saw how much more stuff was out there. Ohhhh, I wanted it. I wanted it all. Now, of course, I’ve read most of them, liked many of them (as I’ve mentioned before, Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros is much overrated). The thrill of seeing what lay ahead is gone.

That aside, this is a decent but flawed history of the topic. Carter argues that secondary-world fantasy (Middle Earth, Narnia, Hyborian Age) is the core of fantasy fiction so it deserves a spotlight. While dubiously asserting that pretty much any ancient book with magic in it should count as fantasy (if people believed in them, they ain’t fantasy; I’m quite sure Milton thought Paradise Lost was dramatizing real events), he does a good job following the idea of “create your own world and make it magical” concept from William Morris through George McDonald, Dunsany, Merritt, Cabell and then into the pulps and after. And he lists the different ways of creating a separate world: another planet, another dimension, ancient history, distant future or just say “here it is” without explanation.

And I find a lot of his analysis — why it’s okay sword-and-sorcery has a limited range of styles and where Tolkien went wrong — pretty persuasive. However I could do without the endless carping about how fantasy is really, really cool even though people laugh at it, though that was pretty common in writing about the genre at the time (back in the pre-Game of Thrones, pre-LOTR films, we fans could get a little defensive). And some of Carter’s analysis is daft, such as describing Raymond Chandler as a guy with no prose style (it makes me suspect Carter has never read Chandler).

Curiously Carter doesn’t seem to believe fantasy set in what appears to be the real world is even remotely possible, which given the breadth of his own reading surprises me. True, he was writing well before the birth of urban fantasy, but by 1973 when he wrote this there’d certainly been fantasies that qualified (T.H. White, whom Carter greatly admires, did at least two, most notably the charming Mistress Masham’s Repose).  For that matter, A. Merritt’s fantasies are all contemporary, set in some isolated land tucked away from the rest of the world (he was writing early enough in the century that unknown lands were still a possibility).

The two big flaws are that Carter forgets his own ground rules, and that he talks too much about himself. Given his ground rules about what counts as a secondary world, he shouldn’t be including Islandia which is contemporary and has no magic. As he rules out fantasies set in other people’s worlds, Evangeline Walton’s books in the world of Celtic myth shouldn’t be there either.

The second flaw is much more frustrating. As with his Year’s Best Fantasy series, Carter has no compunction about turning the spotlight on himself. Which is fair enough at times — I’m not a fan of his Thongor books, but at the time it was one of the more successful Conan knockoffs — but I think readers would be better served by more detail on, say, Andre Norton’s Witch World series than discussing the Carter/DeCamp continuation of Howard’s Conan books.

Overall, I think reading the introduction to the various books in the Adult Fantasy series would be more productive than reading Imaginary Worlds. But I do think Carter’s thoughts about writing fantasy are worth discussing in a later post. So I will.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Imaginary Worlds: a secondary-world history (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Worlds and Names: second Imaginary Worlds post (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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