Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy is a study of the evolution of fantasy fiction, beginning with its earliest predecessors to the work of then contemporary practitioners. Published in June 1973 as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, it is an ambitious title magnificently flawed by the hubris of its author.
The book’s first chapters on the careers of Lord Dunsany, R. A. Eddison, Mervyn Peake, William Morris and other early masters are extremely valuable, providing both biographical information and establishing a timeline for the evolution of fantasy settings from the mundane (earthly kingdoms and lost civilizations) to entirely original secondary worlds. Carter’s strong editorial voice and legendary ego are both at their most subdued during these first chapters. Unfortunately, both are soon enough loosed with disastrous results.
The midsection of the book tackles both the early pulp writers and the works of Carter’s mid-century contemporaries. It is here that Carter begins to shed any presumption of objectivity, sniping at the work of fantasy fiction’s masters with abandon. Robert E. Howard? Messy, at least until Carter and his colleague L. Sprague de Camp “tightened” his fiction up by rewriting and even inventing out of whole-cloth entire stories based on the smallest fragments of the Texas author’s work. Tolkien? All well and good, except for the “mistake” of not inventing gods and a religious hierarchy for Middle Earth. The fiction of Michael Moorcock? “Sloppy.” Naturally, these “problems” never stopped Carter from cribbing from his betters for his own anemic pastiche.
The final third of the book purports to be a look behind the curtain at fantasy world creation, but once again Carter’s ego gets in the way. The section on the creation of imaginary names is especially odious: Carter draws from the work of his contemporaries for examples of poor character and place names (admittedly, some of these are justified) and then has the unbelievable hubris to use his own work as a counter-example of these techniques done correctly. Outrageously enough, one such example given of his own work features a sorcerer with the dubious name “Herpes Zoster.”
Carter closes the book with some talk about swords and sorcery fiction’s future, but detours briefly to decry the work of science fiction’s “New Wave”, finding the movement’s use of fiction to examine contemporary social issues as well as the sentiment that genres should evolve to both be especially worthy of condemnation.
Imaginary Worlds does offer some value to fans of the swords and sorcery boom of the sixties. Carter cites many authors from that period who have now been lost to obscurity: a potential treasure trove for those devoted enough to seek them out at their local paperback exchange. Whether these same fans will still be able to trust Carter’s tastes after finishing this book is another question entirely.