None of these are most people’s idea of fantasy nowadays, but they all contain elements of fantasy – and some are particularly weird. Our point, if we have one, is these five books are important pieces of writing in one way or another. We read all these when we were pups, and know that they still lurk there at the back of our collective mind.
And if you have already read them all lots of times, then what do you want? A medal? Honestly, clever people, coming into our house, eating our chicken carcasses – go back to your Ligotti and stop leaving mud on our carpets. See if we care.
Print-wise, we notice that three of these were published in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter, and one had been published by Ballantine before Carter took the reins of the endeavour. Our own copies of the Bramah, the O’Brien and the Chesterton are random early editions, but we do have the Ariosto and Lindsay in the Ballantine versions, with very nice covers.
Their presence here, though, is based on their influential nature and the fact that we love them, each for a different reason. We’ll do this thing in chronological order, for no especial reason…
Orlando Furioso (1532)
Written by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533)
OK, we’ll be honest. This one is an epic poem, one of the longest in European literature, but it’s also a series of wild adventures with hippogriffs and intertwining themes of love, war and sacrifice.
The whole thing is a chivalric romance, being based on the story of Roland (Orlando), the hero from the times of Charlemagne when war between Christian and Saracen warriors surged across Europe. That’s Roland as in “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came”, the 1855 poem by Robert Browning, an influence on so many books (including Stephen King’sDark Tower series) that we can’t list them here. And as in the poem The Song of Roland, based on the Battle of Ronceveaux in 778. Now that we write this, we realise that the whole Roland thing deserves a post of its own, really.
Trivia: For pure fantasy buffs, the paladin characters beloved of Role-playing Games and medieval fantasy novels come from the twelve mostly fictitious companions of Roland.
We fell in love with the idea of the female knight Bradamante, possibly because we’d never come across the idea of a female knight before, and her Saracen lover Ruggiero, with the sorcerer Atlantes and many more. Mentioning Atlantes, who had a castle of iron in the Pyrenees, you might know that The Castle of Iron by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, the third story in their Harold Shea series, takes place in the same setting as Orlando Furioso.
The character of Bradamante has been used many times since, and she was even in the film Heart and Armour 1983, portrayed by Barbara di Rossi. Unfortunately the film is variable in its quality, and the plot wanders all over the place.
Orlando Furioso is sometimes cited as a major precursor of later fantasy writing. The on-line Encyclopedia of Fantasy considers it what they call a Taproot Text for Adventure Fantasy, where the protagonists wander strange lands generally trying to thrive or survive.
Italo Calvino was a great fan, and took elements of it for his book The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a Tarot-linked book which is well worth reading in its own right (although we suspect that it has something to do with semiotics, which hurts our brain). Jorges Luis Borges was also an enthusiast.
Orlando Furioso Librivox Public Domain Audio Book – https://librivox.org/orlando-furioso-by-ludovico-ariosto/
Orlando Furioso Project Gutenberg Text – English Translation – http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/615/pg615-images.html
The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Written by G K Chesterton (1874-1936)
Utterly free of hippogriffs, this marvellous book is difficult to describe without wrecking it for new readers. The adventures of Gabriel Syme take place in an imagined Edwardian London, a period which is much beloved here. Consider police detectives seeking out anarchist plots, undercover officers who aren’t what they seem, anarchists who aren’t anarchists and blend them together in a highly original novel of deception and delusion. We can give away the fact that Syme joins a council of anarchists (or are they?) who are each named after a day of the week, hence the title.
Over (or under) everything lies the question of what we believe and what role we really play in existence – it is part a detective farce and part a philosophical examination of identity. Rebels who are conformists rebel against conformist ideas of rebellion, and true anarchists get rather lost trying to question it all. Or something like that. Chesterton said of his work:
“The book… was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was… It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion”
Orson Welles called it “shamelessly beautiful prose” and made a radio dramatization of it with his Mercury Radio Theater of the Air. You might also have a look at Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), which is a future alternate-reality novel set in 1984 (yes, it may have been the inspiration for Orwell’s date as well).
The Man Who Was Thursday – Text – Public Domain – Project Gutenberg – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1695/1695-h/1695-h.htm
The Man Who Was Thursday – Audio Book – Public Domain – Librivox – https://librivox.org/the-man-who-was-thursday-a-nightmare-by-gk-chesterton/
A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
Written by David Lindsay (1876–1945)
We read this when rather young, and got completely lost in its allegorical passages. If we say that it’s the story of a man who goes to a seance and later gets transported to wander around another planet, then we’re probably not helping. It is just that, but in the process it explores the nature of communication, the role of God and what humans do to each other. It’s Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress on acid, a science fantasy adventure with weird new organs growing on people, and lots more.
It’s a fascinating book, though you need a philosophical bent to pick up everything at which Lindsay was driving. Maskull, the protagonist, travels to Tormance, an imaginary planet orbiting Arcturus’ imaginary binary system. There he meets characters from the various lands of Tormance, often with dire results. Adventure Fantasy again, in some degree.
