Wednesday, April 29, 2020 — Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn

Affi­ciona­dos of fan­ta­sy fic­tion are usu­al­ly famil­iar with the col­lab­o­ra­tive works of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletch­er Pratt col­lec­tive­ly known as the “Harold Shea sto­ries,” writ­ten in the 1940s. Both these men were hard-nosed ratio­nal­ists who enjoyed writ­ing fan­ta­sy, with de Camp par­tic­u­lar­ly keen on build­ing worlds out of the log­i­cal impli­ca­tions of mag­i­cal premis­es, and equal­ly keen on the humour that ensues from such log­ic. De Camp lived until 2000, dying at the age of 92, writ­ing dur­ing most of that time. He pub­lished a sci­ence book on pri­ma­tol­ogy in 1995 and an auto­bi­og­ra­phy in 1996. He remained well known and well loved in the Sci­ence Fic­tion / Fan­ta­sy com­mu­ni­ty for all that time. Pratt, how­ev­er, was born in 1897 and died in 1956, short­ly after the pub­li­ca­tion of these famous col­lab­o­ra­tions. With­out de Camp, he wrote four sci­ence fic­tion and two fan­ta­sy nov­els, as well as six­teen books on naval his­to­ry and many oth­ers on a broad range of sub­ject. He was also a pio­neer “gamer,” cre­at­ing a com­plex math­e­mat­ics-based strate­gic naval war game in 1933 that is con­sid­ered one of the best ever con­ceived. After the pub­li­ca­tion of the revised ver­sion of the game in 1940, he wrote that “wives and girl­friends of male par­tic­i­pants dropped their roles of observers and soon became fear­some tac­ti­cians.” He was, like de Camp, a man of broad inter­ests. He wrote mys­ter­ies, Civ­il War his­to­ries, culi­nary his­to­ries and cook­books, and a con­sid­er­able amount of well-regard­ed poet­ry. While look­ing for a pho­to to illus­trate this post, I found one of him at his New Jer­sey home gam­bol­ing on its lawn with the poet John Cia­r­di and rock­et sci­en­tist Willy Ley.

Fletch­er Pratt

Of the two fan­ta­sy nov­els, I’ve just read The Well of the Uni­corn, first pub­lished in 1948. Three things are strik­ing about the book.

One is the style, which com­bines the clean and crisp sen­tence struc­ture and imagery you would have found in the era’s Sat­ur­day Night or New York­er with some of the pur­ple con­ven­tions of pulp fan­ta­sy nov­el­ists, and a dash of Lord Dun­sany. He delight­ed in insert­ing antique and ana­gog­ic words into this slick matrix, but unlike most of the pulp writ­ers, he actu­al­ly knew what they meant.

Anoth­er thing that struck me is the social, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and polit­i­cal real­ism. The soci­ety depict­ed is actu­al­ly plau­si­ble, resem­bling very close­ly what you would find read­ing the Twelfth Cen­tu­ry Ges­ta Dano­rum of Saxo Gram­mati­cus. The inter­play of local kings and feuda­to­ries with pirate raiders and inde­pen­dent jarls on the fringes of a world pre­vi­ous­ly dom­i­nat­ed by an urban empire is pret­ty much what you would have found in ear­ly medieval Jut­land. Unlike most fan­ta­sy nov­els, Pratt’s imag­i­nary world is one where peo­ple have to eat and make a liv­ing, and peo­ple get hurt when they fight. The pol­i­tics is real­is­tic. Much of the text is con­cerned with the hero Airar strug­gling with com­pet­ing ide­olo­gies, forced into unpleas­ant com­pro­mis­es, and find­ing no social arrange­ment that doesn’t cre­ate some injus­tice. By the end of the book, he comes across some­thing like Duke Louis II de Bour­bon.*

There is, of course, mag­ic in Pratt’s world, but there is an under­ly­ing mes­sage: mag­ic sucks. It doesn’t work very well, doesn’t pro­duce the desired results, and at its best is rather lame. This is what allows the book to main­tain its real­is­tic feel­ing, and also cures the most irri­tat­ing prob­lem of fan­ta­sy fic­tion. Since at any sec­ond some­one might pull out a spell or sum­mon some pow­er that makes what­ev­er hap­pen that the writer wants to hap­pen, the mag­i­cal ele­ment of fan­ta­sy fic­tion essen­tial­ly inflates the cur­ren­cy. The read­er just trudges through the set-pieces and bat­tles, wait­ing for the mag­ic ring or the cos­mic woo-be-doo to do its stuff. Pratt could see this per­il, and instead used mag­ic more as a source of irri­ta­tion and irony than a dri­ving force in the nar­ra­tive. The only oth­er fan­ta­sy writer that I know of tak­ing this approach is R. A. MacAvoy.

This is an enjoy­able old fan­ta­sy, if you know the con­ven­tions of pre-WWII pulp fic­tion estab­lished by Robert E. Howard, and even more if you’ve read a bit of Dun­sany or A. Mer­ritt. A mod­ern read­er might not quite “get it” or see its charm.

* whose life sto­ry has recent­ly been trans­lat­ed by my friend Steven Muhlburg­er (pri­mar­i­ly) and myself (assist­ing). [Chron­i­cle of the Good Duke by Jean Cabaret d’Orville (fl. 1429), trans­lat­ed by Steven Muhlberg­er and Phil Paine]

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