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A Contagious Love of Fantasy: Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds

Friday, November 8th, 2013 | Posted by James McGlothlin

Lin Carter Imaginary Worlds-smallI recently did a review here at Black Gate of L. Sprague de Camp’s 1976 Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. De Camp’s book is one of the few histories of the genre of fantasy around, and it is a great and enjoyable book. But it’s not the only one, nor probably the most favored. I get the sense from others’ comments that the Best History of Fantasy title probably goes to Lin Carter’s 1973 Imaginary Worlds.

Each of the chapters in de Camp’s book is dedicated to a separate writer. But most of the chapters in Carter’s book are centered around themes; in each chapter he examines fantasy writers that explore that theme well. In addition, Carter’s concluding chapters contain advice to authors on how to write fantasy. I found this latter part less interesting.

One of the plusses I pointed out for de Camp’s history was that you could tell he loved the genre. The same must be said in spades for Lin Carter. Carter wrote the introduction for Literary Swordsmen, and I was very excited to read de Camp’s book just on the strength of Carter’s intro. Imagine how enthusiastic I was to get Carter’s own book on the subject! (I’ve also heard that Carter’s intros to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy are fantastic as well.)

Carter’s love of fantasy is contagious. He writes with a real verve for his favorite fantasy authors, books, and tropes. Carter is unapologetic about his love for fantasy and seems completely unaffected by criticisms of childishness or escapism. Given his thoughtful interactions with the genre, he does not come off as a slavish fanboy. Instead, Carter strikes me as an intelligent and committed fantasist. Quite refreshing! I wish he were still alive.

Often when I read or hear other people talk about their favorite authors or books, I make notes for possible future purchases. If you’re setting out for yourself the task of trying to catch up on the great works of fantasy, the many references that Carter gives can leave you feeling exhausted.

But Carter is also good at pointing out what you probably shouldn’t bother with or if you’re only going to read one book by author X, make sure you read just Y. These suggestions are incredibly helpful and lessen your anxiety if you are indeed trying to catch up on the great works. (Speaking of which, I definitely want to get a copy of The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison. De Camp and Carter both raved about it.)

Though he doesnt go anywhere near as in depth as de Camp concerning fantasy authors, the strength of Carter’s book is that he covers a wider range of authors and makes a good case for their influence on the genre. For instance, one author he addresses is Lloyd Alexander and his Chronicles of Prydain series. I absolutely loved these books as a middle schooler and had completely forgotten about them! Carter reminded me of a couple more lesser-knowns that had slipped my mind. In addition, he also suggested books that were unfamiliar to me and I would guess would be unfamiliar to most who weren’t reading a lot of fantasy in the late 60s or early 70s.

The Worm Ouroboros-smallIf there’s one thing that I didn’t like about Imaginary Worlds, it was that some of Carter’s criticisms seemed overly sharp or idiosyncratic. For instance, he seemed overly harsh with Karl Edward Wagner – who, I take it, hadn’t written very much at the time – for using an anachronistic word. I think Wagner used the word “dollar” in a fantasy setting. Carter’s reaction is that the use of non-fantasy or untraditional trope terms completely takes one out of the setting – it breaks the spell, so to speak.

This brings up a subject that evidently vexed Carter greatly. In his section on writing advice, he spends (it seems to me) an inordinate amount of time talking about not only words that he takes to be fitting for fantasy stories, but he also talks about what counts as good make-up names in fantasy. I’ll quote Carter on his position here:

The kind of names they are, their weight and color and taste and music, are of enormous importance, too. I admit to being a fanatic on this topic; I have always been hypersensitive to the ring and shape and savor of made-up names. Some people have a superlative ear for it . . .  Others are less competent, some lacking the skill altogether . . . (p. 193).

In his defense, he makes a plausible case when he gives some examples of pretty lousy names or descriptors. However, I think he also shows an egocentric bias when he gives some (fairly recent in his time) examples that seem quite fine to me. For instance, he really takes Michael Moorcock to task for coining a city R’lin K’ren A’a. “If names were meant to be eaten, that one would give you indigestion” (p. 200). What’s the big deal here? It works for me.

On the flip side, Carter holds up Lord Dunsany’s made-up names as pinnacles of the genre; however, if you’re familiar with Dunsany, some of his names seem fairly silly. I think Carter only thinks of them as good because they’re more familiar to long time fans of fantasy.

Putting such idiosyncrasies aside, Carter’s Imaginary Worlds is the best history of the fantasy genre (at least the section that is history) that I have read to date. However, as with de Camp’s book, I wish there was a history that went farther than the mid-70s.

17 Comments »

  1. Carter is much maligned for having produced some really inferior stories (both in the Lovecraft Mythos and the Hyborian settings), but remains to me a great critic and curator.
    He did a lot to preserve the historical memory of some great works that would have been forgotten otherwise. And some of his own works were simply good fun anyway.
    This said, I’ve been missing my copy of this book for nearly thirty years… ever since a guy in high school borrowed my already second-hand copy and misplaced/destroyed/sold/stole it.
    I’ll have to find a “new” one, because this post makes me want to go back and re-read it.

