Tuesday, October 28, 2014
This one-shot novel is a conceptual kissing cousin to H.P. Lovecraft's THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, insofar as it brings together over a dozen characters or milieus created by a single author. But these creations were all spawned by Edgar Allan Poe, while the two authors bringing them all together for this Poe-pastiche are Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen.
The viewpoint character of the story is one Edgar Allan Perry, who exists in our world but shares a telepathic relationship with his other-dimensional counterpart, Edgar Allan Poe and with a young woman named Annie. Both men are somewhat in love with her, which is enough to motive Perry when he's shunted into a dimension where Poe's literary creations and finds Annie in peril there. I think-- but am not sure-- that Annie is a native of this dimension, while Poe is hurled into Perry's world, which seems to be "our" world, in that Poe will then live out a doleful life in which he never feels at home. Perry, having lived in a time approximate to Poe's, does not recognize any of the people or situations that he meets as being literary creations. The authors devote zero time to explaining why they have independent existence, to say nothing of the fact that their stories are conflated. Dirk Peters, one of the protagonists of Poe's CONFESSIONS OF A. GORDON PYM, not only becomes an aide to Perry, he's altered into being both (1) the sailor who owns the ourang-outang from MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and (2) the vengeful dwarf from HOP-FROG, who in turn works his devilment on the court of Prince Prospero from THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.
I presume that Perry's imperiled romantic partner Annie is named for the character from the poem "Annabel Lee." Annie is a powerful psychic who's kidnapped by a threesome of conspirators who want to use her talents to help them obtain an alchemical gold-making process. Two of the conspirators are named for Poe characters, while the third is named for Rufus Griswold, a real-life acquaintance of Poe's who defamed the author after his death. Perry, given the command of a ship by yet another Poe-character ("Seabright Ellison" from THE DOMAIN OF ARNHEIM), undertakes to pursue the villains and liberate Annie.
Although there are a few quotes from Poe's works that contribute to the reader's sense of what Poe accomplished, the simplistic quest-narrative doesn't lend itself to much complexity. It's moderately fun to see Zelazny and Saberhagen bring together so many "centric crossovers," as I've termed them. Aside from those already mentioned, the duo also work in Ligeia, Hans Pfall and his balloon, King Pest and his court, Montressor and Fortunato, the living corpse M. Valdemar, the detective Dupin, a maelstrom, a gold-bug, the pit and the pendulum, and the asylum of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. And yet, I found that after a while one crossover seemed much like another, and that Perry's quest for Annie took a back seat to all of these witty references.
Still, BLACK THRONE is an exceptional crossover-work even if it's far from perfect as a novel.
Friday, October 17, 2014
There's not much to say about this odd duck, THE MAN WHO HATED LAUGHTER, except that it only qualifies for this list by the sheer uniqueness of the crossovers. About three dozen characters syndicated by King Features appeared in this phlegmatic 1972 episode of THE ABC SATURDAY SUPERSTAR MOVIE. However, whereas ROGER RABBIT wisely kept the majority of its cameo-characters confined to quick, highly visual appearances, LAUGHTER-- written by Lou Silverstone and directed by long-time animator Jack Zander (best known for his Tom-and-Jerry shorts)-- pokes along, trying to give all its characters some little something to do. LAUGHTER is a lot like those "Hollywood Canteen" films of the 1940s, in which big-time movie stars, often playing themselves, were assembled to participate in some worthy project, often involving entertaining the troops. Unfortunately, this barely animated TV-movie is even less funny than those stodgy films. The movie won't make anyone hate laughing, but watching it will probably make some viewers hate LAUGHTER.
Mad scientist Morbid Grimsby hates laughter, but can't figure out how to end that phenomenon. He decides to abduct all the funny characters from comic strips, because his computer tells him that comic strips like BLONDIE and HI AND LOIS contribute so much to human amusement. To do this, Grimsby commissions Popeye and his entourage-- that is, Olive and Wimpy-- to gather the various characters together on a ship, promising them a fabulous ocean-voyage. Popeye, nominally the hero of the story, is totally clueless that Grimsby, upon getting his "guests" to a remote island, plans to keep them imprisoned so that they will never again create laughter. Maybe the sailor-man would've caught on if he'd met Grimsby's henchman, who happens to be Popeye's old sparring-partner Brutus (a TV-cartoon version of the Fleischer Studio's heavy, Bluto). The island-bound guest-list includes such notables as Henry, Snuffy Smith and his wife, the cast of the Katzenjammer Kids, Beetle Bailey and Sarge, the Little King, Little Iodine, and the respective households of the Bumstead and Flagstone clans, among others.