It’s almost worth reading for the names themselves – Maskull, Joiwind, Crimtyphon, Haunte, Oceaxe and so on – and includes the character Nightspore. Eagle-eared listeners will note that last week we talked about The King of Nightspore’s Crown, a new novel by Raphael Ordonez (seenightspore’s crown). As Raphael mentioned being a great enthusiast of the Ballantine series, we suspect a touch of homage there. Lindsay had in fact originally intended his book to be called Nightspore in Tormance.
Sadly for Lindsay, it didn’t sell well. It does still stand out as a unique vision, and it had considerable influence on C S Lewis’s ‘Space Trilogy’ – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Lewis said:
“The real father of my planet books is David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which you also will revel in if you don’t know it. I had grown up on Wells’s stories of that kind: it was Lindsay who first gave me the idea that the ‘scientifiction’ appeal could be combined with the ‘supernatural’ appeal.”
Alan Moore said of A Voyage to Arcturus:
“A Voyage to Arcturus demands that David Lindsay be considered not as a mere fascinating one-off, as a brilliant maverick, but as one worthy and deserving of that shamanistic mantle; of the British visionary and apocalyptic legacy.”
Because we like oddities, you might be interested that in the seventies, an Ohio student called William J. Holloway made an independent 35mm feature film of the book. Distributed by Brandon Films on 16mm as part of their underground film series, the film is now available again to watch. It’s odd, and quite seventies – possibly best watched if you’ve already read the book.
A Voyage to Arcturus – Audio Book – Public Domain – Librivox – https://librivox.org/a-voyage-to-arcturus-by-david-lindsay/
A Voyage to Arcturus – Text – Public Domain – Project Gutenberg – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1329/1329-h/1329-h.htm
Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928)
Written by Ernest Bramah (1868–1942)
The concept of the Chinese sage wasn’t exactly new when Ernest Bramah (Ernest Brammah Smith) decided to write a series of books containing wise sayings and fantastical tales, all set within a pseudo-China of many years ago. Kai Lung himself is a wandering storyteller, who ends up in both mundane and perilous situations as he travels the land. When facing local conundrums or serious danger, he relies on his wits and collection of stories to survive.
The sage unrolls his mat, preferably under a mulberry tree, and recounts fantastical tales, many of which draw on real or embroidered Chinese mythology – bushes which spring from eyelids; a boy whose soul enters the body of a mighty warrior; a suitor who pares off part of the moon to win his love.
There are half a dozen collections featuring Kai Lung. Kai Lung’s Golden Hours, for example, uses the Arabian Nights trope of telling so many stories that you avoid your own execution.
Such was Bramah’s influence on people’s views of Chinese history that sayings such as “May you live in interesting times” may, rather than being traditional, have been invented by Bramah himself. His romantic view of China might be called a pastiche, in that it is accurate in many ways and yet an exaggerated, English version at the same time.
Critic and writer David Langford puts it perfectly when he says:
“The peculiarly addictive quality of this chinoiserie lies not so much in plot as in the unwaveringly artificial prose style. Formal politeness and elaborate diction are maintained in the most extreme circumstances, to hilarious effect. Bramah had impressive resources of vocabulary, circumlocution and euphemism, and could always find another and more ludicrous way of putting a commonplace sentiment: parodists have pulled their own heads off rather than sustain his remorseless flow for more than a few paragraphs.”
Million Magazine (1991)
You can find the whole excellent Bramah piece by David Langford on-line here:
One of the writers influenced by Bramah was Barry Hughart, whose three-book series The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox follows in much the same witty vein – but in a slightly less outrageous way in terms of style.
Bramah was a creative dude, as we don’t say in Yorkshire, and will also be known to some listeners as the creator of Max Carrados, the blind detective. He also wrote supernatural stories, but we haven’t read them so we’ll keep our mouths shut.
The Third Policeman (1967)
Written by Flann O’Brien (1911–1966)
Two notes on the above – the first is that Flann O’Brien was one of the pseudonyms of Irish writer Brian O’Nolan; the other is that although The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, it was written in 1939-40.
This is possibly our favourite of the five books, and the most difficult to describe not just because of plot spoilers, but because of the sheer inventiveness and language of the work. The story is narrated by a man who is never named, one who follows the work of the weird scientist and inventor de Selby, an eminent “physicist, ballistician, philosopher and psychologist”.
De Selby may be a philosophical genius or an esoteric idiot – one of de Selby’s biographers is quoted as saying “The beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest.”
What else can we say? A number of the characters are dead, or probably dead, and it it is a fantastical tale in an Ireland rooted in the real, the pagan and the mythic land, which may also be some sort of allegory. It has policemen who are obsessed with bicycles, and questions as to what is and is not fiction. Marvellously, it includes a kind of physical and spiritual osmosis, where constant contact means the policemen may be becoming more bicyclish, and the bicycles more policemanish. As with A Voyage to Arcturus, you had to be there.
De Selby, by the way, also turns up in The Dalkey Archive, with more ideas which are quite mad. Or are they?