It’s been a while since my last post, and no, I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth, run away to join the circus, or been abducted by aliens. Although there have been times I’ve considered that circus thing. Or maybe gypsies.
No, I’m just overloaded this semester (my day job is in academia), which hasn’t left a lot of opportunity to read at a time when I’m not likely to fall asleep after a few pages.
And I wanted to take my time and do this one right. Dragons, Elves, and Heroes is the first of a two volume set in which Carter collects heroic fantasy imaginary world stories, beginning with a selection from Beowulf. This volume ends in the 1800s, although the most recent selection isn’t the last. The companion volume, The Young Magicians, will pick up where this one left off.
Anyway, this book looked like it would take some concentration, so I tried to read it when I would have time to devote to it. But enough about what happens to the well laid plans of mice and men.
I found the selections on the whole to be thoroughly enjoyable, with a few exceptions. I used the word “selections” intentionally, because other than a handful of poems, most of the stories Carter selected were excerpts. The one notable exception was the entire text of The Princess of Babylon by Voltaire was included. I wish Carter had stuck to his practice of using excerpts, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The book opens with a selection from Beowulf (trns. By Norma Lorre Goodrich). I read Beowulf in senior English in high school. That was *cough* years ago, and I remember it fondly. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it, and I’ve bought a multi-translation ebook with the intention of reading and comparing multiple translations. Carter’s selection is from early in the poem, where Beowulf and his companions volunteer to spend the night in Heorot and face the monster Grendel.
Next is “The High History of the Sword Gramm” from the William Morris translation of The Volsunga Saga, one of the great Norse sagas. I have a copy of this and came across it the other night when I was looking for something else. This selection tells the story of Sigurd (AKA Siegfried to modern audiences). Carter makes a point in his introduction to the story to show the influences of this saga on Tolkien. There are battles, the reforging of a broken sword, and the slaying of a dragon.
“Manawyddan Son of the Boundless” is from the Welsh Mabinogion, translated by Kenneth Morris (not William). It’s the story of the quest to find a king’s crown that turns into so much more.
William Morris (not Kenneth) was in large part responsible for popularizing the Norse sagas to the extent that more were translated into English. The Grettir Saga was one of the ones translated as a result of Morris’s work. In “Barrow Wight”, (trns. By S. Baring-Gould) the hero Grettir gets his magic sword by robbing a tomb of an ancient king. This one was one of my favorites.
Next we come to one of the more interesting selections, an excerpt from the poems of Ossian, “Fingold at the Siege of Carric-thura” . Ossian was an ancient Scot (3rd cent.), sort of a Gaelic Homer who composed 22 epic poems. Or so James Macpherson claimed. Macpherson also took credit for discovering the poems and translating them. This was sometime in the mid-to-late 1700s. (Carter doesn’t give an exact date, and I’m too lazy to look it up.)
There was just one problem with all this. Macpherson made every bit of it up. Not that the poems aren’t worth reading; just the opposite. I quite enjoyed the selection Carter chose, in which the hero Fingold is returning home and stops to visit a friend at Carric-thura, only to find the city under siege. Like any good hero, he does something about it. I’ve picked up an electronic copy of the poems of Ossian at Amazon.
Sir Thomas Mallory makes an appearance with “The Sword of Avalon” from Le Morte d’Arthur. I haven’t read Mallory, but I need to. I wasn’t familiar with this story, which concerns a sword that only the pure in heart can draw from a scabbard and the tragedy that comes from it. And no, Arthur isn’t the one who can draw the sword. Again, Amazon provided an inexpensive copy.
Next Carter moves into eastern Europe and The Kiev Cycle, which concerns Prince Vladimir of Kiev. He was the last of the pure Scandinavian prices of the city and a real historical figure. Vladimir is similar to King Arthur in that many of the stories deal with the adventures of his Bogatyrs, who were heroic warriors. “The Last Giant of the Elder Age” (trans. Isabel Florence Hapgood), though, is pure myth. It concerns the death of the last giant of the previous age.
The Kalevala is the national epic poem of Finland. It was compiled in 1849 In “The Lost Words of Power” (trans. John Martin Crawford), the hero Wainamoinen has been given a task to complete by the mother of his beloved, build a ship without using his hands. In order to complete his task he needs three words of power. This is the story of his quest to find them.
“Wonderful Things Beyond Cathay” from The Voyages and Travels of Sir John de Mandeville is an early travelogue consisting of a lot of tall tales. There’s no real story here, just descriptions of exotic places which may or may not be real written by a man who may or may not have existed.
The Gesta Romanorum (The Deeds of the Romans) is a collection of fables and tales that were compiled in the Middle Ages. The book is a collection of stories ranging from Classical times to what was contemporary at the time of compilation. Subject matter includes historical figures as well as kings and empires that never existed. Carter selected a group which he called “Tales of the Wisdom of the Ancients”. They’re shorts and often have a moral point, but I enjoyed them quite a bit.
