Double review: The well of the Unicorn and Tales of the Dying Earth

A few weeks ago I finished read “Tales of the dying Earth” — an omnibus edition of Jack Vance’s The dying earth, The eyes of the overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rhialto the marvelous. I initially wanted to read these both because Vance is so highly regarded by some other bloggers I read and/or admire and because Vance’s works had a lot of influence on D&D. However, I was very pleasantly surprised by how funny and strange the books are, and I expect that I will re-read them at some point in the future. I read a lot but very rarely re-read anything. Tolkien, Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, Avram Davidson, Richard Selzer, REH, HPL, and John Gardener are about the only writers I can think of whose works I have re-read. I’ll be adding Vance to that list, and probably Fletcher Pratt as well.

Earlier this year I read Pratt’s Well of the unicorn. This was much the same story as Vance — I sought this book because of some high praise for the book I’ve see, because of it’s influence on D&D (and its inclusion in the literary army lists of Hordes of the Things), and because I’d already enjoyed his collaboration with de Camp in the Enchanter series.

Vance’s Dying earth and Pratt’s Dalarna could not be much more different. Vance’s world is bizarre and alien; Pratt’s is realistic and vaguely familiar. Vance’s world is infused with a great deal of magic and monsters; Pratt’s world has very little of either, and they are subtle and mostly “off-camera”, reported rather than narrated. Vance’s protagonists are mostly roguish bastards, always on the make; Pratt’s hero strives to be noble, heroic, and ethical. Dalarna could very easily be medieval Denmark. Vance’s world, though presumably a future state of own planet, remembers nothing of our history and could just as well be another planet altogether.

However, there is something about both of these books which make me want to say they are very similar. Apart from the obvious similarity of genre (fantasy, in invented worlds), and the less obvious similarity I would claim in the highly stylized dialogue of each, I think there is a deeper kinship in outlook. Neither is exactly nihilistic, although they are far from the comparatively clear morality you find in most fantasies, especially their far more popular, and contemporary, Middle Earth. Vance’s characters are mostly selfish. Some good people come to bad ends and some bad people make out like bandits, although most often the bad come to bad ends too. Pratt’s hero slowly grows disillusioned about the morality of his companions and even his over-riding objective of freeing his country. The ending is not exactly happy, although the hero gets pretty much everything he wanted. A sort of pessimism seems to envelope both worlds. Amused and amusing pessimism, but pessimism all the same.

But the biggest similarity between the two is that both spend absolutely no time trying to explain the “background” or “history” of what went on before the action of the stories. The reader is made to feel like an outsider or alien who is observing the action. A few things are explained here and there, as one might explain an obscure reference in conversation, but the most outlandish and fantastic people and places of Vance’s books are largely unexplained and inexplicable. Vance makes almost no effort to tell the reader all things he might want to know about the world. (What exactly do the IOUN stones do? Why are they always spelled out in all capital letters? All we need to know, and can pick up from reading, is that they are important to magicians and possibly fuel their power or protect them from others’ power.) Similarly, Pratt’s book gives very little explanation and a central mystery for the reader (what exactly is the well and what does it really do?) is largely taken for granted by the characters. The stories of the well told by the characters throw very little light on the well’s nature and leave it largely an enigma. (I think, based on my initial reading, that the Well is probably a symbol of the mixed blessing of religion in a semi-civilized world but I’ll need to reread the book before having a firm theory.)

So both books are challenging in the sense that there is no “back story” explained to the reader and no appendices like those of Lord of the Rings. Instead, the reader directly experiences the awe and wonder of worlds where magic (usually) works. And yet the very fact that these worlds are mostly concealed from the reader (as is the ultimate significance of the events they detail) make them all the more real and even realistic, in a way.

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Published in: on April 17, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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