Though Popeye and his buddies don't know what's going on, the government somehow gets wind of Grimsby's plot, and calls into action most of the King Syndicate's adventure-heroes: the Phantom, Mandrake, Steve Canyon, Flash Gordon, and Tim Tyler of TIM TYLER'S LUCK, which strip had been cancelled since 1966. The Phantom's wolf-ally Devil and Flash's girlfriend Dale also make quick appearances. The amusing thing about the "serious" heroes being called up to rescue the supposedly vulnerable "funny" characters is that in real life the former were already on their way out, as all forms of story-strips-- not just those centering on martial heroes-- while the "funny" strips would regain the dominance in the comic-strip market that they had enjoyed prior to the adventure-boom of the 1930s.
Since Popeye is framed as the hero, the serious heroes are eventually defeated by Grimsby, though they do get one little victory. Brutus, dressed up like a cockamamie excuse for a knight-in-armor, is sent packing when Mandrake conjures up a more prepossessing armored knight: Prince Valiant, complete with horse-- though Valiant doesn't stick around to get captured.
Once the serious heroes are out of the way, the captured comic-heroes-- including Popeye and his retinue-- attempt to make Grimsby laugh, in the hope that the experience will cause him to change his ways. Given the supposedly funny routines performed by the captives, it's a wonder that the mad scientist doesn't atomize the lot of them. But yes, they finally make Grimsby laugh. For a desultory climax, one of Grimsby's devices goes haywire, and Popeye, finally getting access to his beloved spinach, saves the day.
As a closing note, the comics-characters all seem to be aware that they occupy comic strips in addition to their ongoing lives. I have not been able to determine whether or not credited scripter Silverstone is the same author known for contributing to MAD magazine. If so, in this endeavor he was a long way from the wit displayed in the classic sixties spoof "Bats-Man!"
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Despite the multitude of animated characters appearing in 1988's WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, the vast majority of them are walk-ons, as seen in the memorable crowd-scene above.
And to be sure, if they were all just walk-ons, then ROGER wouldn't qualify for my list, given that in this post I said that my list wouldn't include simple walk-on/cameo crossovers. Often the crossovers stories that I've selected in the past hinge on two or more characters who have already been established crossing one another's paths-- though I've bent this rule somewhat for "back-door pilots," in which a new character is introduced to an audience by being "written in" to the mythos of an established character, or group of characters.
In the case of ROGER, the three primary protagonists-- the titular rabbit, detective Eddie Valiant, and Roger's wife Jessica-- originated in Gary Wolf's 1981 book WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT? This book, which I have not read, had the protagonists encounter characters from the comic strips. The combination live-action/animation film principally took the idea of human and comic-strip characters co-existing in the same world, and altered the concept to that of humans and animated cartoons-- specifically, those spawned by American theatrical cartoons-- sharing a world.
One salient difference between the two media involved was that in comic strips crossovers were extremely rare, while one could frequently come across intra-company crossovers in American theatrical cartoons. particularly between the two companies licensing their franchises to the ROGER production: Disney and Warner Brothers. The animation divisions of the two studios were in many ways antithetical, so it's not surprising that when ROGER does allow for some crossover side-plot action, the effect is not very salutory.
Many reviewers have pointed out that the scene between Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse lacks pizzazz:
The one between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck is a little better, but not by much.
The better bits are those in which Eddie Valiant interacts with famous faces like Betty Boop, but there aren't many of these: the focus is on the interaction of Wolf's key characters. That said, given that I did say I would include crossovers of characters and milieus, as I did with TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE.
ROGER is perhaps best described as a melding of Wolf's characters with a "super-continuity" that merges the cosmoi of both Warners and Disney. Since the comedy stylings of each company's respective characters don't really play off one another that well, it's probably just as well this "super-continuity" was never, and probably will never, be seen again. ROGER, like a certain stage-act by Daffy Duck, could only be done once.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
The image above is that of the first Tarzan paperback I owned. I've a dim memory that prior to this I may have had a hardback version of TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN CITY. I liked the latter quite a bit but somehow it didn't move me to go out and read every Tarzan book available. I bought the paperback because I liked the 1966 Ron Ely teleseries, but I have a dim memory of being disappointed because it wasn't any way like the TV show. Ah, evil publishers, playing on a young boy's vagrant enthusiasms--!