Next is “The Magical Palace of Darkness” from the Medieval romance Palmerin of England. It was quite popular in its day and is referenced in Don Quixote (yes, that Don Quixote). Palmerin is a wandering English knight.
In the selection Carter included, he attempts to rescue an enchanted Greek princess. This one was a bit of a slog, as it consists of dense prose. Dialogue isn’t offset by new paragraphs or quotation marks. An English teacher would say that to call the sentences run-on would be an understatement. (One sentence opening a section of the story is over 19 lines long.) Still, there’s a cadence to the words that makes the reading enjoyable and not as much of a slog as you might expect from simply glancing at the text on the page.
The Shah Namah (The Book of Kings) is the national epic of Persia. It was commissioned by one king to be the history of Persia from the Creation to his reign. The project wasn’t finished until 300 years later and even then took 35 years to write.
I have no idea how long it is; Carter doesn’t say. He does say that he didn’t care for any of the English translations available at the time, so he translated a portion himself. “Rustum Against the City of Demons” is the story of an aging hero who must rescue the foolish young prince who humiliated him after the princes is kidnapped and taken to a city of demons.
Carter translated the hero’s name as “Rustum”, but all other references I’ve seen have it as “Rustam”. The illustration to the right is the climax of the story and comes from a copy of the Shah Nama. Click image to enlarge.
Other than some poems, which I’ll mention in more detail next, the last selection is by far the longest. I’m not sure why Carter decided to include the entire text of Voltaire’s The Princess of Babylon.
The story opens with the king of Babylon having a contest to see who is worthy to marry his daughter. The kings of Egypt, India, and Scythia compete, but they aren’t able to complete the tasks set before them. A young man of common birth, Amazan by name, appears riding a unicorn and carrying a bird which turns out to be a phoenix. He’s able to complete all the tasks.
Of course he and the princess fall in love. He receives a message his father has died and goes home. All the kings are rejected, which launches three armies marching on Babylon. The princess manages to manipulate the situation in order to be sent on a pilgrimage during which she plans to visit her lover.
Only she’s captured by the king of Egypt. She pretends to love him in order to escape. A crow reports to Amazan that she has been unfaithful, and heartbroken, he set out to wander the world. When the princess reaches Amazan’s house and learns why he’s left, she pursues him.
And this is where the story went off the rails. What follows is the princess pursuing her lover throughout Europe and Asia and always missing him. Voltaire uses this technique to make social commentary on the different societies. The whole thing had a Cabellesque feel to it, in that the chronology and to a lesser extent geography didn’t always have an internal consistency. Before he started the social commentary, the fantasy was quite enjoyable, but that went out the window about a third of the way through.
There’s not a hard and fast line between the poetry and the stories since many of the selections in Dragons, Elves, and Heroes come from an older poetic tradition than most modern readers are familiar with. I went with what a modern reader would call poetry in making the distinction.
Poems included in the book are “Puck’s Song” (Rudyard Kipling), “Tom O’Bedlam’s Song” (Anonymous), “Prospero Evokes the Air Spirits” (William Shakespeare), “Childe Rolalnd to the Dark Tower Came” (Robert Browning), a selection from The Faerie Queen (Edmund Spenser), and “The Horns of Elfland” (Alfred Lord Tennyson). All of the poems fit the theme of the anthology.
Now, for the two of you who are still with me, to sum up. I found Dragons, Elves, and Heroes to be one of the most enjoyable titles in the BAF series that I’ve read so far. With the exception of Voltaire, I liked all of the stories to a greater or lesser degree. I think my favorites were the first few that drew on the Sagas. I’m not sure what that says about me, but those stories resonated with me more than any of the others.
I had expected the contents to be more work than they were. I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable the tales were. Maybe I’m developing (for lack of a better word) an ear for the rhythms of some of the older writers, or maybe it’s because so many of the selections had their roots in poetry, but I would be very open to reading more of this type of fantasy.
As I mentioned early on, Dragons, Elves, and Heroes has a companion volume. The Young Magicians picks up where the previous book leaves off and covers fantasy up to Carter’s time. I’ll not make any promises about how soon I’ll have the next post ready, since I’ve missed every writing goal I’ve set myself for the last three months. But I will get it done.
Join me, won’t you?
Recent posts in this series are:
Lin Carter and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series
Lilith by George MacDonald
The Silver Stallion by James Branch Cabell
The Sorcerer’s Ship by Hannes Bok
Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz
Land of Unreason by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp
The Doom that Came to Sarnath by H. P. Lovecraft
The Spawn of Cthulhu edited by Lin Carter
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
Figures of Earth by James Branch Cabell
Keith West blogs way more than any sane person should. His main blog is Adventures Fantastic, which focuses on fantasy and historic fiction.