Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. Recently, he began branching out into fantasy, and was surprised by the diversity of the genre. It’s not all wizards, elves, and dragons! Scott’s new blog series, Forays into Fantasy, is an SF fan’s exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today. FiF will examine some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building up an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.
Fletcher Pratt, a military historian with a background in journalism and linguistics—he also worked as a translator—is best known to fantasy readers for his many collaborations with L. Sprague de Camp, especially the sequence of Harold Shea stories collected as The Incompleat Enchanter (1941). Earlier, he had published stories in Hugo Gernsback’s science fiction pulps as early as 1928. The Well of the Unicorn (1948) is one of two fantasy novels published by Pratt. The second, The Blue Star, came out in 1952, and neither was commercially successful, which may be why he abandoned the genre. According to James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock, who include this novel in their Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, the publisher insisted that Pratt use a pseudonym (George U. Fletcher) to protect his reputation as a serious historical writer (although the de Camp collaborations had already been appearing under his own name), and the book flopped upon release, the publisher going out of business soon thereafter. Revived later as a paperback reprint, the book has gained in reputation since, lauded by Cawthorn and Moorcock along with David Pringle (it’s third chronologically in his Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels) and being reprinted in 2001 as part of the Fantasy Masterworks series.
The plot will strike today’s readers as a fantasy standard: A young man—the protagonist Airar Alvarson—is unjustly removed from his family’s land by the Vulkings, who are consolidating their power and influence throughout the land of Dalarna, which is occupied by a number of different ethnic groups, including the Delacarles, Airar’s people, all of whom submit to an Empire which seems to be very decentralized (similar to the power of kings in early feudal Europe) and therefore not directly present to influence these events. Airar must set out into the world to find a living, but is soon waylaid by a talking owl, who leads him to the home of the wizard Meliboë, who offers Airar some gold to take a message to a band of conspirators (the “Iron Ring”) who are planning to fight back against the Vulkings’ depradations. Airar falls in with this group and, as the story progresses and the uprising grows, eventually becomes a military leader of the movement as he demonstrates his leadership abilities and tactical skill, a development foreseen by Meliboë. Along the way, he helps bring together various factions within Dalarna to resist the Vulkings—factions who normally would not be interested in cooperation, due to their differing social philosophies. As the story progresses, Airar matures into a leader, explores Dalarna with an eye to how its various societies work, and sets his heart on the Princess Argyra.
It sounds like a stock fantasy plot, but it must be kept in mind that this novel is prior to The Lord of the Rings, and the subsequent deluge of similar multi-volume quest/coming-of-age narratives. L. Sprague de Camp maintained that Pratt was influenced by Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, and Pratt himself points to Lord Dunsany as a precursor. Pratt borrows some of Dalarna’s history from Dunsany’s play “King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior” though, as Pratt points out in his Author’s Note, “the events he cites took place generations before any told here, and he was only interested in a very small part of them.” The Well of the Unicorn, then, is a very early example of the “secondary world” fantasy—a fantasy set in a world that doesn’t exist, and to which (unlike, for example, Oz or Narnia), there is no access from our world. If modern readers find the premise familiar, it is because they have subsequently absorbed decades of this type of fantasy, though it would have seemed quite novel in 1948. (It would be interesting to know if Tolkien read Pratt’s fantasies.)
Though the plot (and to some degree the setting) will seem familiar to today’s fantasy readers, other aspects will come across as more unusual. The novel is quite long and complex, and is full of philosophical conflicts and discussions, to the point where it’s likely that modern fantasy fans might be impatient with the lack of action and forward movement, despite the fact that the story is based around a series of military campaigns. Airar, who has been “taxed out” of his land, along with many of his countrymen, by the Vulkings, becomes interested in why some societies are more successful than others. In particular, he explores the tradeoff between individual freedom and social order and discipline. The main contrast in his mind is between the Vulkings, who promote the most able individuals to positions of power, while enforcing rigid military discipline (ancient Rome could be the model), and the Carrhoene people of the Twelve Cities, who have a hereditary class-based system, in which individuals are raised to take on the positions they will ultimately hold in their society (as in feudal Europe). Airar’s own Delacarle people are more devoted to individual freedom and self-sufficiency (reminiscent of America in the colonial period), but lack the organization to resist the rule of the Vulkings. He also considers the freebooting “free city” of Os Erigu as a model. As Meliboë explains it to him:
For see—all’s well to be free and labor together (this is the thought forward on which you look, I take it); all’s well when it’s a matter of two or three to build a byre or hunt a bear, but when there are foemen in the land or something other where each man cannot see for himself what’s to be done, why then all must take the guidance of a man they never have seen nor perhaps heard on… So there’s your government permanent and paramount with authority atop and confidence below, and I know no ways of keeping it so but the ways of Briella [home city of the Vulkings] and Carhoenne. Ah, you’ll find tricks and devices, given names in the books—that is what books are for, to call names—but it comes to the same in the end… In either, those below are less than free.
