Saturday, March 3, 2012
The Well of the Unicorn by Fletcher Pratt, a review
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
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
and elsewhere, as in
this bit: United States
“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.