Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#13: Misc 3: Historical Fantasy by Arnold/Munn/Moore

This is the third review in which I'm lumping a number of authors about whom I wish to say something -- but don't wish to say much. Even with such compression, I've still got too much material for four more reviews, so I'll probably go to PS#32 and then stop. (Not that there's any intrinsic virtue in round numbers, but I'd as soon end as I've begun.) Which in turn means that I'll be cheating in the opposite direction, and reviewing authors I really shouldn't (eg, by virtue of their being too recent). Ah well, what's the point of adding the 'PS' to the subject line if not to make it easier for me to cheat?

For this review, however, I'll focus on three relatively early fantasists. Arnold wrote around the turn of the century; Moore and Munn were writing in the thirties, though their best work was to come later.

"[The Wonderful Adventures of] Phra The Phoenician" (***) is the first and best novel of Edwin Lester Arnold. It appeared in 1890, and retained its popularity for several decades. We first encounter Phra in the first century BC, a Phoenician merchant who becomes fascinated by a British slave named Blodwen. He induces the slaver (more violently than is usually thought consistent with honest bargaining) to part with her for a reasonable price, and eventually finds himself making for Britain -- where most of the story takes place. His timing is poor (If you had to remember two dates from all of British history, would one of them be 55 BC?), and he dies. Somewhere around page twenty.

Phra wakes up, little worse for wear, some four centuries later, and his adventures continue, episodically, in the time of the Norman invasion (poor timing again, and another memorable date), during the Hundred Years War, and finally in Elizabethan England. (There is a powerful if improbable scene in which he makes the mistake of trying to inform Queen Elizabeth of the great victory at Crecy.) Throughout these adventures, he is never far from the spirit (?) of his first love.

The individual episodes of the book are of middling quality, being essentially stories of a capable adventurer, able in war and unlucky in love, who always finds himself on the side of the British in various eras. The premises which connect these stories, however -- the immortal adventurer passing through the ages, and the parallel tale of an eternal love story -- add considerably to the power of the book, and inspired many subsequent writers.

(I've read a couple of essays which claim that Edgar Rice Burroughs's hero, John Carter, was patterned after Phra the Phoenician, but I don't give the theory much weight. I *do* agree that there is little doubt that Arnold's 1905 novel "Lieutenant Gulliver Jones: His Vacation" (**) was the inspiration for John Carter's Barsoom. In his introduction to the Ace reprint (retitled "Gulliver of Mars"), Richard Lupoff notes that there is one major flaw in the comparison of this book with Burroughs's: "Gully Jones is no John Carter." I might add that that's the major flaw in the book, as well, but fans of the John Carter novels should find it of historical interest.)

"Merlin's Ring" (***+), by H. Warner Munn, is a far superior take on the same themes as "Phra the Phoenician". Some background first: Munn was a moderately popular author of the twenties and thirties -- a member of H.P. Lovecraft's circle -- and in 1939 he wrote the novel "King of the World's Edge" (**), about a Roman century which follows Merlin to America after the fall of Camelot, and winds up fighting a proto-Aztec/Toltec empire. (Stop wincing. The plot elements hadn't been worked to death in 1939.) Munn then took a three-decade break from writing, in order to earn a living, after which he wrote a sequel, "The Ship from Atlantis" (**), in which Gwalchmai, the centurion's son, loves and loses Corenice, the last survivor of Atlantis. She dies promising that they will meet again. (After the success of "Merlin's Ring", the first two books were reprinted in an omnibus titled "Merlin's Godson", which you don't need to read in order to read and appreciate "Merlin's Ring". It's neither good nor bad.)

"Merlin's Ring" is the story of Gwalchmai's life (greatly prolonged by Merlin's magic) in the millennium that follows. Like Phra, he makes his way through history -- English, Viking, Chinese, Japanese, French -- meeting time and again with incarnations of his lost Corenice. It's a better story than Arnold's, better written, more interesting, and benefiting from Munn's having had almost a century more of fantasy writing than Arnold did, upon which to draw for inspiration and technique. (This is not an unalloyed blessing. We get guest appearances from Arthur, Merlin, Excalibur, and Elves, and some readers will have overdosed on the combination, from other books.) Of the three books discussed in this review, this is the one modern readers are most likely to enjoy.

"Jirel of Joiry" (***) was written by C.L. Moore. Generally speaking, it's an exercise in futility to separate books with Moore's name on the cover from books with Henry Kuttner's name on the cover (or Lewis Padgett's), but it seems safe to do so for the Jirel stories of the nineteen-thirties. Other books I've read with Moore's name on the cover haven't much impressed me, so I'll only mention "Jirel of Joiry" here, but I sincerely wish to avoid giving the impression that she was what I've been calling a one-book author. (It's simply that her best work doesn't have her name on it.)

The book, "Jirel of Joiry", collects five stories about the character of the same name. Jirel is a prototype for the armies of swordswomen who have appeared in fantasy novels since -- a rough prototype, but more interesting than most of her successors. The fantasy is modelled upon the medieval pattern of earlier fantasists -- rather than upon the more familiar Tolkienish pattern -- and features knights and sorcerers and the fires of Hell. Joiry itself is both a fortress in medieval France, and (by the nature of the times) as much of the surrounding lands as it can protect. Call it a pocket kingdom. Jirel is its ruler, which means spending her days in armor, protecting it against would-be conquerors and, if need be, seeking out and destroying evil sorcerers. It would be as well if Jirel could avoid the latter, because she has a great deal of luck with magic -- most of it bad. The earliest story is "Black God's Kiss", in which we learn one more important fact about Joiry: It sits atop a stairway to Hell.

In her trips to Hell and in dealing with other magics, Jirel is out of her depth. She generally wins through, on sheer grit and determination, but at high cost and to little gain. And those around her have little doubt that these dealings will cost her dearly in the afterlife.

Jirel of Joiry wouldn't 'fly' if the stories were written today. The fashion in fantasy is for well-rounded characters with essentially [late-]twentieth-century attitudes, not for a character with medieval priorities and an almost exclusive reliance upon steel and upon her ability to wield it. (Some reader will probably also be irritated by her mixed feelings towards the man who conquers Joiry at one point -- a plot device more acceptable in 1934 than sixty years later.) As fantasy of yesteryear -- and as a forerunner of much of today's fantasy -- it still makes good reading.

Arnold, Munn, and Moore are all fantasists of yesteryear, and their writing reflects an evolution of the genre. Arnold probably didn't even think of himself as writing fantasy. His model would have been earlier writers of historical adventure, such as Kingsley. The early Moore and the early Munn did think of their works as fantasy, but it was grounded in the chief model available to them -- the medieval romance. In both their cases, however, this model was drawn upon by writers who were familiar with several decades' development of genre science fiction and fantasy. And Munn's later work is essentially modern fantasy, drawing upon numerous genre conventions. Perhaps the most important of these is that, after a century of the genre's existence, a writer can lay out the fantastic elements of a story -- magic, Elves, Atlantis, whatever -- without having to justify them to the reader.

Dani Zweig