1977: From Zeus’s brow

This is the first in a five-part series on the ‘Fantasy Big Bang’ of 1977. You can find the other parts of the series here:

2. Lord of the Rinky-dink
3. Hero and fool
4. All roads to nowhere
5. Lost tales, unattained vistas


Somewhere or other, I suppose, there are people who would claim that some fundamental change or progress has overtaken the field of ‘high’ or ‘epic’ fantasy in the last thirty years. I suppose they must exist, because nowadays there is no claim so foolish that somebody cannot be found who will make it. In the same way, a century ago, there were those who claimed that England was not ruled by an oligarchy, and it was to these that G. K. Chesterton made his inimitable answer:

It is quite enough for me to know that a man might have gone to sleep some thirty years ago over the day’s newspaper and woke up last week over the later newspaper, and fancied he was reading about the same people. In one paper he would have found a Lord Robert Cecil, a Mr. Gladstone, a Mr. Lyttleton, a Churchill, a Chamberlain, a Trevelyan, an Acland. In the other paper he would find a Lord Robert Cecil, a Mr. Gladstone, a Mr. Lyttleton, a Churchill, a Chamberlain, a Trevelyan, an Acland. If this is not being governed by families I cannot imagine what it is. I suppose it is being governed by extraordinary democratic coincidences. —What’s Wrong with the World

An epic fantasy fan might have gone to sleep in 1977 beside a stack of books that were being massively sold and talked about by his fellow readers, and woke up beside a stack of this year’s books, and he would not even need the aid of fancy to see the same names on the spines. In one stack he would find a Shannara book by Terry Brooks, a Thomas Covenant book by Stephen R. Donaldson, and the long-awaited final masterpiece produced from the voluminous archives of the late J.R.R. Tolkien by his industrious son. In the other he would find a Shannara book by Terry Brooks, a Thomas Covenant book by Stephen R. Donaldson, and the long-awaited — but I need say no more. If this is not evidence of a genre trapped in its own formula, I cannot imagine what it is. I suppose it is a genre dominated by boldly original works that, by astounding coincidence, just happen to resemble one another exactly, down to the boldly original names of the authors.

Our fannish Rip van Winkle would also find in each stack a slew of massively popular but ultimately forgettable stories composed by slopping together every myth, legend, motif, and trope that came readily to hand, garnishing them with Tolkienesque riffs, dipping them in warmed-over Eastern philosophy and New Age heresy, and clapping the whole mess between the covers of as many paperback books as commercially possible. It is true that he would also find a great many more books in the new stack than in the old, and that some of the authors well known in 1977 have faded from public view, to be replaced by others more adept at regurgitating the standard formula. But the formula itself remains, pretty much as it was when it sprang full-grown from Lester del Rey’s brow, except that the violence has grown more explicit and modern editors have none of del Rey’s aversion to depictions of S-*-X. (This is not necessarily a point in their favour. Victorian prudery is a far more wholesome thing than some current authors’ habit of retailing their fetishes by the pornographic yard.)

All this could be very plausibly used to support a theory of fantasy literature based on the axiom that there is nothing new under the sun. But in fact all these things were new under the sun in 1977. To anyone whose reading tastes were formed, even in part, by the avalanche of Tolkien imitators of the last thirty years, the fantasy genre of 1976 must be as alien as a lunar landscape. In those days Sword & Sorcery was king, and king of a very small domain. Except in children’s books, fantasy was the weak sister of science fiction, a kind of playground where authors like Sprague de Camp and Poul Anderson went to relax after a serious day’s work of Inventing the Future. Harlan Ellison, if you classify his work merely by subject matter, is almost entirely a fantasy writer, but in those days he published nearly everything under the rubric of SF. It would be hard to find a more unabashed fantasy novel (or title) than Andre Norton’s Spell of the Witch World; but when that was published in 1972 as DAW Book No. 1, it bore the howlingly idiotic front-cover blurb, The long-awaited new book of extra-galactic super-science. SF was where the money was.

