In time past, I have attempted to define of science fiction, sometimes in earnest (I call science fiction the mythology of a scientific age) and sometimes not.
The eternal debate has sprung up again here at the Castalia House blog, and also touches on my own efforts to reread the lost works of science fantasy, so I hope the kindhearted reader will allow me to weigh in on the topic.
Specifically, I was wondering what in the world made the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake a fantasy book? This led me to wonder how any genre was defined.
To answer, let us (as befits this genre) quest upon a journey, tarrying often. In the silver ship of memory, let us sail the Nonestic Ocean of fantasy, starting in the mists of the past. I lived through the latter stage of the Tolkien revolution in SFF, what scholars will someday call the “Lin Carter” period. During this period, circa 1976-1977, the feast of fantasy was thin, and everyone who had read anything in the field had likely read everything in the field.
The three or four great island-chains of fantasy seen on the maps of those days consisted of the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Dark is Rising sequence of Susan Cooper deserves honorable mention, as does A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle.
All of these are far famed enough to have been honored (or abused) by big or small screen adaptations. With no condescension meant, let us call these Children’s Fantasies, for in those days, the fantasy reader haunted the children’s section of the library, since that was where the fantasy was.
Lin Carter at Ballantine books changed that by introducing the pre-Tolkien authors of this strange and perilous genre. Far from the island chain of Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Earthsea, loom oddly shaped mountain-isles, mist-hidden, no two alike. Let me list a few choice names, to stir your fond memories, O Reader:
• THE WORM OUROBOROS, E.R. Eddison
• GORMENGHAST, Mervyn Peake.
• A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, David Lindsay.
• THE LAST UNICORN, Peter S. Beagle.
• THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, Lord Dunsany.
• THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, William Morris.
• LUD-IN-THE-MIST, Hope Mirrlees.
• VATHEK, William Beckford.
• LILITH, George Macdonald.
• THE BROKEN SWORD, Poul Anderson.
• THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, G.K. Chesterton.
• THE THREE IMPOSTORS, Arthur Machen.
• THE NIGHT LAND William Hope Hodgson.
• THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST, H. Rider Haggard.
• THE CHILDREN OF LLYR, Evangeline Walton.
• KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS, Ernest Bramah.
• THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, H.P. Lovecraft.
• XICCARPH, Clark Ashton Smith.
Because my term pre-Tolkien may lead to misunderstanding, let me explain I do not mean this authors lived or published before Tolkien chronologically. They are ‘pre-Tolkien’ thematically, their works uninfluenced by the great magnetic attractor of the Lord of the Rings. They draw from an earlier strata of inspiration. None of these use the trope of the pseudo-medieval fantasy quest: in none of the books listed above is there a Dark Lord. (While there is King Haggard, Nyarlathotep, Sunday the Anarchist, and the sorcerer tyrant Maal Dweb, they are not Sauron impersonators.)
There is also the archipelago of ‘low fantasy’ which runs parallel to the high fantasy genre dominated by the names above, and it consists of Robert E. Howard and his epigones, who, by himself, defined the ‘sword and sorcery’ genre.
There is some leak or overlap between Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, Clarke Ashton Smith, Wandrei and Derlith, and his little circle, which is an odd little island of stories with one shore upon the ‘Weird Tales’ of magazines like WEIRD TALES, supernatural horror, one shore brushing against science fiction and science fantasy, one shore touching the THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, and one peninsula snaking into the ancient realm of Cimmeria, Atlantis, Aegypt, and every forgotten land of pre-history, when red-eyed yet dark-robed magicians still stalked the earth, brawny warriors, scantily-clad dancing girls, corrupt courtiers, venal archpriests, serpent-men of Valusia, and all the panoply and pageantry all too familiar to the modern reader, at that time fresh and new; or as new as anything so obviously taken from Arabian fantasies and set in pagan times.
The scientific fantasies of Jack Vance, namely his THE DYING EARTH cycle, is an island by itself very near in the Nonestic Ocean, but otherwise having little connection with it.
