Land of Unreason by L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt
Land of Unreason first saw the light of day in 1941, in a shorter form, in Unknown magazine; it was later expanded to novel length. Just as there is a genre of science fiction known as “hard” sci-fi, as typified by the works of Hal Clement and Larry Niven, this novel impresses me as a “hard” fantasy novel. Not only do authors L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt usher us into Fairyland and show us the court of Oberon and Titania, but also all manner of elves, sprites, nymphs, fairies, ogres, kobolds and the like; even a leprechaun and a unicorn are thrown into the mix.
This journey into the fantastic begins when Fred Barber — an American vice-consul in Spain who has been injured during World War II and is convalescing on the Yorkshire moors — impulsively drinks the milk that his hostess has superstitiously left for the fairies on St. John’s Eve. He is kidnapped by a fairy named Sneckett and brought to Oberon’s palace, where he is given the task of going to the Kobold Hills and preventing the kobolds from making metallic swords (a substance that no fairy can touch).
Thus, Barber begins his picaresque wanderings, and the reader is propelled into a very strange world indeed. Fairyland has been going through a series of so-called “shapings”; even the normally bizarre physical laws of the realm don’t apply anymore. In his travels, Barber encounters a talking whirlwind, an apple-tree sprite, a monster from a plum tree, and two-headed eagles. He resides for a while with a marooned, 19th century farmer from New England, and is transformed into a frog and, later a batlike creature, all leading to his ultimate transformation. The reader will never be able to guess where the story is going next; it’s one darn thing after another for poor Fred Barber, as he tries to find his way back home.
Perhaps I have not adequately suggested, in this capsule description, what a very strange book Land of Unreason is. At times I was reminded of Lewis Carroll; at others, of David Lindsay’s weird-in-the-extreme A Voyage to Arcturus. All feature crazy worlds where the physical laws of our reality are in abeyance; all feature strange characters and even stranger events. Land of Unreason even pays homage to Carroll’s work, in making Titania’s footmen liveried frogs. This is one very bizarre book indeed.
I should also point out to prospective readers of Land of Unreason that both deCamp and Pratt were history buffs, and that perhaps the most impressive single aspect of this novel is the seemingly authentic medieval manner in which the characters converse. The authors have obviously done their homework, to say the least. Readers of this book will run into many obscure Scottish words and archaic language, as well as loads of unusual English. This reader is a professional copy editor, and even I had to resort to an UNabridged dictionary repeatedly to look up words such as “nympholept,” “strappado,” “rounce,” “jobbernowl,” “equerry,” “yataghan,” “lambrequin,” “armet,” “thill,” “armigerous,” “anlace,” “cousin-german,” “alate,” “oriflamme,” “crapulous,” “catenary,” “pule,” “thrip,” “gramercy,” “widdershins,” “adossed,” “barry-wavy,” “stirk,” “wight,” “springald,” “bedad” and “metic,” among others. The book is a challenge in this respect, but, as always, a little research on the part of the reader will be repaid with a deeper appreciation.
On the down side, Land of Unreason contains many plot points that lead nowhere, and the denouement — for me, anyway — is something of a letdown. I was thoroughly entertained while reading the book, but was ultimately left with the feeling that I’d read a piece of well-crafted piffle.
I should perhaps also mention that this novel has been included in James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock‘s overview volume Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. I’m not sure that it deserves inclusion, but it certainly does make for one strange ride.