Airar is not convinced. Instead, he develops the capacity to see the good and bad in the different societies (including those he considers enemies) in determining how to rule in a way that allows for authority when needed and freedom whenever possible. Since his own authority is derived from the respect from those who follow him, and his own respect for them, he seems on the way to doing his best to resolve a dilemma that can never entirely be solved.
This is also a novel in which war is interrogated. Airar starts out young and inexperienced, with a romantic vision of war and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get revenge on the Vulkings. But on seeing a comrade speared through the throat in his first taste of conflict, “Airar went sick in the realization that war was no dainty sport as he had been taught, but horror and pain and the death of friends.” He cannot take joy in destruction, even of those whom he believes must be destroyed. But peace may also be a mirage, as represented by the titular Well of the Unicorn, a place of magical and religious significance controlled by the Empire. Those who partake of the Well are supposed to realize peace, but the four tales of the Well interspersed throughout the story (all told second-hand), seem to indicate that those who drink from it do not necessarily end up better off because of it.
The role of magic in the novel is also unusual. As the Science Fiction Encyclopedia puts it, the world of the novel is “subtly irradiated” by magic. Its power is questionable, its results (as with the magical Well) may be unpredictable, and its use has consequences. Airar himself was trained by his father in magic, but the more he explores it, the less he desires to use it. It is physically draining, and Airar sees it as making him weak rather than strong. He would much prefer to show his capabilities as a man through real accomplishments, especially in battle, and by the end of the story shows no indication of using magic again. In fact, despite the existence of magic in the world of The Well of the Unicorn, it is very realistic for a fantasy novel. Dalarna could be Northern Europe during the early Middle Ages, the magic could be replaced by myth, and the story would be little altered. The battles depicted are based around realistic military tactics rather than magic. Magic in the story seems to be presented as something that the people of Darlarna might be better off without, representing a crutch by which some would avoid taking the real actions needed to deal with difficult situations. But this aspect, as with much else in the novel, is quite ambiguous.
While, as I have tried to indicate, there is much of interest in this novel, and its critical acclaim is understandable, it’s not surprising that it’s not better known and more popular. In a genre where exciting plot and intricate world building are prized, this is a novel in which the world is not especially original (it could be northern Europe in the early Middle Ages and nothing would need to change but the place names), and the plot bogs down for chapters at a time as the characters discuss strategy and debate philosophy. Pratt’s use of archaic-sounding language is also off-putting. Meliboë’s speech quoted above gives a sense of how the language style makes continuous use of odd sentence structures—objects placed before subjects, invented pronouns and contractions—making it very difficult to follow without maintaining strong concentration on the reading. Pratt, being a linguist, may have based this strange grammar on ancient or foreign language structures, but I don’t know this for certain. This helps to create an unusual sense of place and mood, but it becomes tiresome over the three-hundred-plus pages of the novel. The novelty quickly wears off, and it soon becomes an impediment to becoming immersed in the story.
The Well of the Unicorn, then, is an interesting chapter in the history of fantasy literature, and certainly has its rewards, but is not likely to appeal much to today’s readers of fantasy. It seems to resist the fantastic aspects, just as Airar resists the call of magic. It raises many questions, but leaves most unanswered. One possibility is that Fletcher Pratt was using a fantasy novel to call into question the appeal of fantasy itself to the human imagination.
Next time I’ll be looking at The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, a Fantasy Masterwork from 1908. It’s a precursor to the sort of "weird tale" that would be popularized later by H. P. Lovecraft and others. You’re all invited to read along!