(One underground passage leads from the island of the Dying Earth to the more mundane parts of modern dreamland, namely, Gary Gygax borrowed the magic system, indeed several of the names, from Jack Vance, for Dungeons and Dragons. Vance had to solve the perennial problem of introducing magic into a plot, which is, why cannot magic solve the problem? Why can’t it do everything? Jack Vance cleverly limited the magic by having it be a pseudo-science: one where the spells, once spoken, vanished from the memory, and could not be said again without difficult study. And, at that, the human brain was so constructed that it could only hold a certain number at a time.)
On one famed island in hereabouts looms the fortress of Michael Moorcock, who made his name by reversing every trope coined by Robert E. Howard. Howard’s Conan was a barbarian; Moorcock’s Elric was an over-refined aesthete from a corrupt civilization. Conan was bronzed brawny; Elric was pale and sickly; and so on.
There is also a strong element of rebellion of Moorcock against Tolkien. Tolkien’s universe has a Dark Lord, whose represents all the evils of the mechanized modern age, the love of power for its own sake, the contempt for nature, and yet also represents an eternal evil; and opposing this darkness is a clear and piercing light, sometimes literally seen in the radiance of the phial of Galadriel, sometimes adumbrated as the light in the West that calls to the dying elves, a divine light.
Moorcock substituted for the concise dichotomy of Light and Shadow a meaningless and endless rivalry between Law and Chaos, both equally deadly to man, should either prove the victor.
Because the moralistic element is absent, replaced by a nihilism by turns melancholic, morose, ironic or inhuman, the Moorcockian body of work never rises above the level of an adventure story. It is not serious, and has no wisdom to impart to a grown-up. A fantasy of despair is no less juvenile than brawny thewed power-fantasies.
Lest any reader dream I speak ill of Mr. Moorcock for categorizing his tales this way, I say humbug. Rest assured that I myself write light escapist adventure stories more often than tales touching deeper things, and there is no shame in it. I honestly to do not regard one approach to be better or worse than the other.
If you find that hard to believe, consider: A good cook knows how to make a confection as well as prepare a dish for the main course. If he can prepare pheasant under glass but not grill a cheeseburger, he is no cook. Anyone who says the filet mignon has have the right to sneer at flan or sorbet as their culinary inferiors does not know how to eat.
The final group, and the one of least concern to us for this essay, concerned the post-Tolkien writers who followed his footsteps. At that period of history in which I speak, only two or three books existed to slake the thirst for fantasy the great fountainhead of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had stirred: SWORD OF SHANARRA by Terry Brooks, and LORD FOUL’S BANE by Stephen R. Donaldson. There were other and lesser works (Does anyone but me remember URSHURAK by the Brothers Hildebrandt?).
Since those days, the feast of fantasy has grown so abundantly, that we are in danger of being overfed: there are authors a-plenty who are willing to give us a fast food version of the feast, with the elements that made Tolkien so fascinating and Moorcock so subversive carefully microwaved out. There are authors who rebel against Tolkien, like China Mieville, or who rebel against C.S. Lewis, like Phillip Pullman, and there are some (very few) like George R.R. Martin, who take inspiration from other streams (in his case, the War of the Roses) and seem to have nothing in common with Tolkien.
Then there is Gene Wolfe, who takes the all these tropes and makes of it something so unique an strange and awe-inspiring that it deserves a genre of its own: albeit even in a masterwork like SHADOW OF THE TORTURER was can see elements of scientific fantasy, a setting like the “Dying Earth” of Jack Vance or Clarke Ashton Smith’s “Zothique”, perhaps some of the moral atmosphere of Tolkien or George MacDonald, more than a little of the detective work of G.K. Chesterton.
Roughly then, and for purely personal reasons, I am dividing fantasy into five groups:
1. Children’s Fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, possibly Madeleine L’Engle);
2. Lin Carter’s strange menagerie of pre-Tolkien writers;
3. Robert E. Howard’s epigones (Fritz Leiber, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and, whether he likes it or not, Michael Moorcock);
4. Tolkien’s epigones (Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey).
A fifth group I will not here explore is the more recent children and grandchildren of these four: Gene Wolfe, George R.R. Martin, Roger Zelazny, Steven Brust, J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman, Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, and, believe it or not, Joss Whedon. The entire genre of Urban Fantasy, which consists of leather-clad nymphettes kicking ass and stabbing knives into vampires and werewolves, follows the trail blazed by Joss Whedon’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
Looking at this varied assortment, the first thing I notice is that the greatest eccentricity rests in the second group.
