When I was reading Among Others, I was particularly struck by how difficult it was for Mor, the protagonist, to find speculative fiction as a young teenager in the 1970s or even full bibliographies of authors she loves. God, I thought, what must be like to forage for the stuff? I’m inordinately blessed, to live in an age where I can easily discover what the entire works of, say, Jacqueline Carey consist of and not have to just wander down the poorly lit fantasy/sci-fi section of my public library and take a stab. (I mean, I still do, because you can’t beat that atmosphere, but I don’t have to play bookish roulette.) Pre-internet fandom utterly fascinates me by virtue of how difficult it was to simply communicate and share information compared to the embarrassment of riches we have today. How did we find the kind of books we wanted to read? Well, from 1969 to 1974, there was at least one resource for the speculative fiction crowd—the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.
While The Lord of the Rings was published in three parts over the course of 1954 to 1955, it wasn’t until the sixties, with the publication of the pirated Ace editions and then the authorized Ballantine editions, that it became huge. In the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, contributor Mike Foster attributes The Lord of the Rings‘s success Stateside to the British Invasion (and the ensuing huge cultural currency of English pop culture) and to hippies, who embraced the Shire as a counterculture ideal. Fantasy was having a moment.
So it’s really no surprise that Ian and Betty Ballantine (best name ever) were inspired to launch the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which they handed over to Ballantine consultant and fantasy author, Lin Carter. The imprint’s focus was on reissuing or publishing important fantasy works that weren’t easily accessible in the United States, be they out of print or only collected in fantasy/sci-fi magazines. Carter also edited anthologies of important short stories for the series, as well as writing Imaginary Worlds, a history of the genre. Sixty-five titles were put out under this imprint, but when Ballantine was sold to Random House, support for the project (which didn’t exactly make stellar profits) evaporated and the imprint ended. Still, sixty-five titles in five years is nothing to sneeze at.
I’m not going to list all the books in the series; that’s what Wikipedia is for! It’s a nicely varied list, and I look forward to picking up Carter’s Imaginary Worlds in my further attempts to commune with fandom past. However, in the interests of exploring early, pre-Tolkien fantasy, I am going to link all the entries that are in the public domain in the United States, arranged in chronological order of initial publication, not series publication. Like my Out-of-Print and Current US Editions of The Lord of the Rings post, this is so long there’s nothing after the list; if you’re not interested, move on.
Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Ariosto (1532)
One of the greatest epic poems of the Italian Renaissance, Orlando Furioso is an intricate tale of love and enchantment set at the time of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s conflict with the Moors. When Count Orlando returns to France from Cathay with the captive Angelica as his prize, her beauty soon inspires his cousin Rinaldo to challenge him to a duel – but during their battle, Angelica escapes from both knights on horseback and begins a desperate quest for freedom. This dazzling kaleidoscope of fabulous adventures, sorcery and romance has inspired generations of writers – including Spenser and Shakespeare – with its depiction of a fantastical world of magic rings, flying horses, sinister wizardry and barbaric splendour.
The History of the Caliph Vathek, William Beckford (1786)
Vathek, the ninth Caliph of the Abassides, is a majestic figure, terrible in anger and addicted to the pleasures of the flesh. He is also insatiable for knowledge, inviting scholars to converse with him. If he fails to convince the scholar of his points of view, he attempts a bribe; if this does not work, he sends the scholar to prison. But for all his powers, Vathek wants even more. Renouncing Islam, he engages in a series of licentious and deplorable activities designed to gain him supernatural powers. When a hideous stranger arrives in town, claiming to be a merchant from India selling precious goods, Vathek buys glowing swords with letters on them from the merchant, setting in motion a series of terrible and terrifying events that will forever change Vathek’s world. A tale told with rich vision and sly humor, The History of the Caliph Vathek is replete with ghosts, spirits and supernatural deeds that will surprise and entertain discerning readers!
The Shaving of Shagpat, George Meredith (1856)
It was ordained that Shibli Bagarag, nephew to the renowned Baba Mustapha, chief barber to the Court of Persia, should shave Shagpat, the son of Shimpoor, the son of Shoolpi, the son of Shullum; and they had been clothiers for generations, even to the time of Shagpat, the illustrious. Now, the story of Shibli Bagarag, and of the ball he followed, and of the subterranean kingdom he came to, and of the enchanted palace he entered, and of the sleeping king he shaved, and of the two princesses he released, and of the Afrite held in subjection by the arts of one and bottled by her, is it not known as ’twere written on the fingernails of men and traced in their corner-robes?
Phantastes, George MacDonald (1858)
Known particularly for his poignant fairytale fantasy novel PHANTASTES, George MacDonald inspired many authors, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and E. Nesbit. It was C. S. Lewis who wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his “master”: “Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later,” said Lewis, “I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.”
The story centres on the character Anodos and concerns a young man who is pulled into a dreamlike world and there hunts for his ideal of female beauty, embodied by the “Marble Lady”. Anodos lives through many adventures and temptations while in the other world, until he is finally ready to give up his ideals.
