Tue
Apr 21 2009 3:39pm

Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy

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.

5 comments
CE Petit
1. Jaws
With all due respect, Carter was no more arrogant and/or judgmental than many other editors in speculative fiction from the 1950s through 1970s; John W. Campbell is perhaps only the most obvious candidate. The problem continues today.

That said, it seems to me that many of the criticisms of IW stated above are valid in detail, but ultimately miss the point. The biggest problem with IW (and, in fact, with most lit crit-informed surveys) is that they are far too contextless. For example, why are Carter's remarks on "proper naming" so ill-founded? Primarily because the names are taken away from the context of the tale, including not just the social context and worldbuilding but the author's narrative style. A name like Thangobrind the Jeweler works in an ornate, "oriental" (in the sense that word was used in the early twentieth century) short story. Extend it to a novel, though; or change the setting to North American native mythology; or put the rest of the narrative in the plainer style of Asimov, or Orwell; and it doesn't.

Of course, I expect such problems with someone who suffered through Columbia during the 1950s. (Only partially snark... but that is a very, very long story in itself, reflected sideways in the funhouse mirror of James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale.)
Blue Tyson
2. BlueTyson
Matt,

Speaking of author citing, who? Anyone not in his or the various Sword and Sorcery anthologies?
MarcL
4. MarcL
Carter's various books on fantasy (including his book on Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos) introduced many young readers to classic and "lost" works of fantasy that they might not have encountered otherwise. They were also cannily tied to Ballantine re-releasing these books in its "Adult Fantasy" line. (The unicorn's head colophon still carries a faint memory of the thrill it gave me whenever I spotted it on a book when I was a teenager.) But it was impossible to read these essays without imagining Carter himself as a figure larger than life, a writer with talents the equal of his subjects. When I finally read Carter's own work, starting with the Callisto books, that impression was immediately shattered. Is there anything more pathetic than the majesty with which he attempted to surround his great unfinished epic, the Khymyrium? I still recall the brilliant distinguishing invention of which he was so proud: that in his world, all the mammals had horns...including the humans! He may have been terribly deluded about his own talents, but I still thank him sincerely for putting so many wonderful books in my hands.
David Lev
5. davidlev
I really want to read this book now. I'm much too young to have enjoyed Carter's revitalization of the fantasy genre through the Ballantine Adult Fantasy books, although recently I bought two of them (The Wood Beyond the World and the Water of the Wondrous Isles) and I've read some anthologies he's put together. I find myself fascinated by the period in fantasy lit that's post-Tolkien but pre-Le Guin et al (she's the first person that comes immediately to mind for me as a fantasy author who revolutionized the field), which from what I can tell was dominated by Carter (or at least he liked everyone to think so). Anywhoo, I'll keep my eyes peeled.

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