    Comment by Davide Mana - November 8, 2013 3:40 pm

  2. It’s also possible that Carter’s criticism of Wagner was unfair — he was reading the Powell edition of Darkness Weaves which, if I remember correctly, had been very badly chopped & edited.

    Carter also certainly wasn’t lacking in the self-promotion department, and occasionally he seems a bit, um, factually challenged. But yes, his unbridled enthusiasm for the genre, and the work he did to preserve classics in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and other places, is more than enough to make up for any such slight flaws.

    Comment by Joe H. - November 8, 2013 5:54 pm

  3. @Joe

    You may be right about Wagner, but Carter is fairly unstinting with a few other writers as well. I’m thinking particularly about his comments concerning Jane Gaskell. Though, overall, he praises Gaskell, he also really criticizes her for (what he takes to be) anachronistic or un-fantasy-like use of terms.

    He says Gaskell “does this sort of thing interminably–whether from sheer ignorance, pure insensitivity, or downright carelessness, I hardly dare guess” (p.206). OUCH!

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 8, 2013 6:13 pm

  4. I have my copy of Imaginary Worlds in an honored place on the shelf – if not for Lin Carter, I would never heave read Eddison, Cabell, Dunsany, Pratt, Morris, and on and on. He did great service to the fantasy genre, and the best of his own stories are great fun (and that’s all he was aiming for, I think) for anyone who knows his models. Carter deserves to be better remembered.

    Comment by emcgargle - November 8, 2013 6:24 pm

  5. @emcgargle

    I’m with you! I just got a copy of Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros in the mail today and am already enjoying it. The ONLY reason I purchased it was because of Carter’s (and de Camp’s) praise of it.

    I’m looking forward to digging into some of these other writers as well.

    Yes, I agree, Carter has done a great service for fantasy.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 8, 2013 6:33 pm

  6. OK, I’m going to make a comparison here that may never have been made before in the entire history of the universe — at times Lin Carter reminds me of Ursula K. le Guin. Specifically, there are parts in Imaginary Worlds (like the Gaskell passage you mentioned) that, as in le Guin’s Elfland to Poughkeepsie, seem to be a bit too prescriptive about what does or does not constitute “acceptable” content in a fantasy story.

    Comment by Joe H. - November 8, 2013 7:24 pm

  7. This is one of my favorite books I just picked up on a lark, and what got me into seriously collecting Mr. Carter’s works. I’d read lots of his stuff and republications without knowing how truly profound his contributions were.

    My IMO about Carter was that he was a “Good” writer but a “Genius” level editor. He ended up sacrificing himself to the altar of public mediocrity for he re-published and saved from obscurity so many great authors his own works were diminished in comparison. Also that he was a fan of said authors so lots of his published by his own being the editor stuff was seen as ‘derivative’ since it was a tribute. And he cheered his own overshadowing, for instance when “Creatures on the Loose” a Marvel comic cancelled his own “Thongor of Lemuria” to make way for the Conan license they recently acquired.

    My opinion, for the next tv or media “Sword and Sorcery” or “Sci-Fi” adventure they should get the rights to some of Lin Carter’s works. Putting stuff like Conan out there diminishes it save the 82 governator one, and still some fans whined. (bet their heads went explodey for the 2011 vomit abortion, mine almost did!)

    Carter mostly wrote in a visual style. There was plenty of 3rd person omniscient narrator, but unlike Howard he didn’t weave the telling of the story and narrative into virtual poetry. This happened, this happened, this happened…but he pulled it off pretty good to make some good stories. That’s why Carter’s works went right into comics and I’d bet other media.

    And to Davide, I shudder saying this but look on Amazon.com You can find a boat load of non-collectable copies that used bookstores, liabraries and liquidators sell for 1c + that $3.99 shipping.

    Here’s the link: http://www.amazon.com/Imaginary-Worlds-Lin-Carter/dp/0345033094/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383997135&sr=8-1&keywords=lin+carter+imaginary+worlds

    They do this since if they ship a number of books at the same time they make a small profit from the shipping (I see $1.25 charges for postage on big books) and -hint hint hint- rabid fans like us are eager to give someone that sells us a dog eared but nice looking/readable book for $4 effectively that wondrous “5 stars” that keeps their score high so when the “Chronic Problem customer” bites them it doesn’t hurt that bad.

    Please keep whatever is going on Amazon here. I shudder to just say this, but here we like the same stuff I do. I’ve got tons of stuff I almost spent $20 on for the same thing on Ebay for that $4 thing… Just give them good ratings also so they keep doing it:-)

    Comment by GreenGestalt - November 9, 2013 7:42 am

  8. @Joe H.