The World’s Desire, H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang (1890)
If Homer had written a nineteenth-century romance novel, this would have been it. Whatever happened to Odysseus after his disastrous return home to Ithaca? Adventure author H. Rider Haggard, most famous for writing King Solomon’s Mines, and learned Hellenist Andrew Lang collaborate to make this epic romance as allegorical and folkloric as any of Grimm’s fairy tales. They effortlessly capture the essence of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Grieving for his wife, Odysseus is visited in dreams by his former love, Helen of Troy, who shows him how to equip himself with the Bow of Erytus and his intact armor. Helen beckons Odysseus to search for her in Egypt, where he encounters heroic figures, free from the restrictions of time and death. Neither murderous political games at the court of the Pharaoh, nor epic battles, nor even the Pharaoh’s wife’s temptations can make him stray from his course. In this, his last journey, Odysseus completes his lifelong search for Beauty itself, in the person of the World’s Desire, Helen of Troy. First published in 1890, this book has received critical acclaim throughout its century-long life.
The Wood Beyond the World, William Morris (1894)
Exiled from his house by a faithless wife, Golden Walter sets sail in search of the refuge and unknown adventures of youthful enterprise. When the two houses feud, however, and his father is slain by the kin of the treacherous woman, Walter sets out to return home, only to be blown off course and fall into the hands of a mistress even more insidious. But, in his captivity, he meets a companion truly wise and pure, to whom he looks for his “deliverance from that house of guile and lies.”
Khaled: A Tale of Arabia, F. Marion Crawford (1891)
‘Khaled: A Tale of Arabia’ is a surreal fantasy novel by renowned horror writer F. Marion Crawford, highly influenced by the ‘Arabian Nights’. Along with ‘The Witch of Prague’ and ‘Saracinesca’, ‘Khaled’ is one of Crawford’s finest works, and tells its unique story from the point-of-view of a djinn (genie). Like human beings, genies can be good, neutral, or downright evil…
The People of the Mist, H. Rider Haggard (1894)
Leonard Outram, a young Englishman who’s just lost his fortune along with and his fiancee’s hand, makes an oath: he’ll win back his home and live happily ever after. Really! Well, sort of. Leonard ends up in Africa, which, at that point in history, was the place to win your fortune back for the gods of fate. (Take that, Vegas! Eat dirt, Monte Carlo! How now, Macau?!)
Well, sort of. Leonard rescues a maid from a slave-dealer — for a fee, of course! — and then falls in love with her, complicating the heck out of his situation. Oh well: a great adventure ensues, taking them to places no one has ever heard of, then or now — leading to narrow escapes, love, intrigue, and (of course) high adventure. Don’t miss it!
Lilith, George MacDonald (1895)
George MacDonald was a spiritual and literary forbear of writers such as C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, G. K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle. “Lilith” is the account of a man who has never thought much about the laws of nature or his place in the universe or much of anything for that matter. Then, while minding his own business in his own home and his own library, he suddenly finds himself face to face with another world. It is his own world, but he had never known there was more to it. Likewise, he discovers that there was more to himself. But first he must meet Lilith, and find his way, and himself, in the swirling relationship between her, Adam and Eve, and God himself.
The Three Impostors, Arthur Machen (1895)
The Three Impostors is an episodic novel by British horror fiction writer Arthur Machen, first published in 1895 in the Bodley Head’s Keynote Series. Controversy: Publisher John Lane, wary of the atmosphere following the trial of Oscar Wilde, asked Machen to censor his manuscript. Barring the omission of one word, Machen refused to do this. In Things Near and Far Machen wrote: It was in the early spring of 1894 that I set about the writing of the said “Three Impostors,” a book which testifies to the vast respect I entertained for the fantastic, “New Arabian Nights” manner of R. L. Stevenson, to those curious researches in the byways of London which I have described already, and also, I hope, to a certain originality of experiment in the tale of terror. The novel incorporates several inset weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three imposters of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London—retailing the aforementioned weird tales in the process—as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: “the young man with spectacles”. (wikipedia.org)
The Well at the World’s End, William Morris (1896)
Long ago there was a little land, over which ruled a regulus or
kinglet, who was called King Peter, though his kingdom was but little.
He had four sons whose names were Blaise, Hugh, Gregory and Ralph: of
these Ralph was the youngest, whereas he was but of twenty winters and
one; and Blaise was the oldest and had seen thirty winters.
Now it came to this at last, that to these young men the kingdom of
their father seemed strait; and they longed to see the ways of other
men, and to strive for life. For though they were king’s sons, they
had but little world’s wealth; save and except good meat and drink, and
enough or too much thereof; house-room of the best; friends to be merry
with, and maidens to kiss, and these also as good as might be; freedom
withal to come and go as they would; the heavens above them, the earth
to bear them up, and the meadows and acres, the woods and fair streams,
and the little hills of Upmeads, for that was the name of their country
and the kingdom of King Peter.