It should go without saying that these days I think a lot more highly of the original 1912 Tarzan story than of any television version. I recently reread both APES and its sequel, RETURN OF TARZAN, and the following thoughts came to me.
Burroughs frequently acknowledges that Black Africans are getting shitty treatment by representatives of European colonialism (American colonialism is not referenced). The original reason that the Claytons, the father and mother of Tarzan, travel to Africa is because John Clayton has been appointed to a post designed to redress "unfair treatment of black British subjects by the officers of a friendly European power." Many chapters later, long after the deaths of the Claytons and Tarzan's adoption by the Great Apes, a tribe of Black Africans moves into the territory of Tarzan's ape-tribe. These natives are explicitly fleeing their mistreatment by Belgians, who have forced them into slave labor.
At the same time, Burroughs was not above a few jabs at superstitious blacks, though the ones he does take are pretty mild. There's no doubt that he plays to the aesthetic preferences of white people from his time period, for in RETURN he describes Tarzan's adopted human tribe the Waziri as not possessing the thick lips and large noses of the average Black African. But then, Burroughs had the habit of conflating moral excellence with physical beauty. Even though he should know that none of Tarzan's ape friends can be held to human standards of beauty, the author can't help describing the hero's adoptive ape-mother Kala as "clean-limbed."
Still, while Burroughs obviously had no knowledge of real African customs and traditions, on balance it's clear that he doesn't hold with the subjugation of the African people. Tarzan becomes allied to the Waziri after he helps them defeat a raiding-party made up of Arabs and other Black Africans. Somehow I can't help thinking that desiring justice for black people is more important than whether Burroughs personally believed that "black could be beautiful."
Back to Tarzan's parents: there's an interesting-- and non-functional-- scene in which the Claytons, having made their home on the edge of the jungle, are surprised by the attack of a hostile ape. The ape runs at Lady Alice, who, fortunately, happens to be armed. She shoots the ape dead, but it manages to blunder into her as it dies. Though Alice is not physically harmed, the trauma causes her to lose her mind, so that she no longer comprehends that she and her husband are stranded in Africa. She expires a few months after successfully delivering a healthy boy, and Clayton's mourning leaves him vulnerable to being killed by another hostile ape. What I find interesting about this scene is that there was no functional reason for Lady Alice to be assaulted and to lose her mind. But the scene does remind me of old wives' tales in which a pregnant mother would be "scared" by some terrifying creature, and would thereafter bear an infant who carried some physical resemblance to the creature, as if it were possible for women to be impregnated through fear. Is it a coincidence, then, that Alice's progeny after being scared by an ape, is a boy who successfully acts the part of an ape?
Burroughs conveniently overlooks a lot of unlikely physical facts: he has Clayton make door-hinges with few tools, and certainly not with a lathe, and little Tarzan, upon discovering pencils in his late parents' cabin, writes interminably without ever needing to sharpen them. The standout is the "earthen drum" that exists in the arena of the ape's dum-dum ceremony. What the "drum" is exactly, Burroughs does not explain; maybe he meant it to be some oversized gourd-plant. Obviously it's there because Burroughs wanted his tribe of anthropoids to dance like "wild Indians," as it were.
Still, the dum-dum ceremony is a brilliant conception. In its first appearance, it's the site to which the Great Apes commit a sort of demi-cannibalism-- which I qualify only because Burroughs tells us that the apes won't eat any of their tribe-brethren, but they will eat apes outside their tribe. One such victim is killed and his meaty parts are separated, but though Tarzan is present, and does try to partake, the reader never sees Tarzan eat ape-meat, for the hero is interrupted and must fight for his life against his nasty foster-father Tublat. Later, upon encountering the first man he ever meets-- the black warrior Kulonga, slayer of Tarzan's mother Kala-- Tarzan kills Kulonga for revenge's sake, and then wonders whether or not he Tarzan should eat him. The ape-man is preserved by a "hereditary instinct" that makes him nauseous at the attempt to eat the flesh of a fellow human-- not the first or last time Burroughs invokes "nature" over "nurture."
