TT: The Impact of the Ballantine Reprints

Want to know the release date for Artemis Awakening?  Then don’t miss this week’s Wednesday Wandering!  When you’ve learned the date and considered the connection between citrus fruit and faeryland, then come back and join Alan and me as we look at a very influential Fantasy line.

Characteristic Ballantine Reprints

Characteristic Ballantine Reprints

JANE: So, Alan, last time we talked about some of the common tropes in Fantasy fiction.  Those tropes had to come from somewhere.  While a certain amount of source material goes back  to the myths and fairy tales that may be the oldest form of Fantasy, there is a long tradition of Fantasy fiction before the current boom – or even the first boom, in the 1970’s.

ALAN: That became very clear to me in the 1960s and 1970s when Lin Carter edited a series of classic fantasy for Ballantine Books. He brought back into print a lot of stuff that had been unobtainable for years. That was my first real exposure to many of the books that lay at the roots of the genre, and it introduced me to some magnificent stories.

JANE: Me, too!  I particularly loved Evangeline Walton’s four novels that expanded the Welsh Mabinogi.   I never would have found them without Lin Carter’s advocacy.

Which were your favorites?

ALAN: Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees was an oddly quirky novel from 1926. Neil Gaiman has called it “one of the finest [fantasy novels] in the English language. . . . It is a little golden miracle of a book.” And I’m certainly not going to argue with an authority as eminent as that! In 2009 Michael Swanwick published a biography of Hope Mirrlees. It was called Hope-In-The-Mist and it was nominated for a Hugo Award.

JANE: I haven’t read that.  I’ll definitely put it on my list.  Any others?

ALAN: The stories of Lord Dunsany and E. R. Eddison were also eye openers for me. I must admit that I struggled through Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. I didn’t really like it and I found it overwritten. I think I might have enjoyed it if it had been a lot shorter, but the interminable descriptions of ornate castles and enormous battles soon got dull. I tried his other novels, but found them quite impenetrable. I have no idea what Eddison was trying to do with them.

JANE: My reaction to The Worm Ouroboros was similar.  The ending really annoyed me.  However, there’s no doubt that it was a seminal work.

For Dunsany, I’ve only read The King of Elfland’s Daughter (marvelous title!).  While I wasn’t turned off, I didn’t find myself looking for other works.  What did you think of his work?

ALAN:  Dunsany was stylistically similar to Eddison in the sense that the prose of his early tales was very elaborate and decorative. But he restricted that style to short stories (some of them very short indeed) which made it possible to appreciate the story before boredom set in. It was noticeable that in his novel length work (such as The King Of Elfland’s Daughter), his prose became much less baroque. I enjoyed Dunsany’s work a lot.

JANE: Oh, dear…  If the short fiction is more ornate, I might not make it.

How do you feel about James Branch Cabell?  He wrote in that general time period as well.  Many of his novels appeared in the Ballantine series.

ALAN: Ah – James Branch Cabell was the cream of the jesting crop (that’s a Cabell joke and it’s the sort of thing he did all the time in his books). Probably his most famous novel was Jurgen, a book so full of overt phallic symbolism that, when it was first published in 1919, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice attempted to have it banned on the grounds of obscenity.

Naturally, it immediately shot to the top of the best seller lists. I can’t help but feel that its readers must have been quite disappointed. It isn’t in the slightest bit obscene, but it is very funny in its own slightly dirty way. It pokes a lot of fun at Arthurian mythology and has a few sly digs at Dante as well.

JANE: Ah, the lure of the dirty book.  I did my dissertation on D.H. Lawrence and had a lot of people look at me sidelong because, even today, some people still think he wrote “dirty” books.   Yet, really, by modern standards, even Lady Chatterly’s Lover is very mild.

ALAN: Did you know that both Robert Heinlein and James Blish were Cabell fans?

JANE: No, I didn’t.  That’s surprising, given that both of them are best known for their SF.

ALAN: Heinlein mentions Cabell very respectfully in many of the letters published posthumously in Grumbles From The Grave. He claims that both Stranger In A Strange Land and Glory Road were directly inspired by Cabell. His novel Job shared a sub-title with Jurgen (A Comedy Of Justice), and several of the characters from Jurgen make an appearance in the story.

The Cabell Society publishes a journal called Kalki and for many years James Blish was its editor.

