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The Compleat Enchanter -
The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea:
Fantasy Masterworks 10
by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
(Gollancz, 6.99, 532 pages, paperback; first published 1940-1954; this collection first published 1988 as The Intrepid Enchanter [vt The Complete Compleat Enchanter]; this edition 12 October 2000.)

cover scanThe four long novellas and one shortish novel that comprise this volume have a fairly complicated publishing history, into the full bibliographical abysses of which it is probably wisest not to venture. The first three -- "The Roaring Trumpet", "The Mathematics of Magic" and the novel The Castle of Iron -- were first published in Unknown in 1940-41; of these the first two were loosely fixed up as a single "novel" called The Compleat Enchanter (1975). The other two of the five -- "The Wall of Serpents" and "The Green Magician" -- originated over a decade later, in 1953 and 1954 respectively, and were likewise released in book form as a fixup, The Wall of Serpents (1960; vt The Enchanter Completed). Later came another couple of tales by de Camp alone: "Sir Harold and the Gnome King" (1990) and "Sir Harold of Zodanga" (1995), but these are not included in the current volume. The canon has been further added to by other authors, notably Christopher Stasheff.

And that's the simplified version...

The series hero is Harold Shea, a psychologist one of whose colleagues, Reed Chalmers, has been working on a theory whereby people could hypothetically transport themselves into alternate realities through thoroughly imbibing the Boolean equations that express the logical underpinning of the relevant reality. In "The Roaring Trumpet" Shea tries this out at home and suddenly finds himself in Asgard, where he allies himself with the Aesir as Ragnarok approaches. In "The Mathematics of Magic" Shea more confidently tries the trick again, this time taking Chalmers with him, and the pair have adventures in the reality of Spenser's The Faerie Queene; most significantly, Shea hooks up with the spritish forest girl Belphebe, whom at the end of the story he brings back with him to our reality and who is subsequently a series character alongside him. He has married her by the start of the novel The Castle of Iron, which is set in the milieu of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. "The Wall of Serpents" takes place in the realm of the Kalevala and "The Green Magician" in the Ireland of Cuchulainn.

The Compleat Enchanter tales are seen as the ancestors of that strain of comic fantasy which has reached its current peak in the works of Terry Pratchett. Novels by expert practitioners in this subgenre -- a category which unfortunately excludes almost all of Pratchett's imitators -- and inexpert ones alike generally follow the pattern established by de Camp and Pratt: all or a good part of the action takes place in a fantasyland whose skewed logic both fascinates and provides a constant undercurrent of humour.

It was the skewed-logic aspect that appealed to John W. Campbell Jr, the editor of Unknown who published the first three tales. Campbell was a man with a highly structured mind (a pretty odd bloody structure, some might maintain, but that's beside the point), and he was eager to see fantasy codified, so that it would have rules in the same way that the laws of science supposedly governed the genre he preferred, science fiction. De Camp's and Pratt's pretence that they were applying just such a set (or series of sets) of rules to magic -- the underpinning of almost all genre fantasy -- was therefore right up the Cambellian street.

The trouble is that it was, as stated, quite simply a pretence. We are given a few fragments of the Boolean equations that Shea must recite in order to effect his transition from one reality to the next, and really their relevance is no greater than if he'd been saying "Abracadabra!" or "Hocus! Pocus!" Other "rules" are introduced, such as that any gadgetry Shea brings with him into a fantasy reality won't work; but there's no more coherent explanation of why this should be than there is in the average traditional story about a mortal incursion into Fairyland, where very much the same effect occurs.

This might seem to be irrelevant -- after all, you might say, what's important is that the tales work as entertainment -- but that would be to ignore the major role that skewed logic plays in works of humorous fantasy (and indeed in almost all humorous fiction). Most of the best jokes rely on a final shock logical leap from a premise that is convincingly quasi-rational and has generally been built up in a quasi-logical progression. Remove that premise and there is no basis for the punchline; almost always, the joke is not funny but just sort of silly and trivial.

And this is an ongoing problem with the Compleat Enchanter tales as entertainment. Events tend really just to happen. They're enjoyable enough, but, as there's no particular reason why one should follow the other, similarly there's no particular reason to keep turning the pages. It's clear that de Camp and Pratt were aware of this, because all five of the tales here don't so much end -- in some kind of climax or resolution -- as just peter out. At the end of the first tale, for example, we have no idea of how this version of Ragnarok will prove or even if Shea has really affected it at all; it's just time for him to get the hell out (perhaps, Fanthorpe-fashion, the two authors realized they were fast approaching the permitted word-count), so he does. Story's over; on with the next one.

Which leads to a further difficulty. There's not much new to say in each fresh story, aside from the change of venue. "Formulaic" is a cruel word, but it's hard not to apply it here. Certainly this reader's heart did not soar at the prospect of each new story's beginning. Rather there was the sense that, for a full understanding of the tale, all that had to be established was the new setting; from there the rest of the story could be more or less taken as read.

But one after the other may not be the ideal way to approach the five tales in this volume. Singly, with long intervals between the reading, the four novellas are entertaining, and there are a few good jokes lurking in the midst of these 532 pages. The Castle of Iron, the novel, is less successful, primarily just because it is longer, so that the conceit is wearing a bit thin by its end. The characterization of Belphebe is a delight; it's a pity that none of the other protagonists, Shea included, are much more than names on the page. In sum, then, it cannot be denied that these tales justify their recognized status as seminal in the story of comic fantasy; in that sense they are required -- and important -- reading. There should be a copy of this book on the shelf of every serious student of fantasy.

Presumably to enhance the reader's sense of the historical significance of these stories, Millennium/Gollancz have preserved all the many typographical errors of the previous printing.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 3 March 2001