The Sundering Flood, William Morris (1897)
Once, a mighty river ran south into the sea — and at the mouth thereof rose a great and rich city, which had been builded and had waxed and thriven because of the great and excellent haven which the river made, there where it flowed into the sea. It was like looking at a huge wood of barked and smoothened fir-trees, when one saw the masts of the ships that lay in this haven.
And up this river ran the flood of the tide — and it ran a long way up, so far that the biggest of round-ships might fare up its course . . .
So begins The Sundering Flood, a fantasy first published just after the death of its author. In its pages the visionary William Morris (1834-1896) unveils with a poetic command of the English language and a sure knowledge of the Medieval world a fantasy of courage and love — of a hero with a magical sword, a land of dwarves, and a romantic divide, which is the flooding tide itself.
The Water of the Wondrous Isles, William Morris (1897)
The witch-wife took Birdalone from her mother when she was young, and raised the girl-child well enough, if not altogether happily. And perhaps there was a reason for all those things: as Birdalone matured, she took counsel from Habundia, a woman of the wood where the witch-wife feared to follow. She warns Birdalone that the only hope of escape is by water . . . and soon enough, Birdalone will escape from the witch-wife. And the act of that escape will begin a quest by sea . . .
The Boats of the “Glen-Carrig”, William Hope Hodgson (1907)
Being an account of their Adventures in the Strange places of the Earth, after the foundering of the good ship Glen Carrig through striking upon a hidden rock in the unknown seas to the Southward. As told by John Winterstraw, Gent., to his Son James Winterstraw, in the year 1757, and by him committed very properly and legibly to manuscript. A Wildside Fantasy Classic!
The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton (1908)
It is very difficult to classify The Man Who Was Thursday. It is possible to say that it is a gripping adventure story of murderous criminals and brilliant policemen; but it was to be expected that the author of the Father Brown stories should tell a detective story like no-one else. On this level, therefore, The Man Who Was Thursday succeeds superbly; if nothing else, it is a magnificent tour-de-force of suspense-writing. However, the reader will soon discover that it is much more than that. Carried along on the boisterous rush of the narrative by Chesterton’s wonderful high-spirited style, he will soon see that he is being carried into much deeper waters than he had planned on; and the totally unforeseeable denouement will prove for the modern reader, as it has for thousands of others since 1908 when the book was first published, an inevitable and moving experience, as the investigators finally discover who Sunday is.
The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson (1912)
“One of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written” — H.P.Lovecraft. Lovecraft wasn’t wrong: this is, perhaps, the greatest single work of fantastic fiction in the English language. The sun has died, as have the stars. Not a solitary light shines in the heavens. The days of light are nothing by a legend — they are a story told to soothe children. The last millions of humans still live in their Last Redoubt — but the end of their days is at hand.
Domnei: A Comedy of Woman-Worship, James Branch Cabell (1913)
James Branch Cabell (1879-1956) is best known for his tales of the imaginary land of Poictesme, where chivalry and galantry live on. All of Cabell’s works from before 1930 were assembled into the grand “Biography of the Life of Manuel,” the supposed redeemer of the land of Poictesme, and they form a series which follows Manuel and his descendants through the centuries.
Cabell has been a favorite author of many famous writers, ranging from Lin Carter to Robert A. Heinlein.
The Cream of the Jest, James Branch Cabell (1917)
James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) was an American author of fantasy fiction and belles lettres. He worked from 1898 to 1900 as a newpaper reporter in New York City, but returned to Richmond in 1901, where he worked several months on the staff of the Richmond News. In 1902, seven of his first stories appeared in national magazines and over the next decade he wrote many short stories and articles, contributing to nationally published magazines including Harper’s Monthly Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as carrying out extensive research on his family’s genealogy. In the early 1920s he became the leader of a group of writers known as “The James Branch Cabell School”, which included such figures as H. L. Mencken, Carl Van Vechten and Elinor Wylie. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1937. Amongst his best known works are: The Eagle’s Shadow (1904), The Cords of Vanity: A Comedy of Shirking (1909), and The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck: A Comedy of Limitations (1915).
Figures of Earth, James Branch Cabell (1921)
Kai Lung’s Golden Hours, Ernest Bramah (1922)
Like Scheherazade of The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Kai Lung relies upon his prowess as a storyteller to save his neck when he’s accused of treason. His traditional tales — laced with thought-provoking aphorisms — will transport readers to a mandarin’s court in ancient China. Written by an English author admired by the likes of George Orwell, this captivating work is ripe for rediscovery.
Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, Lord Dunsany (1922)
Lord Dunsany’s first novel, “Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley conveys its young disinherited protagonist through a fantasized Spain, gifting him with a Sancho Panza companion, good luck with magicians, and a castle” [The Encyclopedia of Fantasy]. It is a landmark tale for Dunsany, beginning his move from the otherworldly short stories for which his reputation is justly famous to novels, such as the follow-up The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Charwoman’s Shadow. L. Sprague de Camp has said: “Dunsany was the second writer (William Morris in the 1880s being the first) fully to exploit the possibilities of . . . adventurous fantasy laid in imaginary lands, with gods, witches, spirits, and magic, like children?