There is overlap, of course between the second and the third: Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith are pulp writers. There is additional overlap outside the genre Chesterton’s MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY is a detective story, albeit with supernatural (or theological) overtones. Arthur Machen’s THE THREE IMPOSTORS is a horror tale, albeit with supernatural overtones. THE NIGHT LAND is arguably science fiction, or, at least science fantasy like the Dying Earth of Vance, although it has all the mood and atmosphere of some Gothic or terror-haunted sea story.
Why in the world does anyone consider the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake to be fantasy?
T o answer the question we must address a much larger, which is what defines fantasy? That question in turn leads to an even larger, which is, how is any genre defined? That question leads to one of the largest, which is, how is anything defined?
Being an old fashioned sort of fellow, I submit that there are two types of definitions: proscriptive and descriptive.
A proscriptive definition is like one we use in Euclid: a point is that which has no part; a triangle is any enclosed plane figure formed by three straight line segments. A definition of this type proscribes the set it defines, like a rigid box, and anything not fitting the definition is excluded. Proscriptive definitions have little use outside theological, philosophical, mathematical or other abstract discussion, because only in abstract discussions is the object of discussion something the speakers can conjure into existence by speech. A triangle, in math, is what Euclid says it is because he says it.
A descriptive definition, on the other hand, is like looking for a family resemblance. There is something all members of the primate family have in common, even if we have to concentrate to reduce these similarities to a unique set of characteristics.
Now, let us first dismiss the postmodern definitions, because they are frankly contemptible and shallow. If you, like Damon Knight, say that fantasy is whatever you are pointing at whenever you point at a book and say “fantasy”, your definition produces no illumination.
I am here looking at a list of what Lin Carter pointed at when he said “fantasy” and trying to find the common characteristic.
If Damon Knight or other postmodern raconteur makes a hidden claim is that there is no common characteristic, we all know that to be false.
If I go into a bookstore and ask for a Samurai Vampire story, and the pretty young clerk hands me a pirate story or a western or a love story, I am within my rights to have my mute but hulking manservant throw the shrieking clerk to the snakes as a warning to others, for she has failed me.
Likewise with science fiction and fantasy: when you are in the mood to buy and read a fantasy book, STARSHIP IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein will not scratch your itch; when you are in the mood for hard-SF science fiction, LOST UNICORN OF UTTERBOL is not your cup of tea.
I suggest that, even though moods are fickle things, that when you are in the mood for a fantasy book, you are in the mood for something particular, a thing which includes set of real characteristics.
Again, let us dismiss with scorn the postmodern definition that divides fantasy from sci-fi on the grounds of marketing. We cannot say “fantasy is whatever the pretty young clerk puts into the fantasy section.” Unless the pretty young clerk is acting wholly arbitrarily, she is putting something into the fantasy section for a reason.
The beauty of the capitalist system is that we are allowed to assume she is putting her wares in the fantasy section precisely because she expects (and has cause to expect) that when I go into the bookstore with an elfin, unearthly hunger that only a fantasy book will quench, the clerk will sate rather than starve my hunger, by putting those books where I can find them. She knows the penalty for failure.
Likewise, moving up the chain of command, the editor will decide to put a unicorn rather than a starship on the cover based on the same consideration: Is this what will satisfy the elf-thirst for fantasy?
I would not dare attempt to define what that elf-thirst is, first, because it is as subtle as the color of the twilight of the dawn on new fallen snow, something between luminous gold and blood red that has no name, when all the familiar objects of the world, trees and houses, have been cloaked as if for masquerade in white hoods and mantles, and all the roads buried and therefore lost as unicorns. It is too subtle for me to say what it is.
Second, I suspect this elf-thirst has a theological reason behind it, rooted in human psychology, rooted in the Fall of Man, and so I would not care to disturb my pagan readers (if such kind souls exist) by uttering that Name of Power which makes elves cower, vampires burn, and Liberals grow faintheaded with ire, so that their palms creep toward their dirks.