Again, there is precious little science in the Dangerous Visions anthologies, or in Moorcock’s acclaimed New Worlds magazine, except now and then as a target for the hostility of the virtuous young rebels throwing off the fetters of Campbellian reductionism. But they were published, reviewed, and marketed as science fiction, and their authors and editors won Hugos and Nebulas. SF was where the respect was, too.

For in the field of imaginative fiction, the signal event of the late 1960s and early 1970s was in fact a non-event: the complete failure of the industry to capitalize on the enormous popularity of Ballantine’s paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings. Betty Ballantine, who had an honest genius for genre publishing, did make some early moves in the right direction. She signed an unknown writer named Katherine Kurtz to write a series of unabashed fantasy books, and made Anne McCaffrey famous for her books about Mary Sues with dragons — though these latter were transparently disguised as SF for marketing purposes. Not even Mrs. Ballantine had that much courage. But she also commissioned Lin Carter to edit a line of ‘Adult Fantasy’ books, mostly reissues of classics and near-classics of the early twentieth century. James Branch Cabell, E.R. Eddison, William Morris and Lord Dunsany were among those who found small but enthusiastic new audiences. But the line never had much commercial success, even by the limited standards of SF at that time, and was quietly terminated soon after the Ballantines sold their publishing business to Random House.

The new corporate owners hired Judy-Lynn del Rey to retrieve the fortunes of Ballantine’s SF line, and she brought in her husband to acquire fantasy for what quickly became a new imprint, Del Rey Books. Both were respected and beloved figures at the time, but it is clear in retrospect that they built their imprint by the relentless pursuit of the lowest common denominator. Perhaps Judy-Lynn’s first real coup was to land the tie-in rights to the animated Star Trek series of the early seventies. I myself, as a boy of ten, was right in her demographic crosshairs, and Star Trek Log One, by Alan Dean Foster, was the first Del Rey book I ever bought. With equal astuteness, she got the tie-in rights to the original Star Wars films (and got Foster to ghostwrite the original novelization).

Lester, meanwhile, built up the fantasy side of the business with remarkably consistent philistinism. The first book published under the Del Rey imprint was The Sword of Shannara, about which I shall have more to say later. Del Rey was infatuated with this blatant imitation of The Lord of the Rings, considering it a guaranteed bestseller and an instant classic; and as Sherwood Smith recalls, he was caustically rude to any reader with the temerity to disagree. He was half right: there was a huge untapped market for epic fantasy, comprising all the millions of Tolkien fans who had spent years desperately and unsuccessfully searching for more books of that kind. After waiting, in many cases, more than a decade, they were grateful for even the cheapest and most adulterated dose of their accustomed anodyne.

But that was not the only fix on the market. After years of famine, no fewer than eight other books catering directly to the Tolkien fan were published in 1977, four of which would eventually appear as Del Rey paperbacks. Among these books were a complete trilogy and a complete tetralogy, each published simultaneously, each the product of an author who had toiled in solitude for years to produce a highly idiosyncratic epic in the face of scorn and rejection. Stephen R. Donaldson, by his own account, received forty-seven rejections for Lord Foul’s Bane. Every fiction publisher in the U.S.A. refused it, whereupon he started afresh by submitting to houses that had not even existed the first time round. Lester del Rey bought the manuscript on the forty-eighth bounce.

The Sword of Shannara was published in April, 1977. By the end of the year, epic fantasy had gone from an isolated blockbuster, The Lord of the Rings, to an established genre, with the publication of these books:

The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks
Lord Foul’s Bane,
The Illearth War,
The Power That Preserves, by Stephen R. Donaldson
Greyfax Grimwald,
Faragon Fairingay,
Calix Stay,
Squaring the Circle, by Niel Hancock
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I shall examine each of these nine works in some detail. I believe that nearly all the genes, so to speak, of the epic fantasy sub-genre are to be found there, and also the chief reasons for the parlous and shabby condition of the field today.

Continue to Part 2 . . .


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