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Cry, Edgar Allan, and let loose Peace On Earth! How about the occasional war or skirmish, but the planet survives with its current food-chain order intact? I’ve long fantasized about a Star Trek future of egalitarianism (and, now and then, about certain Star Trek women, as well). Is peace an adult fantasy? Perhaps one of many.
In elementary school I enjoyed comic books (vehicles in four-color for the transmission of modern myth), and was inspired to read various ancient myths and legends. By the time I reached seventh grade, I was spending my lunch-money to purchase books by H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and such genre classics as Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula. And, I was still reading comic-books and the occasional contemporary science fiction paperback my dad would toss my way. Though I was delighted with this mixture of new and old, there must have been a longing within me for other forms of fiction. I didn’t know what they were at the time, but I knew them instantly when I encountered them...
The ad-pages at the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland always thrilled me (sometimes more than the articles). One day I saw an ad for the Lancer editions of Robert E. Howard’s 'Conan the Barbarian' with covers by Frank Frazetta. I’d seen Frazetta’s work in other Warren magazines and was immediately interested in Conan. Several days later, in the middle of the junior high-school cafeteria, I spotted someone reading one of the Conan paperbacks and made quite a fool of myself by knocking people out of the way to get to the kid and his paperback. I snatched it out of his hands, admired the cover-art, read a few lines at random, and returned the paperback with apologies. The genre of sword and sorcery (or heroic fantasy) had captured the imagination of another reader.
Around the same time, I was looking through an issue of the buy-trade-sell fanzine, Rocket’s Blast Comic Collectors, and noticed an ad for a print from an amateur artist depicting a bearded wizard in a round door-way, with a dozen dwarfs [sic.] at his feet. The art was enchanting and reminiscent of old lithographs with hundreds of fine lines. However, the subject matter of wizards and magical creatures, said to be based upon the works of someone named J. R. R. Tolkien, cast a spell upon me. Comics and sci-fi were fine, but there was something about barbarians and wizards that demanded my attention.
It took several months to heed the call. As I was going to school in Panama at the time, and the local bookstores and news-stands didn’t favor barbarians and wizards, I had to wait until we left Panama, my dad retired from the service, and I was stateside in Michigan to acquire the necessary tomes of tantalizing tales. A copy of Conan the Buccaneer (by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter; New York: Lancer Books, 1971) was claimed at a drug-store in Cass City, MI, and later I climbed the stairway leading to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings ‘trilogy’ by J. R. R. Tolkien at a bookstore in Owosso, MI. During eighth-grade I had an uneasy relationship with the local librarian, as I ordered reproductions of every article available about Tolkien published in major U.S, periodicals since the mid-1950s, and I didn’t have to pay a penny for the reproductions, most of which I still possess. The librarian thought I should be charged at least a nominal fee, but the school encouraged “research” such as mine, and had a policy of not charging for reproductions. I’m fairly certain the policy changed shortly after I moved on to high-school.
Ah, high-school! For reasons I’ll never fathom, I was excused from a few of my ninth-grade English classes to lecture before juniors and seniors. I remember that the older girls made me nervous and the older guys asked odd questions, like “What was Bilbo’s home address?” As far as how Tolkien has impacted my life after ninth-grade, I’ve described it partially in other columns, and the rest will have to wait its turn.
Of course, Conan and Tolkien were just the beginning. Interest in Howard's hero led me to Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, and other sword and sorcery adventurers with names like Brak and Thongor. Besides whetting my appetent blade (the cover-art was often risqué), reading Howard also served to introduce me to the pulp magazine, Weird Tales, and the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. And Lovecraft led to Lord Dunsany and William Morris and George MacDonald and Clark Ashton Smith and E. R. Eddison and William Hope Hodgson, which then led to Mervyn Peake and many other authors of fantastic fiction. The local bookstore I visited seemed to feature a new classic fantasy paperback every couple of weeks. I had stumbled onto one of the most important reprint series ever published. And, in ways both figuratively and literally, it was due to Tolkien.
The popular and financial successes of the paperback book versions of The Lord of the Rings (the unauthorized Ace and the later Ballantine editions), from fads on college campuses to being light reading in the jungles of Vietnam to Leonard Nimoy singing about Bilbo Baggins (perhaps going where no man should have gone before), garnered global attention. Sure, Tolkien had his critics, but the recent release of J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), attests to some pretty strong sentiments by a lot of folks that Tolkien’s writings reached far and deep, and touched many on basic (barbaric and beautiful) levels. One immediate and important effect was the overflowing coffers at Ballantine Books, the authorized American publisher of Tolkien’s paperback works, and their subsequent eagerness to offer writings by others who might appeal to Tolkien’s fans. After achieving a modicum of success with a selected group of fantasy authors, Ballantine Books initiated their 'Adult Fantasy' series, edited by Lin Carter, which released long out-of-print and rare works of imaginative fiction (sometimes referred to as “high” fantasy, being sophisticated in metaphor and allegory, as opposed to “low” or “common” fantasy and intended for very young children). Under the seal of a unicorn, the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series gave us glimpses into worlds long neglected. The series was a critically acclaimed hit. Financially? At least it was published; that’s what’s important.