But, without uttering that Name, I can attest that fantasy books satisfy a thirst that grows in us whenever we feel that this world is not enough; it cannot be all there is.
There is something in man, even among hardened atheists, that grows awed and chary when we walk alone, at night, through a graveyard, and hear a soft, cold voice.
There is a feeling of escape, even when we are frightened, if we chance to see a light in the midnight sky that could not be a satellite, or airplane, or Venus reflected from the mist. It is as if a prison roof broke open, and something not from the fields we know is coming down.
What do the books selected by Lin Vrooman Carter have in common?
I submit that in order to be a genre, a set of stories has to share a common language of images, ideas, tropes. A genre is a genre when the readers can reasonably expect the themes and devices, the machine of the plot, to operate as others in the same genre have done, or, by deliberate reversal, to betray them. A genre, in other words, has a ‘family resemblance’ of themes and expectations to it.
Let us put the matter in a different way. A book can be said to be in the same genre with another if two characters from two different books could meet without either being impossible to the other.
For example, Freddy from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET could exist either in the horror genre or dark fantasy, since he does things that are unearthly, indeed, impossible by our laws of nature. If he were forced into a science fiction setting, for example, STAR TREK, he would have to be translated and changed in his nature to fit in. (By changed in his nature, I mean something like ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the Star Trek episode ‘Wolf in the Fold’. Jack the Ripper is suddenly an energy-being, something very different than what he was, for example, in the time-travel fantasy TIME AFTER TIME or A STUDY IN TERROR by Ellery Queen.)
Jason from the movie FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, even though he is (at least at first) merely a mortal man in a hockey mask, can crossover into Jason’s universe without translation, because he is an inhabitant of the same genre. Both are horror figures. Both share with the audience a group of expectations, styles, tropes and themes that make them horror figures.
The most obvious shared characteristic of fantasy is its unearthliness. Something has to be ultramundane, if not ultracosmic, for a tale to be a fantasy. Science fiction shares this characteristic of being non-mundane, which is why we see such a porous boundary line between the two empires; the border guards have relaxed their watch, since nothing of the one genre can really deeply offend the other.
The difference is in the degree of realism involved in world-building: science fiction is based on the scientific world-view which springs from the Enlightenment. Fantasy is based on the ancient world. (We might subdivide this further, and say sword and sorcery, with it cruel and capricious gods, is pagan, and based on the Hellenic era, or earlier; and that High Fantasy is medieval, and based on an Arthurian world view, where the pagan elements have been baptized into a Christian world view.)
Let us try the simple ‘elf and elf-land’ test. Could an elf, dragon, or unicorn visit these worlds without being impossible? Does the setting take place in elf-land?
Well, some of the worlds of Lin Carter have elves already, such as THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, or THE BROKEN SWORD, or unicorns, such as THE LAST UNICORN. They clearly take place in elf-land, at its heart.
Some books begin in our world, or something like it, and end in alien epochs remote beyond imagining, THE NIGHT LANDS, or supernatural worlds whose meaning cannot at first be guessed, VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS.
The dreamer in THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH begins in Boston and returns sane from his voyaging, even if the quest is by his houseless soul.
THE WORM OUROBOROS begins on Earth, and also voyages in dream, but ends in a whirlpool of time without ending in a land that only an alchemist would call Mercury, the Second Heaven, and the sphere of magicians.
LUD-IN-THE-MIST is explicitly situated on the border of the Perilous Land, and the discomfort of the people there is the main driver of the plot.
LILITH takes place in a spirit world. Vathek hails from the perfumed golden cities of the Near East, Kai Lung of the Far East.
XICCARPH by Clark Ashton Smith has several settings, remote in time and space, but the mood and flavor is the same Oriental mystery and horror, the same sense of strangeness, as its more earthly counterpart.
To my mind, this test seems to be a failure, simply because relatively few of the creatures or character from one world here could exist in any of the others.
