Three Great Fantasy Series
I finally got around to reading some books that I’ve always meant to “check out.” Among them are three fantasy series that have been regarded as truly great literature. I am now about to report on them. Two, I feel, are unarguably excellent, while the other contains one splendid novel, and other more difficult volumes.
Proceeding from most difficult to you-must-read-this!, I am referring to E. R. Eddison’s Zimiamvia “tetralogy” (I will soon explain why I have used quote marks in this instance); next, T. H. White’s Arthurian true tetralogy + (!) and finally, Mervyn Peake’s remarkable Gormenghast series.
Getting right to the point, E. R. Eddison’s series is technically, at least, a group of four novels, but this is modified by two considerations: 1. The last of the four – yet the first, chronologically – was published incomplete after the author’s demise. 2. The connection between his first and most famous novel, The Worm Ouroborous, and the three other books, is quite tangential, at best.
I’d read “the worm” long ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but though I had the other three books in my library (and that was no easy task!), I’d never gotten around to reading them. When I did, I was puzzled by many murky issues – until I finally learned that though they were published in one order, chronologically their events occurred in the reverse!
Therefore, if you wish to experience these remarkable novels, you will need them in this order: The Mezentian Gate, A Fish Dinner in Memison, Mistress of Mistresses, and finally, The Worm Ouroborous.
As said above, The Mezentian Gate was published after its author’s death, but this is quite unusual as a posthumous composition. The author lived long enough to write a large amount of the book’s opening, and later worked on some of its middle chapters, and after that, also finished the final chapters.
That alone might be enticing, but the wondrous thing about The Mezentian Gate (though I’m still not sure what its title means) is that all of the chapters that Eddison did not live long enough to write still exist in his detailed plot descriptions – which means that this book can be read, beginning to end, without missing a single plot development!
The next book, chronologically, is the splendidly-titled A Fish Dinner in Memison. By now the reader has been acquainted with many fascinating characters, as well as a doctor who never knows when to shut up! Among them is the English lord Lessingham, who more or less dominates most of the tetralogy. The fish dinner itself is a fascinating near-conclusion to the volume: a philosophical discussion well worth enjoying.
Mistress of Mistresses, first published, but latest in this series’s chronology, was, to my mind, the least interesting. There were, indeed, some engaging political/military actions involving Lessingham and his “priestly” relative, who, however, had little to do with anything remotely religious (at one point he sanctioned murder).
Lessingham’s history is quite interesting in Mistress of Mistresses, which begins with a lengthy chapter describing his funeral. But the only other time in this fictional array is in The Worm Ouroborous, which begins with Lessingham in a certain dream-like state comes upon the political states wherein the “worm’s” action unfolds. After perhaps fourteen pages, Lessingham disappears from the story, never to return.
My ultimate judgement of E. R. Eddison’s Zimiavia novels is that you might well skip the latter trilogy, as interesting as it sometimes is, but do not miss!! The Worm Ouroborous!
This is a fantasy adventure easily the equal of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Ring!” The Worm Ouroborous is the spectacular tale of war between two great magical nations (unfortunately named the Witches and the Goblins), and it offers great heroes, villains, and a particularly engaging advisor, Lord Gro, whose fate is turn traitor more than once!
Into this mix, throw in a fabulous quest that involves the scaling of two unscalable mountains, and on the way to that, a fight with a wholly unpleasant troll, and you will read a colossal fantasy adventure!
And now let us consider T. H. White’s Arthurian series. Now why would I call these obscure? Why, The Once and Future King not only was a best-seller, but it even spun off the musical, Camelot!
Unfortunately, though, if you’ve only read The Once and Future King, you have missed most of the best parts of this (originally) multi-volume adventure. And not only that, but if you eventually read the author’s posthumous conclusion to the series, The Book of Merlyn, you suddenly were asked to reread the “ant” chapter from the first section of The Once and Future King.
But if you read these books as they were originally published, you will not only avoid these problems, but you will also be treated by much, much, MUCH new material!
So you need to begin with T. H. White’s first Arthurian novel, The Sword in the Stone, which was made into a so-so Walt Disney feature film. In it, Merlyn guides The Wart (Arthur’s early negative knickname) through a variety of adventures, including transforming the yet-to-become king into a bird. Now this chapter, in The Once and Future King, is replaced (in my opinion, stupidly!) by the already-mentioned “ant” chapter.
Second volume that needs to be read as originally written: The Witch of the Wood, which has very little of young Arthur in it, but a lot of Pellinor and other risible characters. Much of this was cut in the future-king book, which is unfortunate, for this book features quite a lot of comedy!
The third book, a lot of which does survive in the later “compendium novel” is The Ill-Made Knight, which is about Sir Lancelot’s long friendship with the King, but also his affair with Guinevere.
Once you’ve read this far, you must at last pick up The Once and Future King,
for the final chapter of this work only appears here: I refer to the subsection called “Candle in the Wind.” That is where White’s Arthurian series originally ended, and was definitely reflected in the final scene of the musical, Camelot.
But then, after T. H. White died, a university press finally released the real conclusion of the series: The Book of Merlyn, which “backs up” from the last thing that was written, i. e., just before the war where Arthur was “Mordred” (no apologies for the pun); Merlyn’s book begins the night before the battle, and the magician once more changes Arthur into, ultimately, (and for the first time, if read this way), an ant!
So to reiterate, here is how to read or reread T. H. White: The Sword in the Stone, The Witch of the Wood, The Ill-Made Knight, the “Candle in the Wind” section of The Once and Future King, and finally, The Book of Merlyn.
And finally – and I contend, most remarkably! – Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, though, thanks to Peake’s widow, it is now a tetralogy. (Though it should be mentioned that the author meant to write other books about the later life-adventures of his protagonist, Titus Groan.
The surviving volumes are, in this order, Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, and – begun by Peake, but mostly written by his wife – Titus Awakes.
Gormenghast itself is a bizarre country ruled by the latest Earl, whom the titular Titus is meant to succeed. This is a dynasty wholly encompassed by rituals, both obscure and puzzling in concept, and the first book indeed begins both with one of these strikingly-odd ceremonies, but also with the birth of the new earl-to-be Titus. Actually, the book’s ostensible “hero” is a baby for most of the action, and by the end, is merely one year old.
But along the way, the reader meets with many fascinating and, at best, odd characters: the present Earl; his strange, large wife, who devotes most of her time to birds and cats; their daughter Fuschia, who at first resents her new brother, but soon comes to love him; a doctor and his sister, and the ever so much more personable than E. R. Eddison’s doctor-philosopher, for at least this one knows when to shut up! Also important in Titus Groan is a gross and disgusting chef, a devoted servant of the Earl (one Mr. Flay), and especially a young man, Steerpike, who rises from obscurity to become in the second volume of the series, a major villain!
Gormenghast sees the young Titus grow from childhood into early adolescence. During which time, the increasingly-villainous Steerpike commits a number of atrocities, and is ultimately hunted down by young Titus himself.
A great change of style happens in the last of Peake’s original trilogy, Titus Alone. The young Earl not only rejects all that he has been, but as he is confronted with many tragic deaths – including the truth of how his father died – he opts to reject everything, and to leave Gormenghast forever. The adventures and characters he then happens upon are in remarkable contrast to all that has happened before.
Some years after Mervyn Peake’s death, his widow Maeve Gilmore undertook to write this final volume. The very first chapter was written by Mervyn Peake itself, but all that comes afterward is her invention, although it is probable that she remembered things that her late husband told her. At any rate, this book tells of new adventures for the thoroughly-(self)disinherited Titus Groan, but they definitely echo the tenor of the final volume of the original trilogy.