In late 1984 I attended an afternoon signing at Kroch’s and Brentano’s flagship store on Wabash for a new edition of The Mabinogion (trans. by Gwyn and Thomas Jones, London: Dent, 1949; with illustrations by Alan Lee, The Netherlands: Dragon’s Dream/Ballantine, 1982). The artist, Alan Lee, was signing and accompanied by the publishers, Ian and Betty Ballantine. I was familiar with Lee’s work from Faeries: Described and Illustrated by Brian Froud and Alan Lee (ed. by David Larkin; New York: Abrams, 1978), and his Drawings portfolio (Boston: Cygnus Press/Thomas Todd Printers, 1983), which I’d purchased through Bob Gould, the founder of Cygnus Press and the artist most often associated with Michael Moorcock’s albino prince, Elric of Melniboné. [Note: Just a couple of weeks ago I visited the do-it-yourself framing store that Gould worked at for many years in Brookline, MA, spoke a bit about when he used to work there, and I still feel bad that Bob helped me purchase the Alan Lee, Jeffrey Jones, and Barry Windsor Smith portfolios, even though I didn’t shell out the clams for the fourth portfolio in the set by him. Sorry, Bob. Good to hear that you're doing better.]
Though the LSD nouveau-blondes at the signing were tempting, as was the wine and cheese offerings, Lee and the Ballantines were standing apart from Chicago’s sort-of-finest, and I chose to forgo freebies and speak with them. I complimented Lee on his work, turned to Betty Ballantine and shared my sincere appreciation of her efforts in championing the publishing of five volumes of Frank Frazetta’s art, and then shook her husband Ian’s hand and told him how much the publishing of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series meant to me and what a great service he’d provided. We spoke of Tolkien, Lin Carter, and our need for heroic adventure. I finished with a rambling with Lee about Arthurian legend and Welsh myth, acquired a few signatures, and left with only the briefest of glances at the nouveau-blondes. It was a great chat.
Chicago has a long standing association with fantasy. After doing well enough selling my own Christmas cards one year, I was reluctant to give up the cool display space I had at various stores, so I quickly put together a series of illustrated note-cards based upon Chicago authors. There was L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes), and Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; filmed as Ridly Scott's Bladerunner). I also did Nelson Algren (Walk on the Wild Side) and started on Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea), and had bookstore owners in Chicago and Boston asking for authors not associated with Chicago (like Howard and Lovecraft), when drawing Papa Hemingway with a shotgun in the corner bummed me out and I stopped the series.
New England, likewise, has many associations with fantasy. The hoary hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the eerie and exotic tales which were imported through the bustling 18th century seaports undoubtedly combined to form a background of verisimilitude and helped make the local ghost stories a bit more creepy. The textual triumvirate of terror (Poe in Boston’s Bay Village, Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island, and Stephen King in Maine) attest to an appreciation of genre far superior to the traditional blathering about achieving bliss at some boring, little pond. I mean, it isn’t like the transcendentalists wrote about mysterious eyes in the woods, something unexplained moving in the water, or discussed the haunting spirit of a lost soul who couldn’t or wouldn’t swim. While cosmic horror still threatens those who visit New England stone circles and monuments, it’s the gothic gentrification of ABC’s Dark Shadows that most people recall. Okay, Collinwood was supposed to be in Maine and the actual mansions were in Newport, RI (for the television series) and Tarrytown, NY (for the two movies). Ghosts, witches, vampires, and werewolves! Ah, New England!
My allegiance to the genre of fantasy was strengthened with last year’s release of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The greatest movie ever produced; right? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Star Wars: Episode II, The Attack of the Clones were made for and marketed to people with ADHD, halitosis, and few social skills. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was a respectable cinematic contribution (Kirsten Dunst/Mary Jane in the rain remains especially inspiring), but even the Webhead can’t compare to the perfection that is The Fellowship. And, apparently, the rest of the planet thinks so, too. In Elvish (Quenya), I believe the appropriate saying is: Nah nah nah nah nah nah. This ancient saying does not translate into English easily, but a close approximation might be: “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.” The first, third, and fifth nahs are stressed, of course.