The imagination is perhaps amused at the idea of Lord Juss of Demonland transported to Tormance in Arcturus, and drawing his noble sword against the malignant Crimtyphon; or seeing the fumbling magician Schmendrick trying to make Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s Daughter smile as she pines for her lost home—but alas, to see either of them confronted by the Night Gaunts of Lovecraft or the Night Hounds of William Hope Hodgson is a jarring note.
And surely none of these exquisite or horrific creatures could appear at Saffron Park in London, during that twilight of the memorable sunset, when Gabriel Syme, the Poet of the Law, was preparing to argue with Lucian Gregory, the poet of anarchy. Only the murderers of Machen’s THREE IMPOSTORS might intrude into the peculiar world of THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY without upsetting the delicate laws of nature there, and no doubt the Man in the Dark Room (whom knows a bit about imposture himself) would send out agents secretly to pursue them.
And yet these all have something in common: they made a demand upon the imagination of the reader to enter into a world not his own.
We can tentatively deduce that there are degrees of fantasy. A world that is much like our own as it now is or was is “closer” to the fields we know that a world that is utterly unearthly. Chesterton and Machen set their tales in our world, and can be read without disorientation even by muggles and mundane: they have only the slightest whiff of elf-land about them, and perhaps do not belong in the genre at all.
The WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, for example, is closer to us than THE BROKEN SWORD, since the High Middle Ages are closer in mood and theme to us than the wild and fierce despair of the pagan Norse.
The world described in the NIGHT LAND is so unlike ours that it cannot be (and is not) described; the world of Tormance in VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS asks the reader to envision colors that cannot be envisioned, beings of a third positive sex but as human as him, stark landscapes, dreamlike dialogs, a light that cannot appear in this world. Indeed, I am hard put to name any book as purely unearthly as this one: again, it hardly seems like a member of the genre, since no elf-horn could possibly be heard blowing along the slopes of the Ifdawn Marest, or in the glass-colored shadows of the Lusion Plain.
Now, I emphasize that these stories represent a departure, and indeed often a nostalgic one, away from the world we know to worlds our ancestors might have dreamed. There is an archaic flavor even in far future tales such as The Night Land of William Hope Hodgson or the Dying Earth of Jack Vance. The addition of science there does not make it science fiction, because the worlds in which their machines operate is an elf-land, or a goblin-land, inhabited by darker elves from the days before Disney.
Whether or not the work of John Bunyan, Milton, and Dante can technically fit in this genre, I leave as an exercise for the reader to deduce. I would argue that these great epics, while they contain elements of the supernal and even supernatural, speak to something more fundamental and serious than fantasy: they do indeed, no less than fantasy, drive our thoughts beyond the seas we know and into wilder waters, but they bring us at last to a harbor at the World’s End, and slake the thirst with something more real than water, and wash us with something more vivid than blood.
There are some books these days that are clearly fantasy, but which the main stream world, the mundanes, can read with pleasure. I speak of Harry Potter. Notice that while there is magic in abundance in J.K. Rowling’s world, the story is not very magical at all, if you take my meaning. Harry goes to school in fairyland, this school being reached by the quaint mechanism of a steam locomotive. But he meet nothing there that would require a very large leap of the imagination on the part of the mundane reader. Indeed, the book can be said to be set in Halloweenland: the creatures are ones my children dress up as (or you yourself, depending on your age) each Walpurgisnacht. Odd as it seems, MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY would make a greater demand on the imagination, and urge the reader to come farther away into the fields we know not.
Shows such as BEWITCHED and I DREAM OF JEANNIE likewise make no demand on the imagination of the viewer: that sense of disorientating magic, the feeling that we are not in Kansas, does not arise. Every muggle knows what a witch is or what a genii is, at least in their sanitized and Disney versions. These shows are what we might call ‘common-man fantasy’ where nothing is introduced to which we must strain our imaginations to see.
It is interesting to note that the book version of WIZARD OF OZ was a straight fantasy, where a fairyland is visited by a Kansas girl carried there by accident, whereas the movie version of the same tale was not. In many older fantasy stories, the machine of a dream was used to introduce the tale. This dream-mechanism acted as a bridge or doorwarden to quiet the reader’s disbelief at the outset, because even an unimaginative reader knows what a dream is.