After this meeting with Kulonga, Tarzan effectively terrorizes his tribe, stealing the natives' poisoned arrows and playing juvenile pranks on them. He evinces no sexual interest in the Black African females, though a later story in JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN addresses this lacunae somewhat. He does almost kill one of them when she comes close to catching him during a raid, but luck saves the unnamed female's life.
Naturally, the one female in Tarzan's life is destined to be the blonde American Jane Porter, who gets stranded in Tarzan's territory in much the same way his parents were marooned. By this time Tarzan has slain both Tublat and Kerchak, the latter being both the chief of the ape-tribe and the slayer of Tarzan's father. Burroughs then introduces Terkoz, the son of Tublat, and in their initial battle, Tarzan's foster-"brother" nearly tears off the ape-man's scalp-- leaving him with a scar that remains part of Tarzan's mythology. I note in passing that Burroughs also wrote a few stories about Native Americans, though I can't say offhand if any of them reference the human technique of scalping.
Tarzan spares Terkoz's life the first time, and on his advice the tribe expels the violent ape. However, sparing Terkoz leads to the novel's only literal attempt at "ape-rape," for the expelled simian decides that he's going to start a new tribe-- by mating with Jane. One might assert that Terkoz symbolizes all the repressed desires of Tarzan, since even after the hero kills Terkoz, Tarzan is still a perfect gentleman with Jane. Nevertheless, he does take Jane to the dum-dum arena for a while, suggesting an equivalence between the orgy of flesh-eating and that other type of orgy. A couple of times, Burroughs titillates the reader with the possibility that the ape-man and his destined mate will do the dirty right there on the jungle floor-- only to draw back and keep things in the realm of pure love. To be sure, Burroughs does a nicer job with the romance element here than he ever did again, for in later books he tended to just go through the motions.
There are some moderately interesting soap-opera elements with respect to Jane's fellow castaways, particularly her suitor William Clayton, who is Tarzan's cousin, and who inherited the title of Lord Greystoke when the Claytons disappeared. However, if Burroughs was somewhat even-handed with Black Africans, he felt in no way constrained to pay respect to Black Americans, for among the castaways is Jane's maid Esmerelda, a ghastly concatenation of every vice attributed to blacks-- cowardly, stupid, and prone to "funny" word-manglings.
The conclusion of TARZAN OF THE APES is a grand renunciation scene, in which Tarzan comes to believe that Jane wishes to marry William-- so he Tarzan keeps quiet about his identity as the real Lord Greystoke. Of course this was simply a setup to the sequel. RETURN is much less unified than APES, in that the lovelorn Tarzan merely bounces about from adventure to adventure. It's in this book that Tarzan becomes the chief of the Waziri tribe, though again, he never for a moment considers any black women to be his queen. He also encounters the first of many, many lost cities of white people in Africa: that of Opar.
From the first Burroughs pictures the Oparians as divided in terms of aesthetics: the women are all normal humans and naturally gorgeous, while the males are ugly and ape-like. In this novel Burroughs goes so far as to promulgate the idea that some Oparians have actually mated with apes, but later he puts the division down to a crude eugenics program. Burroughs apparently had Opar in mind back when he wrote APES, since Jane's professor-father is said to be seeking an "incredibly ancient civilization." He apparently never brings up the matter again, and Opar, modeled on the Biblical city of Ophir, becomes the source of Tarzan's African wealth. It's also the source of the first of Burroughs' not-so-nice queens, for La, High Priestess of Opar, continues to appear in subsequent novels, always trying to either murder or seduce the ape-man.
The romantic unison of Tarzan and Jane is of course the drawing-card of the sequel, but it's interesting that Burroughs again worked cannibalism into the mix. For a time William, Jane, and the novel's villain Rokoff are stranded at sea in a lifeboat, and before they can starve to death, they flirt with the notion of cannibalism-- with which only the villain has no moral problem. Burroughs may have included this scene-- not strictly necessary from a plot angle-- to emphasize that some modern men could be no less capable of this particular vice than apes and savages.
Many later Tarzan novels cannot be as deeply mythological as these two, as they provide the hero's "origin-story." Nevertheless, it's arguable that Burroughs, however often he repeated certain situations, never lost contact with the deeper symbolic meaning of these tropes, as many authors of lesser merit did.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
THE SUNDERING FLOOD was completed in 1896, just a few weeks before its author died. Of the four fantasy-novels, this still uses archaic diction, but Morris no longer seems to use forty words when four will do, as in the other novels. Perhaps the writer sensed that he no longer had time to waste, and chose to tell his last story more concisely.
