Land of Unreason: A very strange book

Land of Unreason by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp

Land of Unreason by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher PrattLand 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.

Land of Unreason — (1942) L. Sprague de Camp with Fletcher Pratt. Publisher: On Midsummer’s Eve, as everybody knows, you should leave a bowl of milk out for the fairies. Unfortunately — or fortunately — Fred Barber, an American diplomat convalescing in Yorkshire, didn’t take the obligation with proper seriousness. He swapped the milk for a stiff dose of Scotch. So he had only himself to blame if the fairies got a bit muddled. Barber found himself in an Old English Fairyland. At the Court of King Oberon, to be precise. The natural — or supernatural — laws there were, to say the least of it, distinctly odd. Things kept changing. This made the mssion with which he was entrusted, as the price of his return to the normal world, even harder than he expected. He had to penetrate the Kobold Hills, where it was said that swords were being made, and discover if an ancient enemy had returned. He was given a magic wand — but not told how to use it. Through the fields and forests he went, meeting dryads and sprites, ogres and two-headed eagles, on the way. Danger, seduction and magic lay all around him. And, as the adventure continued, somehow it darkened and became more seriousness. At the end of Fred Barber’s quest lay a shattering revelation.

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SANDY FERBER is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. It looks like a very strange book. Possibly involving LSD.

  2. sandy ferber /

    Whatever helps to get you through it, Kelly, is fine by me! (Just kidding.) Just have that UNabridged dictionary at the ready….

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