The genre very rarely uses this mechanism these days, now that the genre of fantasy is established.
Remember, I proposed that the definition of a genre was a set of reader expectations. Before fantasy broke away from its parent genres of tales, the magical element had to be introduced as if new.
Likewise, the first science fiction stories had to introduce the basic principles of rocketry and ballistics to establish the reader expectations that later could be taken so much for granted that when, even in a comic book aimed at youth, Superman is sent to earth as a baby, he is merely said to have been sent “in a rocket.”
The other tropes and stereotypes of fantasy should be well known enough to the reader—especially who has read so inexcusably long an essay as this—to need no further emphasis from me. I will say only that if I were designing a Linnaeus classification for books, I would not use words like “detective story” “sword and sorcery fantasy” “hard SF” “military SF” “space opera” and so on. I would name them by the author who first, or who is best known for, bringing the genre to its present form.
Hence, all detective stories were henceforth be “Doyles”; and when someone breaks the tropes and forms a new subgenre, “Hammets.” Military SF will be called “Heinleinesques”, and space opera will be called “E.E. Doc Smithians.” Everything that copies Tolkien will be called a “Tolkienade.” And the works of writers like Moorcock and Pullman will be called ‘Antitolkienades’ — a term that might delight or infuriate those fine writers, depending on their mood.
I cannot attempt a definition. You will recognize the tropes when you recognize them: if the hero is a farmboy sent on a quest to foil the Dark Lord, you are in Tolkien territory. A barbarian with a sword is in Howardian realms. If the nymphette in a leather skirt is uttering quips and spiking vampires, you are in Joss Whedon’s lair. And so on.
The one trope all fantasy must have in common is the element of the fantastic. But you knew that before you read this far. It must be magic. The book tell of the echo of elf-horns blowing in the distance, of miracles and sudden transformations, of heraldic creatures stepping forth from shields and tapestries to run riot, the glint of light on the horn of the unicorn—in brief, whatever is of fantasy is something that breaks a crack in the hermetically sealed coffin lid of the material world in which we live and die, a world of tax returns and dentists visits, and where true love never strikes like lightning.
Even the most debased fast-food version of a sword and sorcery yarn has something of magic in it. I do not mean magic-users casting plus-five spells at each other, with fireworks for fingernails, no: I mean real magic, that whispers to the reader that there are fields beyond the fields we know.
Finally, armed only with this dim recognition that fantasy, whatever it is, contains a greater or lesser element of magic, let me return to the original question. What makes GORMENGHAST a fantasy?
The plot is too dreary for me to summarize, and the characters too subhuman for me to trifle your time by describing them. Everyone is either melancholy, insane, vicious, dull-witted, cruel, ambitious, or some other form of monstrous deformity of subhuman stature. The action, such as it is, concerns a kitchen page driven by ambition to commit several murders. The only fantastic element in the story seems to be the size of the castle, which is Brobdingnagian. But it is merely large and empty; there is nothing about it which could not be built in the real world with ordinary materials, perhaps with an enough exaggeration of its size to make it grotesque. It is not even haunted by a ghost. If the castle had been of ordinary proportions, is there any event that happens in its walls, which might not have equally occurred in a moldy castle in Rumania?
I conclude that GORMENGHAST and the ghastly books that surround it to either side are not fantasy at all, since they, if anything, have less magic, less unearthliness, less sense, than the real world. This is not fantasy; it is simply more mundane than mundane. It is a satire after the fashion of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Jonathon Swift, but it does not have the unearthly elements, tiny people or flying islands or talking horses, that enlivens Mr. Swift misanthropic but diamond-hard satire. Swift was making fun of real defects seen in real people. Peake is — well, I have no knowledge of what the point of his books was, and I am not sure I care to know.
If the role of fantasy is to crack the coffin lid of the material world of death and taxes, and show us a glimpse of something older, greater, grander in the unnamed seas beyond, then the role of this book is to slam the coffin lid more tightly, and drive home the nails. It is the kind of book a nihilist, a man who believes in nothing, can praise, for it robs the world of beauty rather than adding to it.
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(Note: the above is an updated version of a column from 2010.)