FLOOD is also the only Morris fantasy that evokes the magical potential of what Lin Carter calls the “imaginary-world novel.” In the other three books, Morris avoids depicting acts of magic, or magical beings, save where they’re strictly necessary to the plot. Thus one character possesses a magical boat that gets her where she needs to go, and another character sees visions of people he has met or is fated to meet. But in contrast to most later fantasy-authors, Morris has no interest in the dynamics of the faerie world. It may be that he was just too strongly influenced by the historical fiction of his time, as produced by writers like Dumas and Scott.
FLOOD, though, evokes faerie very strongly in its early chapters, though again, it’s for the purpose of empowering the hero, whose central conflict is one of overcoming mundane opponents. As a child the parent-less Osberne encounters a capricious dwarf who demonstrates his ability to cut off his own head and survive. Osberne refuses to let the trick be played on him, and his physical resistance wins the dwarf’s respect—so much so that the dwarf gives him a special knife. A little later Osberne, while standing guard over a sheep-flock, uses the knife to kill a pack of wolves. This heroic deed apparently wins the approval of another denizen of faerie, for at the age of thirteen, long before Osberne is deemed a man, a strange knight named Steelhead visits Osberne’s village and gives him two gifts: arrows that never miss their target, and a huge sword named Broadcleaver.
The sword presents a problem: Osberne is not yet strong enough to wield it. What follows might be termed the medievalist’s version of endowing a hero with some special abilities. In modern times heroes are empowered by mutant genes or the bites of radioactive nightcrawlers, but Steelhead empowers Osberne by the venerable medieval method known as “the laying-on of hands.”
“And the lad stood still before [Steelhead], and Steelhead laid his hands on the head of him first, and let them abide there a while; then he passes his hands over the shoulders and arms of the boy, and his legs and thighs and breast, and all over his body…”
In our current culture there’s no way that we can read this scene—which takes place when both thirteen-year-old Osberne and apparently adult Steelhead are standing naked in a pool—and not think “gayboys!” I can’t absolutely deny that Morris might have written the scene with some mild gay-curious sentiment. But it’s worth pointing out that in the same section, Steelhead states that he’s performing the laying-on of hands because it’s considered the duty of a father, and he says of his deed: “Thus then have I done to thee to take the place of a father to thee.” I think that while a gay sentiment is not impossible, it’s more likely that this ritual is a rite of passage, in which the adult only touches the different sections of the child’s whole body in order to bless them. And the result is indeed that thirteen-year-old Osberne gains the magical strength to wield the huge sword, and thus to become the village’s premiere warrior.
Osberne’s prowess also leads to a heterosexual conclusion. In place of the “older woman-younger woman” constellation seen in the other novels, here older women are no threat to Osberne’s relationship with his “Woman of Innocence.” The only opponent to his tryst with Elfhild, girl of a neighboring village, is “Mother Earth,” for the villages of Osberne and Elfhild are separated by a titanic river-torrent that goes on for miles. This “Sundering Flood” prevents them from doing anything more than talking to one another across opposing river-banks, and thus builds good narrative tension for the early section of the novel.
Evil deeds break the impasse, as raiders called “the Red Skinners” take Elfhild prisoner. Osberne gathers some companions and pursues the raiders until he finally reaches a point where the Sundering Flood ends—culminating in the defeat of the raiders and the final union of the romantic couple.
Of Morris’ four fantasy novels SUNDERING FLOOD is the easiest to read, in addition to having the most compelling storyline. It’s slightly disappointing that all trace of faerie drops out of the story once Osberne goes in quest of Elfhild, but it may be that on some level Morris simply wasn’t as “bullish” as Tolkien with regard to “dreaming of dragons” and all the other tropes of fantasy. Morris, it seems, made use of faerie “as needed.” For this reason none of his four “imaginary world” novels rate among the best of their subgenre. Still, William Morris continues to deserve the appropriate honors for forging a new pathway, along which others chose to build more impressive structures.
