The Fantastic Horizon
Reviewed by David Bratman
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 109/110.]
The fantasy literature field has many diligent book reviewers and learned scholars. What it needs is a polemicist: someone who can deploy wide reading and deep understanding in the confident assertion of patterns, trends, and evaluations beyond strict scholarly demonstration. Tom Shippey has some of the features of that polemicist, in his depth of understanding and the robustness of his arguments. Lin Carter had the breadth of reading and the breeziness of style, but not the depth or the critical acumen: he was an enthusiast, not a scholar. The best polemicist in the field today may well be Darrell Schweitzer. Fiction author and editor of magazines and books, he is also a critic and reviewer with both a broad perspective and a mastery of critical judgment, and also with passionately held and clearly expressed views on the nature and state of fantasy literature.
Schweitzer previously collected some of his non-fiction into Windows of the Imagination in 1998. This new collection consists of pieces postdating that, and the selection of topics happens to be of even greater interest for the mythopoeic reader. Schweitzer brings a welcome perspective to mythopoeic literature. Unlike Shippey, whose central interests are Tolkien and the medieval tradition, or Carter, who most loved colorful barbarian adventures, Schweitzer makes his intellectual base in what used to be called “weird tales” (the title of a magazine he formerly edited), especially — as Windows of the Imagination makes clear — the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Weird tales exist on the borderline between fantasy and horror, often with an overlay of science-fiction rationalism. Ranging from this base, Schweitzer is well-equipped to pronounce on all three of the fields that form fantastic literature, and he treats all three in this book.
Unfortunately the topics he’s chosen to write on offer no more than brief mentions of Lewis and Williams, though he clearly knows their work. But the essays on The Lord of the Rings that begin this volume are invaluable, specifically for their perspective. Most people who write on Tolkien’s literary qualities are either themselves Tolkienists or from other literary universes altogether. Schweitzer is neither, and considers LotR as it appears from the perspective of a professional writer and editor from the pulp dark-fantasy tradition, at which it holds up fairly well. So on the one hand he finds the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings a bit “twee” and has practical criticisms to make of some aspects of the plot, but on the other he doesn’t waffle around in ignorance. He has a keen appreciation of Tolkien’s mastery of the creepy and spooky, devoting an entire brief essay to “J.R.R. Tolkien as a Horror Writer”; he understands Tolkien’s heroic code, citing The Battle of Maldon for that purpose as assuredly as any Tolkienist would; and he grasps the imminence of the divine and the absence of formal religion, in contrast to Lin Carter, who stared at this in incomprehension. He knows, also, that The Lord of the Rings isn’t a trilogy (62).
Other essays have a little more to say on Tolkien, because you can’t discuss fantasy without his name coming up. Schweitzer uses The Lord of the Rings to ridicule critical over-interpretations (40-41), and zeroes in on an important point by using it to demonstrate that epic fantasy cannot be reduced to the politics of the plot (73). But this essay, on “Epic and Fantasy in Epic Fantasy,” makes this vital argument in a broader context, citing Lewis, Le Guin, and David Lindsay among others. Similarly, he quickly fixes on Tolkien’s feelings on war by comparing the ends of The Lord of the Rings and Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, and gets at the heart of the meaning of fantasy in his explanation of what myth and legend are for, in an essay on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and on the horror of an over-dependence on technology in one on Lord Dunsany’s The Pleasures of a Futuroscope.
Overall, the book’s greatest value is Schweitzer’s keen perception of the larger generic field of fantasy. Peripheral as much of such work is to the specifically mythopoeic perspective, it’s a large and active neighboring kingdom, and Schweitzer makes an entertaining and affable guide to some of its byways. His discussion of “Who Killed Horror?” has a lot to say about fantasy as a marketing category. He is a keenly appreciative critic, notably here of two early-to-mid 20th-century authors of more than passing interest: Robert Nathan, whose Portrait of Jennie, as Schweitzer observes, is not only a work of elegant style but an illustration of what fantasy can do if it doesn’t fall into formulaic ruts; and Francis Stevens, an obscure author of remarkably fey stories.
Schweitzer makes another contribution to fantasy criticism even more valuable because of its rarity, in a section of the book devoted to pulp fiction. Cheerfully admitting that they’re are not very good, Schweitzer analyzes a series of pulp science-fiction stories from the 1920s and 30s. Even the plot summaries – necessary because you haven’t read these stories, and as they’ve not been reprinted you won’t find them — are fun to read. (“What this story needs,” he muses of one unmemorable South Seas adventure tale, “is a giant gorilla,” 94.) Schweitzer does not dismiss these stories as mere formulas intended to entertain, but asks specifically how they choose to entertain in terms of what the formula was trying to accomplish and whether it achieved this in these specific cases. Literary analysis is always best when it respects the integrity of its subject, even when the subject is trash.
Schweitzer carries his practice of bold pronouncements on into literary theory and history. Because this is not a work of formal scholarship, he can make the kind of sweeping assertions that you always suspected were the case, without having to prove them in potentially dull scholastic manner. Cheer as he brushes aside allegorical analysis of Tolkien (41) and literally responds “phooey” to critics of the so-called “intentional fallacy” (57). Thrill as he reveals, in detail, how Hugo Gernsback and Lester del Rey, the founding editors of genre science-fiction and genre fantasy, respectively, actually turned once-thriving fields into barren wastelands for decades to come (157-67, 65-66). And what work of demotic fantasy polemics would be complete without a few hearty digs at that hapless mainstream critic, Edmund Wilson, for his thoughtless dismissals of not just Tolkien (“[Wilson’s] head belongs on that spike,” 29), but Lovecraft (“Take that, Edmund Wilson!,” 148) too.
So there is a great deal worth reading in this book, starting with that vigorous analysis of Tolkien, and continuing on through much else, including a couple of elegies to used-book hunting. Unfortunately there are also a lot of typographical errors. A reference to a 1929 pulp story blurbed with “Sea Seas Treasure”? (94). Probably “South Seas Treasure” was correct. And Edgar Poe did not move to Philadelphia in 1938 (122), though it would have been interesting if he had.