Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Well of the Unicorn by Fletcher Pratt, a review

I’ve had pretty good results in my ongoing quest to track down and read those acknowledged fantasy classics that I’ve considered holes in my repertoire. George MacDonald’s Phantastes was worth the effort, a curious but powerful and interesting tale. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny I found to be a book of great ideas, if lacking slightly in execution. The Worm Ouroboros proved to be one of my all-time favorites. And so on.

Alas, that streak came to a halt with Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn. I was turned on to this 1948 novel by L. Sprague de Camp, who devoted a chapter to Pratt in his heroic fantasy assessment Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers. I got through The Well, but I found it to be a very hard slog. Pratt’s writing style is, to be honest, awkward and artless. I often found myself reading a page with my eyes glazed over and realized that nothing had sunk in. Sometimes I would go back and re-read but other times I couldn’t be bothered and plowed on, hoping to pick up the lost thread of the story.

What are some of the problems? Bizarre shifts in tenses. Dialogue introduced with either traditional quotation marks, or en-dashes. Run-on sentences. Multiple dialects that require effort to parse through what is being said. In general, dense, heavy writing. Paragraphs like this are very typical:

“To the central square!” said Rogai, and “Where do you think I go?” Airar. There stands the statue of King Argimenes with the old sword lifted from under the plough. At this place lights and people began to flow in, half unbelieving that Dalecarle revolters were in the town, curious that this might be some trick of the red triangle. A fire was lighted; when men saw by the banners that trick there was none, they began to come out in earnest, some with hidden, forbidden weapons, to caper around the blaze, handshaking with strangers, singing warsongs almost forgot:

Note the bizarre attribution (I believe Airar was the one who said “Where do you think I go,” but I’m still not sure). Add to that dozens upon dozens of minor characters that fail to distinguish themselves and a lack of a dramatis personae reference to aid the reader, and the Well of the Unicorn is just a really, really hard read.

So what’s it all about? This paragraph from Wikipedia sums it up as well as I could: The land of Dalarna is under the heel of the Vulkings, whose heavy taxation is forcing the Dalecarl yeomen out of their holdings. The protagonist Airar Alvarson is one of the dispossessed. On the advice of his mentor, the magician Meliboë, he joins the underground Iron Ring resistance, only to face defeat and failure. Captured and enslaved by the free fishers on the Gentebbi Islands, he goes through a series of adventures in which he gradually rises from a homeless fugitive to a great war leader.
The titular well actually exists (almost entirely off-screen) and represents religion; drinking it bestows peace on the imbiber, but it comes with a price, hinted as a loss of worldly ambition.

All that said, The Well of the Unicorn is not without merit. Unlike a lot of fantasy it tackles some weighty matters in its pages. Airar Alvarson struggles with questions like: From whence does moral authority derive? What gives one man the right to give orders to another, or a leader to rule a nation? Is good leadership the ability to compromise, or to take principled stands? When should we submit to authority and when should we be suspicious of its motivations?

As de Camp notes in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, the central theme is the philosophy of government: “how to organize men to fight effectively for freedom without losing freedom in the process.” In the Well the fascistic Vulkings are clearly superior not only militarily but organizationally, task-driven and sure of purpose. But does that make them better than the bickering and undisciplined but more open minded Dalecarles? The Well calls into question the value of national patriotism, a debate raging today in the United States and elsewhere, as in this bit:

“Some philosophy is needed to see why patriotism, though praised as a virtue among men, must be so carefully inculcated in children before they will have it. Indeed it is not a natural virtue at all, but only a substitute for that love of mankind which the bishops recommend. It’s a love which recognizes only one kind of man as man, have he blond hair or a dialect of Lacia.”

The Well of the Unicorn is unique in that it is in every sense pre-Tolkien-ian (or more accurately, pre Lord of the Rings, which was published six years later in 1954; The Hobbit was already on the marketplace) and so has none of the Tolkien influence that branded so much of fantasy for the ensuing decades. There’s no epic quest to parallel the war brewing in Dalarna, no overt good and evil sides in opposition, and so is much closer in spirit to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire with its warring factions, political scheming, and lack of a clear moral compass. It’s a reminder of how varied fantasy was before the endless cycles of Dragonlance, The Belgariad, The Sword of Shanarra, The Iron Tower trilogy, etc. came onto the scene in the wake of JRRT. There are some familiar fantasy tropes here, such as the wizard Meliboë the Enchanter, a Merlin-like figure who bestows advice and bits of wisdom and reveals divinations. Magic and monsters such as sea-demons make cursory appearances, but these elements are de-emphasized in the narrative. Pratt is also strong in his historical rendering of medieval arms and armor, if you like that sort of thing. The battles are briefly sketched but are rather violent and bloody.