    Where can I find a copy of le Guin’s Elfland to Poughkeepsie? I’ve never heard of it.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 9, 2013 8:56 pm

  9. James — It’s been reprinted a few times; it’s in her essay collection Languages of the Night, and it’s also in the anthology I mentioned here recently, Fantasists on Fantasy. And I’m sure there have been other appearances; those are just the two I have to hand.

    Comment by Joe H. - November 9, 2013 9:52 pm

  10. James, I’m looking forward to seeing what you think about Eddison. I read The Worm Ouroboros when I was in high or my freshman year of college. I don’t recall much about it (this was decades ago), but I remember I enjoyed it.

    Comment by westkeith - November 9, 2013 10:53 pm

  11. @Joe H.

    Good. That Fantasists on Fantasy is on my short list of books to buy.

    @westkeith

    I just got The Worm Ouroboros in the mail the other day and I’m about 100 pages in. I’m loving it! The prose are definitely what many would call “purple.” But I love it! I’m digging it immensely. If one needs a lot of action and straightforward description, this is not the book for them. I can see why it hasn’t stayed in print.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 10, 2013 6:36 pm

  12. Carter is sometimes overly fussy about names, no arguement, but he’s right about diction and terminology being very important, even if it is impossible to formulate hard and fast “rules” regarding them. I guess you just know when a misstep has been made. I’ve been reading Glen Cook’s Black Company books and enjoying them very much, but he crosses the line sometime with his slangy diction and modern terminology. I understand that his goal was to make fantasy grittier and more realistic than the kind of thing Dunsany or Morris wrote, but sometimes he carelessly jerks the reader (this one, anyway) out of the world he’s creating – a fantasy world, after all. I think many current writers would benefit from following Carter and taking a little more care about such things.

    Comment by emcgargle - November 10, 2013 10:14 pm

  13. @emcgargle

    Well said!

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 11, 2013 4:40 pm

  14. @GreenGestalt

    Thanks for the Amazon advice. I normally buy my used books through Abebooks. But I’ve noticed that used book dealers post their inventory in both places.

    You wrote: “My IMO about Carter was that he was a “Good” writer but a “Genius” level editor. He ended up sacrificing himself to the altar of public mediocrity for he re-published and saved from obscurity so many great authors his own works were diminished in comparison.”

    I haven’t read any of Mr. Carter’s fiction, so I can’t comment on the latter part. But I believe you’re spot on in describing his editorship. I think the fantasy community in particular is especially indebted to him for the books he kept in print.

    Which brings me to a concern: I worry that these older fantasy authors will be lost if there are no visually compelling hard copies of their works available. And I don’t see a present Carter-like editor being able to do the same thing Carter himself did (like making the Ballantine adult fantasy series) because cheap ebook editions are so readily available (i.e. downloadable). But there’s SO MUCH downloadable stuff available now, how will a current fantasy reader know what to buy?

    Maybe a modern day Carter can figure out how to do it in this day of digital publishing. Let’s hope.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 12, 2013 2:06 pm

  15. […] reason. Also, James McGlothlin recently wrote an excellent post on Carter’s Imaginary Worlds. You should check it out if you haven’t […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Lin Carter and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series - November 25, 2013 3:22 pm

  16. […] reviewed L. Sprague de Camp’s 1976 Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers and Lin Carter’s 1973 Imaginary Worlds. As good as both were, I lamented that there didn’t seem to be a history of fantasy past the mid […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Two Perspectives are Better Than One: A Review of A Short History of Fantasy - December 9, 2013 2:24 pm

  17. James,

    Thanks for the reply, didn’t have so much to say on it, but I do share your concern.

    My advice is to find ways to publish and make available on the web easy to read and heavily illustrated versions. Conan’s popularity is due it part to the long-running Marvel series. Dark Horse’s stuff more caters to the people who grew up on and, and avoids the ComicsCode and other garbage, but it’s not really marketed to kids.

    I think Dusnany would be the best bet. Most of his stuff is in the Public domain now, and his wording while beautiful is plain English. It’s not burdensome or opressive and he can do what Tolkien did in a “Trilogy” in a few pages.

    Perhaps “The Sword of Welleran” and “The fortress unvanquishable, save for Sacnoth”… I’ve even seen japanese game art that had the “Sacnoth” sword re-created, he’s that acessable that a non-native English speaker can read him.

    So, perhaps a collection of very nice and slightly cute illustrated stories of Dunsany stuff, with a few more thrown in, like a Conan one, etc. Charles Vess while he’d probably be expensive would be wild for it, he’s a big time Dunsany fan. I’d consider Ploog if he’s still alive or alternatively Mark Bode for some…

    If it was done right, there’d be lots of really good, really engaging fantasy that would be “G” rated by today’s standards and easily presentable as a kid’s storybook. Then put in the bookstores, the libraries… (make sure no CopyWRONG hassle with e-lending!) It’d sit around for years and countless kids would pick it up…

    Comment by GreenGestalt - December 25, 2013 9:42 pm


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