In April 2002, I received a wonderful gift. An e-mail correspondent, whom I’ve never met or spoken with, gave me a signed letter by J. R. R. Tolkien. As I’ve explained elsewhere (see ‘Related Writings’ below), this gift rocked my world. And, to paraphrase the ending of “Spider-Man,” by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (Amazing Fantasy, No. 15, Aug. 1962; pp. 1-11), ...with a great gift there must also come – a great responsibility.
An uncomfortable amount of folks asked me when I was going to sell the letter and how much I thought I’d get for it. Sure, I still do the buy-trade-sell collector thing, but the letter doesn’t so much belong to me, as it shares my home until it’s time for it to move on. Towards making the letter as comfortable as possible, I framed it with a double-mat (at the framing store where Bob Gould used to work) with a nice 5" x 5" b/w publicity photo of Prof. Tolkien leaning against a tree. [Note: After a lawyer from the Tolkien Estate said photographs were not part of the firm’s concern, and a few members of various Tolkien societies confessed to lacking any good suggestions, I telephoned Houghton Mifflin Publishing, here in Boston. I said I was interested in a quality photograph. I was asked, “Of who?” As Houghton Mifflin makes most of their cash through textbooks, was the original American publisher of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933), and is also the publisher of the much beloved writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, I figured I was safely in Middle-Earth. After a good laugh, I was sent a free photograph. And, it has a tree in it!] The framed letter now lives above Bill and Ted, my piranhas, between a print of Alan Lee’s “Rivendell” and a current Tolkien calender. I believe it’s happy. I am.
I’ve received a half-dozen or so e-mails about Tolkien since I posted to the UseNet newsgroup, alt.fan.tolkien, regarding my letter boon. An e-mail a couple of weeks ago was addressed to Christopher Tolkien, Ronald’s son, and was a cute abstract of joy and poor typing. I get a lot of unsolicited e-mails about fantastic archaeology, not-so-fantastic archaeology, Mormons, and a group of women in Russia who apparently want to be aggressively intimate. Answering e-mails about Tolkien has never been a problem with me, a source of a guffaw or three, yes, however replying remains the reciprocal and requited correspondence due and owed to any fan. ‘Nuff said!
With kudos and homage to J.R.R.T., attention is likewise diffused to other areas, and much like the revenue from Tolkien’s works financed the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, The Fellowship movie has once more opened the door for genre. A couple of months before I received the signed Tolkien letter, I acquired a package of L. Sprague de Camp material. At first, because the price was near that of a few dozen Krispy Kreme donuts and a case of good beer, I welcomed the acquisition as chump change well spent. The package consisted of a single-page typed letter (dated “26 Sep 56"), signed in full by L. Sprague de Camp, envelope, and a separate postcard (dated “27 Mar 57") typed by De Camp, with a lengthy P.S. in ink, and signed with red pencil “de C.” De Camp writes in the letter that “a Lieutenant in the Swedish Air Force, Bjorn Nyberg (pronounced, I think, about like Newberry) has written a novel, THE RETURN OF CONAN...,” and that he was contracted to “do some mild rewriting.” The Return of Conan, by Bjorn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp (New York: Gnome Press, 1957) was reprinted as Conan the Avenger, by Robert E. Howard, Bjorn Nyberg, and L. Sprague de Camp (“The Hyborian Age, Part Two” by Howard and The Return of Conan by Nyberg and De Camp); New York: Lancer Books, 1968. Nyberg’s pulp appreciation of the genre and a Frazetta cover of a scantily clad babe combined to make it into the keep-it-forever pile. I still own a much used copy of Lancer’s Conan the Avenger (a necessity, as Frazetta got bored with the original and repainted). As I’ve recently discovered (having failed to previously regard De Camp even remotely as a controversial figure), apparently not everyone was impressed with Sprague.
I offered the De Camp postcard to a friend, who hesitantly agreed to accept it, as he apparently holds a grudge against Sprague stemming from correspondence regarding a purchase of Al Azif: The Necronomicon, by Abdul Alhazred with a preface by L. Sprague de Camp (Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1973). At two recent fantastic archaeology conferences I attended, De Camp’s name came up more than once, usually with the rude ad hominem that he was a “hack science fiction writer,” or with the slur that his non-fiction skeptical work was intended for amateurs, rather than professionals, but impressed neither group. Ouch! [Note: For examples of De Camp’s non-fiction, see Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature; New York: Gnome Press, 1954 (paperback; New York: Dover, 1954); The Ancient Engineers; New York: Dorset Press, 1963; The Fringe of the Unknown; New York: Prometheus Books, 1983; The Ape-man Within; New York: Prometheus Books, 1995.] I suppose it’s understandable that the anti-technological Unabomber took exception to De Camp’s Ancient Engineers and that some who favor pseudoscience attempt ridicule by disapproval of De Camp being a Fellow with CSICOP (The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Such reactions from the Fringe are to be expected. Learning that some in the fantasy community have taken offense at De Camp, however, has caught me by surprise.