1896’s WELL AT THE WORLD’S END benefits from a more forthright hero, the inauspiciously named “Ralph of Upmeads.” In a clear evocation of folktales in which three brothers leave their home to seek their fortunes, Morris begins WELL with four princes of a small kingdom. All four want to seek their fortunes, but the king asks them to draw lots, so that one will stay behind to comfort the king and his wife their mother. The three older brothers win the right to leave, and Ralph is expected to stay behind. Yet in contrast to the folktale “three brothers” motif, where the older brothers fail at some task that the youngest one fulfills, the three brothers barely re-appear in the novel. Ralph chooses to break faith and go forth anyway, seeking the fabled “Well at the World’s End.” He has heard that a drink from the well gives one not immortality but unblemished youth for the rest of one’s life. But the author’s real goal is for Ralph to find a perfect feminine companion to remain with him during that blessed life.
Ralph actually meets this helpmate almost as soon as he embarks upon his quest, but the young woman—confusingly called first “Dorothea,” and later ”Ursula”—apparently recognizes their joint destiny before he does. She follows Ralph on his quest, but remains conveniently far behind him as Ralph has his first adventures, coming in conflict with a pair of towns at war with one another. But the real reason for Ursula’s prolonged absence in this section is that this leaves Ralph free to encounter a “Woman of Experience” paralleling the character of the Mistress seen in WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD.
The new character, known only as “the Lady of Abundance,” has suffered bondage under an evil, older female, just as did the characters of “the Maid” and “Birdalone” from the earlier two Morris novels. Like the Maid, the Lady of Abundance gains a degree of supernatural wisdom from her association with a tyrannical witch, and as a result of that wisdom the Lady has managed to drink from the Well at World’s End. Ralph never explicitly worries about how old she really is, but even after their lovemaking he does start worrying about how many lovers she’s had before him. But any Freudian repercussions are literally cut short when one of those former lovers, a battle-skilled knight, catches her alone and slays her. Though this grieves Ralph, for the author it may have been more like exorcising another baleful image of femininity, so that a Woman of Innocence can enter the picture.
Morris does not emulate those authors who preferred women to be distressed damsels, though. Ursula’s courage in joining Ralph on his quest is obvious. In a scene that’s become almost archetypal in fantasy-fiction, Ursula gets naked in a forest to take a swim, and is promptly attacked by a gargantuan bear. Though Ralph does have to come to her rescue, she does attack the beast with a knife rather than waiting to be saved. In addition, one of the many incidental off-to-the-side battles between opposing factions mentions a conflict in which the women of a town don armor and battle male opponents.
WELL’s most problematic aspect is just this “off-to-the-side” resolution of several conflicts, as if Morris didn’t wish to waste time building to a climax. Ralph and Ursula are separated when an evil lord—with the amusing name “Gandolf”—kidnaps Ursula. But not only is Ursula freed from captivity without Ralph’s aid, Gandolf is killed in battle by opponents who are of tangential importance to the story. The fates of the witch who enslaved the Lady and of the murderous knight are also tossed off with no emotional impact. Worst of all, given the novel’s title, one might expect that Ralph and Ursula might have to overcome some obstacle in order to drink from the magical well. But there is no obstacle; they simply drink and then begin making their labyrinthine way back to Upmeads, on their way hearing stories about how their enemies were undone in their absence. At least Ralph does participate in one climactic fight, as he finally decides that one of the two townships he encountered earlier deserves his help, and he aids those townspeople in defeating their hereditary—but not very interesting—enemies.
The most interesting thing about 1895’s THE WATER OF THE WONDROUS ISLES is that, if one does regard Morris’ works as the first in the “imaginary-world tradition,” then WATER is the first such work to focus upon a female protagonist. The central character Birdalone is a clever young innocent like the Maid from WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, and she begins her novel as the Maid does: as a serving-girl to an unnamed sorceress known only as “the Witch-Wife.” However, though the Witch-Wife also has a sister in sorcery, Birdalone also gains an ally, a mysterious woman named Habundia (“abundance”) conjures up a magical boat with which Birdalone escapes via the ocean to other lands.
However, Birdalone’s first stop takes her to the land ruled by the witch-wife’s sister, who has under her thrall not one but three maidens: Aurea, Viridis, and Atra, who are “named for the hues of our raiment.” Birdalone makes yet another escape and later encounters a similarly color-coded group of three knights who are lovers to the three damsels, and later, a knight for Birdalone herself. But I quickly became bored with all these minimally characterized figures, who displayed no more depth than mirror reflections—and in a psychological sense, the three sisters are just Birdalone times three, and the three knights are just reflections of her destined lover. In addition to the witches—who, like the one in WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, do very little actual magic-- there’s a hostile Red Knight who fights with some of the goodguy knights, but these conflicts did not increase my involvement. The only interesting aspect of this rather turgid and self-referential fantasy is that Morris gave it the structure of a labyrinth. That is, after Birdalone has used her magical boat to visit various isles, she reaches the narrative “center” of the story and begins to travel back, visiting all the sites she visited before, though some of them have altered by the time of the second visit. Morris would use this narrative strategy again in his best-known and longest fantasy-novel, THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END.
