Monday, June 29, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Well of the Unicorn

Fletcher Pratt, the only author named twice in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, was also a military historian and a wargamer, writing a set of naval miniatures rules in 1943. His 1948 novel, The Well of the Unicorn, clearly shows his love of both history and military matters. Its setting is reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, with the action taking place in an analog of northern Europe, where raiders known as "Vulkings" have invaded the kingdom of Dalarna and imposed taxes so oppressive that many people, including the novel's protagonist, Airar Alvarson, find themselves reduced to serfdom. Of course, Airar isn't content to remain a mere peasant under the rule of foreign invaders and so he sets off to find some means to overcome them and restore his land to its former state.

If all this sounds uninspired and hackneyed, that's because it is. Now. In 1948, though, fantasies of this sort weren't an industry. Remember that The Lord of the Rings was still six years in the future, never mind its legions of imitators. And while The Well of the Unicorn is neither as well-written nor as timeless as Tolkien's novel, it's still a cut above most of its contemporaries. The titular well is a magical spring possessing magical properties, chiefly its ability to bring peace to opponents who agree to drink of its waters. Unsurprisingly, Airar seeks out this well, in the process grappling with the question of free will and human action and the conflict between freedom and societal stability.

The Well of the Unicorn is an enjoyable novel, far more serious than one might expect if all one had read were Pratt's collaborations with L. Sprague De Camp. It's clear that De Camp was the wit and Pratt the philosophical one. There's certainly an earnestness to this book that might not appeal to everyone, but, as I said, when one compares it to the vapidity of a lot of the fantasies produced at the time, it's a welcome diversion and one worth reading if one has the opportunity to do so.


  1. I loved this book, though I will concede that it is hardly a "timeless" literary classic.

    I am quite fascinated by Pratt's devotion to naval wargaming (dating to before WW2) and the many hints of a connection between naval officers and fantasy fiction(with Pratt, de Camp and others - the Army types seemed to go in for science fiction, like Asimov, though there are countless overlaps). Some highly motivated English major or naval historian could make a great paper out of this, I'm convinced. I laid out some theories to my best friend who got his PhD in history and did his dissertation on naval history of this era, but the best I got him to do was quote Lovecraft (of all people) in his dissertation.

    James, I applaud all your efforts to keep some bits of history alive.

  2. I read this not too many years ago. My main impression was how thoroughly incomprehensible the passages dealing directly with the Well of the title were. In retrospect I think this was because Pratt was deliberately emulating an old medieval writing style in them, to reinforce the feel of them being this worlds ancient foundation legends. Unfortunately, that approach devastates their readability. I didn't understand the theme and symbolism of the Well (and therefore much of the novel) until it was laid out for me by critical texts.

    A lesser impression was how mundane the magic of the setting was. Twice there are significant encounters with supernatural creatures, but they're basically presented more as enviromental factors than personalities; a storm to be endured, not a challenge to be engaged with. Likewise, the protaganist's magic-use rates no unusual comment from the cast. Its presented more as a useful if uncommon resource than a strange arcane mystery, or even much of a plot point.

    On the plus side, the novel definitely brings a nice feel for medieval politics and pact-making, and the hard-scrabble effort of building up a resistance force. Some strong female characters to (or at least stronger than one would expect from the period the novel was written in).

  3. Fascinating that you posted this on the same day I posted a review of Pratt and de Camp's The Carnelian Cube!

    Check it out at Paperback Flash, if you haven't already done so.

    Grognardia is the biggest referrer to Paperback Flash, btw, with more than twice the referrals than my own LiveJournal, where I crosspost all my stuff. Thought you might be interested to know that.

  4. Hmmm, I don't recall Airar actually ever going to the well.

  5. Hmmm, I don't recall Airar actually ever going to the well.

    You're correct: he does not. My memory is clearly faulty.

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