By the way, Michael Swanwick (the biographer of Hope Mirrlees) is also a Cabell scholar.  In 2007, he published What Can Be Saved From The Wreckage, a critical study of Cabell’s works. Believe it or not, it has a preface by Barry Humphries (better known as Dame Edna Everage) who is, presumably, a fan. Isn’t it strange how all these things are connected?

JANE: Actually, I’ve never heard of Dame Edna Everage…    Can you fill this poor American in?

ALAN: Barry Humphries is an Australian comedian and actor – he plays the Great Goblin in Peter Jackson’s movie of The Hobbit. He almost never appears on stage as himself. Invariably he is disguised as one of his many alter egos of whom the most well known is Dame Edna Everage, housewife and superstar. She has an inexplicable fondness for gladioli. She’s world-famous in England. And in Australia and New Zealand and…

I was pleased to discover that Dame Edna’s alter ego Barry Humphries is a fantasy fan.

JANE: Revelation!  Thank you.   Any other Ballantine reprints you want to touch on?

ALAN: Not directly, no. But at about the same time that the Ballantine books were appearing,  L. Sprague de Camp and, to a lesser extent, Lin Carter were bringing Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories back into print for Lancer books, and later (when Lancer went out of business) for Ace. Sprague de Camp and Carter completed some fragments that Howard had left behind as well as republishing Howard’s original material. Conan was a surprisingly subtle character and Howard’s world was well constructed with a complete and convincing history and mythology (even the geography was well thought out). Conan has not been well served by the movie and comic-book adaptations which make him out to be a lot less than he was.

JANE: I had no idea that Conan had been let fall out of print.  By the time I started reading SF/F, he was omnipresent.

This gives me a great idea.  How about we take a closer look at sword and sorcery – the sub-genre of Fantasy to which the Conan stories belong – in our next Tangent?

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9 Responses to “TT: The Impact of the Ballantine Reprints”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    I was just starting to wonder if you’d take note of Lancer & Conan when up they came.

    You may be planning to get to this later, but just in case, I’d like to point out that both Lancer and Ballentine were also important for the _original_ fantasy they published. High fantasy in particular was, as I recall things, pretty much dead in the water before the Ballentines started picking up people like Katherine Kurtz and Joy Chant. Lancer’s tastes ran more to thud-and-blunder end of the genre, but that didn’t make them any less fun.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Actually, I had not idea that High Fantasy was “dead in the water” at that point. Fascinating. Thanks for the contribution!

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        I’m a little young to be a completely reliable source, but the way I recall it, most of what was being published new when Ballantine reprinted LotR in ’65 was outright sword-and-sorcery in the mould of Conan or Fafhrd – but not nearly as well done [as I learned when the reprints of those came out a few years later] There was also a fair bit of what I think of now as Space Fantasy – Lin Carter was good at this – and, of course, the Witch World. Norton was IMHO the best fantasist working then, but all the stories are personal adventures, lacking the scope [for lack of a better word] that you find in LotR and later works. I recall noticing, immediately, the difference in tone of Deryni Rising and, especially, Red Moon, Black Mountain.

        As you rightly say, it was Ballantine’s reprints that paved the way for the explosion of the ’70s, but as I understand it, they didn’t stop there – they went looking for people who could write new stories in the same vein, because at that point there wasn’t a lot of it, if any.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I remember those Ballantine reprints, because my father had most of them. Some I read as a child. Some I didn’t. The Lancer Conans I certainly did read, so I’m looking forward to next week.

  3. Chad Cloman Says:

    In the title of this post, “Ballantine” is misspelled as “Ballentine”.

  4. Paul Says:

    Add the late Nelson Bond as another huge fan of James Branch Cabell
    Speaking of Ballantine Books, I recently learned that Betty Ballantine provided advice and assistance to Anne McCaffrey for McCaffrey’s sequel to her first “Dragonflight” book (that first book was made up of previously-published “Analog” novellas), along with McCaffey’s agent, Virginia Kidd. Betty Ballantine and Andre Norton made suggestions for McCaffrey’s subsequent work in the series. Judith Merril bought McCaffrey’s second magazine story for her “Year’s Greatest Science Fiction” anthology and was the person who matched McCaffrey with her agent, Virginia Kidd. And did someone say science fiction, back then, was a male thing?

  5. CBI Says:

    Another early fantasy writer is George MacDonald. As I recall, C.S. Lewis once stated that he owed much of his concept of joy to MacDonalds faerie tale Phantases. Personally, I found the latter a bit mixed-up, but I suspect it’s because I didn’t get all of the references. Even so, I’ve reread it once or twice and will probably do it again.

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