Unfortunately I find it very difficult to recommend this book because of its poor execution. Telling a good story in an entertaining fashion is much of the reason why we read fantasy, and Pratt’s obtuse writing style makes it too darned hard to enjoy the ride. I can understand why the historically-minded de Camp enjoyed The Well of the Unicorn but it’s not for me.


Will Duquette said...

I'm not at all sure it's fair to list the Belgariad with The Sword of Shanarra and the Iron Tower Trilogy. Shanarra is clearly a direct rip-off of The Lord of the Rings in its general outlines, and I stopped reading the first book of the Iron Tower trilogy after I encountered Sam Gamgee in the Inn with Ted Sandyman in the first chapter or so. (At least, that's how I remember it; it was almost thirty years ago.) The Belgariad has no elves, dwarves, or ents; it's got a dark lord, Kal Torak, but he's mostly asleep; it's got an emphasis on prophecy that's completely lacking in Tolkien; and it's got an entirely different back story.

In fact, I'd suggest that the Belgariad owes more to Fritz Leiber, another mostly pre-Tolkien author, than to Tolkien.

Kent said...

Have you read WH Hodgson's The Night Land?

Tom Simon said...

It looks to me, from the excerpt you offered, as if Pratt was trying to use archaism for effect without knowing how archaism works. Sudden intrusions of the historic present, odd (to us) word choices and sentence structure, inversions for rhetorical effect — these things and more are common in archaic literature. But as Le Guin said in the incomparable ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, you have to know how to do them. Pratt does not, and so his efforts end in failure and a sort of goofball incoherence.

As for the bit about patriotism: Yes, indeed, children do need to be trained up to the level where they can recognize their country as an object of loyalty; as opposed to merely their town, their neighbourhood, their village, their clan, their family, or their street gang. You do not learn empathy for people you have never met except by long cultivation. The practical alternative to a world with patriotism is not a world where everybody loves everybody, but a world where everybody loves only himself, or at best, his nearest kin and neighbours.

Brian Murphy said...

I'm not at all sure it's fair to list the Belgariad with The Sword of Shanarra and the Iron Tower Trilogy.

You could very well be right Will; I read it way back in high school and my memory is a bit hazy. It was more of the broader format (multi-book epic quest fantasy series, pitting a band of good heroes against evil) that seemed so prevalent post-Tolkien that I was referring to with The Belgariad. Self-contained works of fantasy like The Well of the Unicorn were and still remain the exception.

Have you read WH Hodgson's The Night Land?

I have not, but it's definitely in my "to be read pile" (or it would be, if I owned a copy).

It looks to me, from the excerpt you offered, as if Pratt was trying to use archaism for effect without knowing how archaism works.

Good observation Tom. Tolkien for example does archaic language very well in The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin, and once you get the rhythm it works powerfully. Both of those books incidentally blow the doors off of The Well of the Unicorn. Agreed about your patriotism observation.

Michal said...

I tried reading The Well of the Unicorn once. I don't think I made it more than ten pages in; the prose bordered on the ludicrous.

Tim Mayer said...

I sometimes think that all High Fantasy novels can be characterized as "Before LOR" and "After LOR".
Been working on NIGHT LAND myself for the past few months. Lord, it is but a slog!

Ken said...

And so we learn again that tastes vary. This book remains a great favorite of mine. I've read it at least three times. Perhaps my appreciation is in part due to having first picked it up at a young age. The only criticism I would make is that the end is rather abrupt and, to me, unsatisfying. I wished the story to continue. I hope your disappointment does not take "The Blue Star", "The Incomplete Enchanter", "Land of Unreason", or "The Carnelian Cube" off your menu.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Ken, I wouldn't necessarily rule out another Pratt book. And there were parts of The Well of the Unicorn I liked, but I just find the style too offputting.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Terrible terrible writing. Imagination without structure is a sad and lonely thing.