L. Sprague de Camp was an engineer, a naval officer, a writer, and a fan of fantasy. I fondly recall his advice to “Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph,” from his Science Fiction Handbook: Revised (Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1975). He always struck me as someone who enjoyed, really enjoyed, writing genre fiction for a living. There’s an online review of one of his early novels, Rogue Queen, in which a feminist pokes a little fun at Sprague, but it brings up valid points (I don’t know if I’d wish to read similar feminist reviews of Robert A. Heinlein, though). I’ve known for awhile that Howard purists don’t care for De Camp’s rewriting of certain Howard tales which turned them into Conan yarns, as well as the subsequent pastiches written by De Camp and Carter, and have lobbied to establish a Conan canon consisting of just original Howard material (i.e. the Donald Grant series and the recent Wandering Star books), but I didn’t realize the debate got ugly. Here’s a polite discussion about the Lancer Conan series, and here’s a not so polite one about De Camp, Conan, and money. Yeah, the De Camp letter I’ve acquired mentions money, but my opinion of the man, the writer, and the fan hasn’t changed. Besides, missing out on some donuts and beer was probably a good thing.
The fantasy renaissance continues. Marvel Entertainment has sequels to The X-Men and Spider-Man in the works, as well as movies featuring Daredevil, The Hulk, and other characters planned for down the road. There’s chit and chat again that Arnold might be interested in playing King Conan, an older, less buff, but wiser barbarian. Remember my question above about The Fellowship being the greatest movie ever produced? Well, I would have answered “Yes” if asked before Nov. 12, 2002, when The Fellowship: Extended Edition (with over 30 minutes of new material) was released. Now, the appropriate response would be that while the theatrical version of The Fellowship was at one time considered the greatest movie ever produced, the title now belongs to the The Fellowship: Extended Edition. And, wonder of wonders, the title might soon pass to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers after its release Dec. 18, 2002.
I was thrilled to watch the new material in The Fellowship: Extended Edition. More hobbit humor and an enlarged gift-giving scene with Galadrial went a ways, in my opinion, in making up for Jackson’s decision to leave out Bombadil and create a larger role for Arwen. It follows, then, that the greatest movie ever produced should be sold as the greatest DVD set of all time, which I believe it is. The picture quality is impeccable, the sound is flawless, and the behind-the-scenes discs are cool and cooler. The Fellowship: Extended Edition Collector’s Gift Set includes a fifth DVD (National Geographic: Behind the Movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, with bonus features; 2002), and a set of bookends in the shape of The Argonath, designed by Alan Lee. So, one would expect the greatest DVD set of all time to have the greatest price of all time, right? It sort of does... I pre-ordered my copy of the Collector’s Gift Set through Barnes and Noble online for around $59.94 (discounted from the $79.92 suggested retail price), B&N knocked off another ten bucks and change the day before they shipped it as part of a holiday promotion, the set comes with a ticket to see The Two Towers when it comes out, and the set also qualifies for a ten dollar rebate from New Line Entertainment, which will bring the final cost to around $27 or so bucks. For 5 DVDs and awesome bookends? Life is good. And, sometimes, it gets really good.
Last week a friend of mine located a Tolkien letter he’d misplaced in his files. I’d commented many times over the last year and half that he should get his files in order, locate the Tolkien letter, and suggested he never abandon it near an open window or door. With his wife’s assistance, they selected a double-mat and framed it. Tolkien had been ill at the time of the letter, was unable to sign correspondence, and the letter has a proxy signature by his secretary (the “pp” being a British convention and abbreviation for per pro or per procurationem). It’s a charming example of Tolkien’s commitment to his readers. My friend gave me his Tolkien letter. Yeah, sometimes life gets really good.
Now, as these things go, my soon to be ex-galpal has summed up the matter with, “So, you’ve got half a signed Tolkien letter, a letter signed by Tolkien’s secretary, when are you going to grow up and get a real signed Tolkien letter?” There’s an adult fantasy there, rather personal, and probably best left for another time.
As we close 2002, our first full year after 9-11, I’m still nervous, angry, and scared peace will remain another adult fantasy. Those other adult fantasies (no, not those), the ones with heroes and babes (and sometimes babe-heroes) usually involve taking out the (super) villains to achieve peace. It’s a quest. Some might say the only quest. Peace On Earth shouldn’t be a fantasy.
If'n you don't know by now;