My most recent project has been to re-read the fantasy novels of the Victorian author William Morris, whom the 20th-century fantasy-writer Lin Carter credited with having initiated “the first great masterpiece of the imaginary-world tradition.” One can certainly quarrel with the criteria Carter chooses to define this tradition, but in essence he has a valid point. Prior to Morris, most fantasy-worlds were depicted as being either the phantasms of dreams, as with Carroll’s two ALICE novels, or as existing in some obscure corner of the normative world, as with the strange lands described in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS or the pseudo-Arabian realms of William Beckford’s VATHEK. For better or worse, Morris gave birth to the archetype of the fantasy-domain not tied to earthly expectations, which would be more fully elaborated by later authors like Dunsany, Lewis and Tolkien.
I didn’t anticipate getting much fun out of my scholarly task. In my first reading of Morris’ fantasies over twenty years ago, I was less than enthralled with his adoption of an extremely archaic style of writing, which sought to emulate the convoluted diction of old medieval romances. However, though during my re-read I still found the archaic style to be distracting, it didn’t impede me from appreciating Morris’ primary theme: the quest for a romantic fulfillment Morris apparently did not experience in his lifetime. Thus his imaginary-world novels—all of which take place in a medieval England that shares no place-names or history with the real country—may be interpreted as what Tolkien calls “fantasies of consolation.” Prior to the fantasies, Morris had also written historical novels after the primary model of Walter Scott. But since the four novel-length fantasies were written consecutively during the author’s last years, the last being finished a few weeks before his death, it’s logical to assume that for Morris the idealization of love dovetailed with the idealization of an enchanted England that never existed in history books.
About two years I had already re-read the first novel, 1894’s THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, so this time I only spot-read the novel. It begins with a character named “Golden Walter,” who on the face of things sounds less like a medieval hero than a Walter Scott protagonist, being that Walter is the son of a rich merchant. Further, unlike the many unaligned medieval heroes Walter begins the novel married to a shrewish, unappreciative wife, and he leaves his comfortable town of Langton in order to forget his bad marriage. If the unnamed wife is even disposed of at some point, I may have missed it.
As Walter leaves Langton, he experiences strange visions of three strangers, a woman who apparently holds as slaves a younger woman and a male dwarf. Later he will encounter the two women and the dwarf in the flesh when he crosses the titular “Wood Beyond the World.” None of the three are given proper names, though the women are dubbed “the Maid” and “the Mistress.” One doesn’t need a degree in Jungian psychology to perceive that these are archetypes first and living females second. The Mistress is a sorceress, though one sees little actual sorcery in the novel. Implicitly, since she has the authority of an older, landed woman, she is symbolically a “Woman of Experience,” making her homologous with the shrew Walter leaves behind—and the opposite of the Maid, who is a younger “Woman of Innocence.” The dwarf-servant may represent the ugliness beneath the Mistress’ surface beauty. In later chapters Walter will see the Mistress being friendly with yet another unnamed fellow, known only as the King’s Son, who is implicitly her lover, but the Mistress also takes a shine to Walter, and becomes jealous when Walter and the Maid fall in love.
There’s no much action, or even forward momentum, in WOOD. Walter eventually kills the dwarf, but he doesn’t have a satisfying arc that fulfills his character at the novel’s end. Rather, by authorial contrivance he just stumbles across a city that chooses to make him their local king. The nameless Maid is a little more interesting: after Walter kills the dwarf the Maid gives him very specific instructions regarding the dead man’s burial so as to avoid occult consequences—meaning that she really is not as innocent as she appears, but shares with the Mistress a feminine grasp of magical matters. She enjoys the novel’s best scene as well. When the Maid suspects that the Mistress plots to come to the Maid’s bed at night and kill her, the clever young woman drugs the King’s Son and hides him in the Maid’s bed, so that the Mistress kills him instead.