Monday, September 22, 2008

Pulp Fantasy Gallery: Harold Shea

Consistently cited by Gary Gygax as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's "Harold Shea" series is largely unknown to most gamers today. It's a pity, because these tales are a great antidote to that kind of fastidiousness that says the modern day (or science fiction) and fantasy should never mix. I'm not sure the stories are still in print, but they were a few years ago, so it's worth seeking them out, if only to read some of the stories that influenced Gygax in his creation of the game.


  1. Ah... the Compleat Enchanter. You know I don't think I've ever actually met anyone who's read them aside from myself? No wonder I'm out of sync with the current crop of role players. Glad to know I'm not really the only one. ;-)

    Shea's attempts to understand and then adapt to each new world certainly informed my own roleplaying. Hopefully, a few people will be inspired by your post to hunt the books down.


  2. It's odd the way the whole modern day/medieval 'dichotomy' has sprung up recently, considering how common combinations were in the early years of fantasy. I was reading a story by... oh, bloody hell, what's his name? CL Moore's partner... Henry Kuttner? Well, anyway, it was about a pilot who got dragged back into Arthurian England, and his fumbling to understand what was going on. Then there's Amber, where our hero originally believes he's a modern man (before he gets his memories back, anyway), the Erekose series by Michael Moorcock, and (I think - I must admit I've only read The Broken Sword) Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. Oh and The Valley of the Worm by Howard (as well as at least one other, the name escapes me now though) had a faintly similar set-up, too.
    You still see it in children's fantasy quite a lot (Elidor by Alan Garner is bloody good, though not very recent), but I guess people got sick of that cliche and decided to make a few new ones. What an odd bunch authors are.

    Anyway, yeah, a top series of books. There was a reprint made a few years ago, but it looks to be out of print now. Shame.

  3. The "Vancian Magic" system (in AD&D especially) has a lot of Harold Shea in it.

  4. The Harold Shea stories are a lot of fun, and their irreverent attitude (at least 50% parody -- the giants in The Incomplete Enchanter talk like Bronx gangsters, for example) was clearly very influential on the tone of D&D, especially stuff like "Dungeonland" and "Isle of the Ape" (both of which could essentially be Harold Shea adventures). Also the notions of magic as mathematics and sympathetic magic were influential on D&D's magic system, alongside the more obvious and direct Jack Vance influence. The various (mostly anachronistic or jokey) material spell components of AD&D, for instance, seem to have been influenced by these stories.

  5. Many years ago, I loaned my copy of the Complete Enchanter to my friend Jim, who was an excellent referee but who had never heard of the book. Now Jim wasn't just a really good referee - he did his own translations of the Elder Edda and other Norse sagas, was working on his own fantasy novel, and in general was highly creative and intelligent.

    After a couple of weeks, I asked what he thought of the book.

    "Oh, it's okay for one of those D&D novels," he said in a slightly dismissive tone.

    "Jim, the first part of the book was written in 1940."

    "Oh! Really? Um, then it's really good!"

    Not sure if I ever forgave me for that first comment, though.

  6. I'd long-loved the Harold Shea stories :D

    FYI, Michael Falconer maintains a list of in-print links for the "Gygaxian Fantasy" list from the DMG's Appendix N. It's apparently down at the moment, but you can still see it via Google Cache @

    I'll ping Michael to see where things stand on his site in general.


  7. Yeah, I love those stories.

    For the longest time the Science Fiction Book Club had a volume of the Compleat Enchanter offered as one of the volumes you could pick when joining up - I can't find it on their site right now, though. But some really solid stories, with a great view of the world and of magic. I remember reading them, picking up on the laws of magic, and then recognizing their application with the components in the PHB.

  8. Yes, D&D's magic system owes a lot to Harold Shea (as well as the more widely-recognized Vance). I've also heard it claimed that John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost was an influence as well, but, since I've never read it, I couldn't say.