Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #23: Fletcher Pratt, The Well of the Unicorn

Long before naive Hobbits or ignorant young men (and later, women) had to flee bucolic lands to discover the wider world and their destinies, there were older, less genteel versions of this transformation from peasant to noble.  Often these stories, whether they be Anglo-Saxon or Celtic, dealt with disenfranchised youth seeking to gain revenge on their family's tormentors, often with bloody consequences.  These characters are rarely naive; they know full-well the cruelties of the world.  But yet they are also vulnerable, flawed (anti)heroes.  They are often too quick to judge and find that their mistakes can have deadly results.  Sometimes, these stories are tragic, with the hero dying with the knowledge that his deeds will be ephemeral.  Other times, the peasant does end up being the king, but not always with the promise that all will be well in the kingdom.

Some of the earliest fantasy stories play with these old tales.  The Irish writer, Lord Dunsany, certainly took a keen interest in the myths of the British isles and his writings, stretching over most of the first half of the 20th century, have influenced several generations of writers, including the American writer Fletcher Pratt.Pratt was a journalist, translator, and military historian (there is an award named after him given out annually to the writer of the best Civil War-related book) who began writing SF and fantasy in the 1920s and continuing to do so until his death in 1956.  His 1948 fantasy novel, The Well of the Unicorn, is perhaps his best-known solo effort, as he was more well-known for his SF stories written with L. Sprague de Camp.  It is certainly influenced to some degree by Dunsany, as Pratt alludes to in his "Before the Tale Begins," when he states:

A certain Irish chronicler named Dunsany caught some of the news from this nowhere and set it down under the style of "King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior," but the events he cites took place generations before any told here, and he was only interested in a very small part of them, to wit:  the revolt of King Argimenes.  The Irish chronicler did not tell that the revolt was against the heathen of Dzik, who burst in upon the Dalarnan lands with their gospel and sword in the days when men were living at peace and their problems all seemed solved; though he did say that, like all conquerors, these conquerors had become luxurious. (p. xi)
In this short aside about the setting, not only does the reader learn that Pratt has placed his story within a wider fictional universe that Lord Dunsany had created decades before, but that there are some obvious parallels to be drawn with the spread of Christianity.  Further clues embedded in both the introduction and the main text indicate that this is taking place in an analogue to Scandinavia, with a rough semblance to the confused period of Viking traders, war missions, and competing religious groups.  But despite these intentional similarities to a real historical period (and one that was rife with land disputes and conflicts between different ethnic/linguistic/religious groups), there are some divergences here as well, which Pratt also cautions the reader to consider as s/he reads his tale.

The Well of the Unicorn shows the development of the the young farmer, Airar, who is a Dalecarle, a group of people maltreated by their near-kin, the Vulkings.  As the story opens, the local ruler, Count Vulk the Fourteenth, has raised taxes and is dispossessing all those who cannot pay the sum:

"I have a mission in the Count's name with Alvar Airarson."

"He is not here.  I am Airar Alvarson."

Beyond, Airar could see Fabrizius shake his head - with that expression of decent regret that always covered his baseness.

"Then you stand deputy in his name as heir of the house?"  asked the baliff, more with statement than question.  "In accordance with the statute of the fourth year of Count Vulk, fourteenth of the name, relating to real properties, confirmed by the Emperor Auraris, I make demand on this estate for two years' arrears of the wall tax; and moreover for repayment of certain sums loaned to the estate by one Leonce Fabrizius, the said loan having been duly registered with the chancery of Vastmanstad and attest by the mark of Alvar Airarson."

Airar swallowed and took half a step, but the bailiff surveyed him with the impassive eye of a fish while the Micton archer tittered and nocked a shaft.  "I do not have the money," said he.

"Then in the name of the law and the Count, I do declare this stead called Trangsted forfeit to the Empire.  Yet as it is provided in the statute of the realm that no stead shall be forfeit without price, but acquired by purchase only, I do offer you the sum of one gold aura therefor out of the Count's generosity, and those present shall be witness.  Wherewith you stand quit of all claims against you and go free."  He fumbled the piece from the scrip at his side, bored manner of many repetitions.  For a moment Airar seemed like to strike it from his hand; then seeing the Micton's covetous eye fall toward it, reached instead.

"So now this land and house are the property of our Count.  I call on you to leave it, bearing not more than you carry on your back without setting the bundle down for five thousand paces."  He turned from Airar, business with him done, to look expectant at Fabrizius; but the latter beckoned to Alvarson, who stood a moment with hand on pack, mouth set in a line of mutiny, yet well enough bred to hear what even the Prince of Hell had to say for himself. (pp. 3-4)
This short scene at the very beginning of the novel sets the stage nicely for what follows after.  There is no wasting of time trying to outline who the Dalecarles are or why their land is under the control of the Vulkings; we start with a cruel dispossession and a young peasant kicked to the quasi-medieval curb, left to fend for himself with only a gold coin given in mockery and with only those possessions that Airar can carry on his back.  There is a slight foreshadowing of the resentments that are bubbling up within Airar toward the Count and other Vulkings, sentiments that are played out through the rest of the novel.

The remainder of the story follows Airar from the time that he meets up with rebels against the Vulkings' rule and his travails and hard-earned experience gained passing messages to other groups, his temporary enslavement after a disastrous raid, and then his encounter with the legendary Well of the Unicorn.  This mythical well grants peace to those enemies who sip together from its sweet waters, but at a cost.  This cost is seen as Airar continues to develop, eventually rising to the level of a warleader.

The Well of the Unicorn is not written in the antiquated style that E.R. Eddison favored in his The Worm Ouroboros or Mistress of Mistresses.  Instead, the dialogue is more direct and pared down, with only occasional trappings of medieval local color added to this terse, rather unadorned tale of a man who first seeks revenge, only to find himself later seeking understanding, both of his enemies and then himself.  The story moves at a quick pace for the majority of the novel, as several years pass in the first two hundred pages or so.  However, the story does slow down in the final third, as the initial momentum falters, with the final scenes often lacking the power of the first.  Airar remains an interesting character through this, but the lack of secondary character development negatively impacts several of the scenes toward the end, as instead of there being a good narrative tension between certain characters, their flatness makes their conflicts rather drab affairs.

Is The Well of the Unicorn worthy of being called a "Masterwork?"  It certainly is an easy-to-read early secondary-world fantasy that will remind some of the works of Eddison or Dunsany.  However, Pratt's characterizations are generally poorer than either of the other two and while Pratt is not guilty of some of the excesses with prose that Eddison in particular was infamous for, his rather sparse prose made this novel only a solid, decent read and not one that is particularly memorable.  The Well of the Unicorn perhaps deserves a footnote for being a story that connects the tales of Dunsany and Eddison with the excellent 1954 novel by Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword, but it certainly was not the sort of tale that one would hold up and say "this is one of the best early epic fantasy novels that were published before Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings."  It is not a bad novel, but it certainly is not what I would consider to be Pratt's best work, much less one of the better works of the first half of the 20th century.


  1. I found the prose quite abrasive at first. It took a while to get used to and seemed annoyingly obtuse, more so than E.R. Eddison that at least had an elegence and beauty to the prose.

    However, once I got past that, I found it to be very good. What lifts this above merely a solid adventure story is the interesting treatment of moral and ethical considerations. Airar was constantly having his pre-conceptions challenged and was forever wondering whether he was really doing the right thing.

  2. Airar's dilemmas certainly made this story worth reading. Too bad I felt the need to limit myself to just hinting at them due to the presumed nature of these posts, but I will at least note that I agree with what you're saying here, as those certainly made this book a quick read for me.