So, we’re going even further back in time for this week’s Hidden Gem. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easier to find books no-one’s talking about the further back you go, even with some of the big names. Does that really make them a hidden gem, or just a forgotten favourite? Moreover, books of bygone eras are going to have limited appeal to today’s audience, so it may be an even harder sell than my usual obscurities. However, if fantasy is in many sense a backwards-looking genre, even if it often evokes the past to comment on the present, then I think there’s a lot to be gained by connecting with the genre’s own past.
Also, the books are just good.
Some people may be surprised to know that J.R.R. Tolkien wasn’t the first modern fantasy author, and I’d imagine not very many people will have read books that predate his genre-defining masterworks (some consider even them too old to bother with). Some of the names are still fairly well-known, of course, from prolific pulpsters like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Lieber, to one-book curiosities like Hope Mirlees or John Myers Myers; from comedy (James Branch Cabell) to horror (H.P. Lovecraft) to fairy-tale (Lord Dunsany) and myth-inspired (Evangeline Walton). And that’s not counting all the classic adventures or romances with touches of the fantastic in them. Fantasy was certainly not a mainstream genre of fiction, but Tolkien definitely had both predecessors and contemporaries.
One of those was the curious Edwardian, Eric Rücker Eddison, whom Tolkien himself once called “the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have ever read”. And, though Tolkien would soon surpass him, I can certainly see why Eddison would be considered preeminent until then. Unlike some of those other authors, many of whom use the short-cuts of established fairy tales for their settings and characters, Eddison goes in for extensive worldbuilding, giving his imaginary lands their own history just as you’d expect from any modern fantasy author – there are even maps!
In his more well-known The Worm Ouroboros, Eddison takes a slight misstep in framing the subsequent fantasy adventure within an Earthling dreamer’s visit to Mercury. This conceit would be less jarring if it wasn’t almost immediately forgotten about and never referred to again – almost as if the author was afraid to do a straight otherworld fantasy (which no-one would bat an eyelid at these days). Then there is the further distraction of a nation-naming convention using common fairy-tale creature names (Witchland, Demonland, Goblinland, etc. – apparently he did a lot of the naming when an imaginative child). Once you get past the naming, the archaic prose, and interludes of Jacobean poetry (instead of Tolkien’s elvish), you have a fantasy unlike any other since. Memorable heroes, epic quests, bloody feasts, shifting allegiances, sorcerous magic, all wrapped up in a war that begins as soon as it ends.
Compared to that standalone epic, the Zimiamvian Trilogy is in general much more confident and mature. While there is the same Earthbound-dreamer to frame it, he is this time an important character, and the country he is transported to (though apparently part of the same world) is fully realised and mapped out. Rather than the mythical figures of some childhood history of the Trojan war, or the lusty heroes of Olivier’s Henry V, the characters in Mistress of Mistresses and A Fish Dinner in Memison are more rounded, more grown-up, their choices and failings more like those of normal people.
Of course, these are still books about Great Men and the Women Who Love Them, but the time between great events is more fully explored. Sometimes this means the story bogs down a bit in romantic-philosophical interludes, but the slower build-up does tend to lend more dramatic heft to the moments of decision and action. Though not nearly as action-packed as The Worm (at least, until the summarised war in the sadly unfinished Mezentian Gate), I found the political manoeuvring more compelling.
At times, it’s a bit like Game of Thrones, if it had been written in three-hundred years earlier. In other ways, it’s a Jacobian Prince of Nothing with the polarity reversed so that everyone is admirable (for much of the same behaviours), portrayed in Technicolor and not shades of grey. But mostly it’s just unique.
Archaic prose (though about a century more modern than Worm’s), uneven pacing, and a mangled chronology (each subsequently published book takes place before the last, and 3 overlaps 2) do make the trilogy a flawed work of genius, and definitely not for the casual fantasy reader. So why am I moved to include it among the hidden gems?
For me, these books are all exceptional in the way they capture the raw essence of myth-making, distilled by Tolkien but diluted by subsequent authors the further it got from the source. Even more than Tolkien, Eddison’s sagas recall the zeal and zeitgeist of ancient heroic “histories” as only a Victorian/Edwardian gentleman could write. If Tolkien’s works bear the scars of WW1, Eddison’s are unapologetically antebellum (despite them basically being contemporaries). Great Men do Great Things – including fight when they need to – and the little people don’t get a look-in. Women work their influence on and through these men, but are secondary, though significant.
No, it’s not comfortable politics, but all these heavy historical anchors mean Eddison evokes a past more fantastic and alien than many modern costume dramas. If you want fantasy fiction that really transports you somewhere else – and not just to the cosy adventurer’s tavern where the same old stock characters are LARPing about – then Eddison could be your gateway drug.