Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Book Junkie #004: Realms of Fantasy by Robert Holdstock and Malcolm Edwards
Title: Realms of Fantasy
Author: Robert Holdstock and Malcolm Edwards
Publisher: Avery Publishing Group
Hardcover: approximately 120 pages
Dimensions: about 10 inches by 10 inches
Year of Publication: first edition 1988
Status: out of print although there are copies of multiple editions available online
This, my friends, is where it all started for me. I could have sworn I encountered this book earlier in my life, around 1985 or so when I would have been 16 years old. I know it would have been very near to when I first got my drivers license since I remember driving myself to Booksellers, a large used bookstore near where I grew up, to track down some of the books I had read about in Realms of Fantasy. But after doing some research on the date of the first printing, I am starting to feel like maybe I really didn't find this book until 1988, the year after I had graduated high school. Strange how our memories can make the past such a malleable thing. Anyway, I digress. This book is indeed where it all started for me.
I remember getting my copy, a hardcover, in the mail as part of my membership in the Science Fiction Book Club. I have gone on at length about how important art and visual narrative have always been to me. As a young boy immersed in reading comic books, fantasy and science fiction novels, this wonderful volume seemed tailor-made for me. Ten different artists illuminating ten of the most well-known fantasy worlds in never before seen paintings and drawing. I couldn't wait to get my hands on this thing!
From what I had read in the solicitation copy, I was most excited about seeing the art for Michael Moorcock's Elric books and Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. The cover of Realms of Fantasy is actually one of the interior paintings of Elric's island kingdom Melnibone. I discovered Moorcock early and was absolutely smitten with his work, tracking down every paperback I could and eagerly devouring the First Comics and Pacific Comics adaptations of Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum by artists like P. Craig Russell, Michael T. Gilbert, Rafael Kayanan and Mike Mignola. Those were heady days for the teenaged Matt Kish. Strangely,I was a little disappointed in the Elric art contained in the book. It seemed a little pedestrian, especially after the cruelly beautiful comic book depictions by P. Craig Russell. The Thomas Covenant books came much later, probably as a sophomore or junior in college. I missed out on a great deal of the philosophical content of those books, and while I enjoyed them, they seemed to lack the spectacle and the sense of wild imagination that Moorcock's books had.
Beyond those two "worlds," there was much in Realms of Fantasy that I was either peripherally aware of, or had never heard of. The book was divided into ten chapters, each of which contained a rather lengthy essay giving the fantasy worlds some context and history as well as quoting liberally from the texts that the paintings illustrated. These were excellent introductions to each of these worlds and clearly designed to drive readers toward exploring works they had not yet read. It worked exactly that way for me, and had it not been for Realms of Fantasy, I might never have discovered Gene Wolfe's Urth or Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.
So let's take a look inside and see these worlds brought to life. Some of the art is radiantly beautiful, but much of it has not aged well and is tends to play on the safe side of things. That was less noticeable to me as an 18 year old, but it is glaringly obvious now.
I had seen Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea mentioned quite a few times, but they didn't appeal to me much. Perhaps because I cut my teeth on a steady diet of fairly typical swords and sorcery type stuff, the idea of talking dragons and teen sorcerers didn't appeal to me as much as sagas of great heroes, well, killing dragons. Still, the paintings for the Earthsea books were wonderful and did eventually draw me toward finally reading them for myself. And thankfully, every concern I had about those books was unfounded and I found them all to be powerfully affecting reads. Here are a few of those pieces.
These paintings seemed to hearken back to the almost simple patterns, textures and compositions of some of the illustrated books I had loved as a child. They were terrifying and magical and fantastic. Everything I had hoped for from the books, and found.
While reading The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson, I often found it difficult to really "see" the Land, the fantasy world that Covenant enters. Donaldson's descriptions, while often rich in wordplay and vocabulary, ultimately seemed to be about fairly mundane things. The Land was simply full of huge forests, cliffs, rivers, and lakes much like the National Parks of the United States. On a visual and imaginative level, the books didn't really grab me and sadly, the art in Realms of Fantasy had the same effect. The Land looked kind of silly in all but one piece, this first painting of Andelain.
In retrospect, I suppose the rainbow in the mist and the shaft of sunlight through the colossal tree is a bit cheesy, but it still provokes something in me. Perhaps that was the real strength of Donaldson's Land.
I did, however, like the painting for Foul's Creche. Donaldson described this quite well in the books but I was never able to wrap my head around what it would really look like. Here, the realism of the paintings really helped.
And now we come to the first of the two great revelations Realms of Fantasy revealed to me. I had seen the covers of Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator somewhere before (I think in the old Dragon Magazine) but had never been too interested in reading them. However, when I read the chapter on Wolfe's Urth, the setting for The Book of the New Sun, in Realms of Fantasy I was fascinated. Absolutely fascinated, and almost frantic to track them down. It's safe to say that without this introduction, I really might never have read Wolfe's books. The art though was probably the least exciting in the entire book. Here is a painting of the city of Nessus.
I like this painting a great deal more now, as an adult, than I did as a teenager. Still, it just looks nothing like Nessus. It looks like a desert city, perhaps even a biblical scene, but not Severian's Nessus. It's far too small, the river Gyoll looks far too large and powerful, and in the books, the mountains were many many day's walk away. This is just weird. Here is the enigmatic Father Inire and the young Thecla, standing in one of Inire's mirror rooms. Notice the fish of light above them.
Another rather dreadful piece. Thecla looks suitably beautiful and exotic, but Inire looks like an alternate universe Ben Franklin. There is nothing of the strangeness or the bizarre simian appearance he has in the novels. This next one is an improvement. Agia and Hildegrin in the Botanical Gardens, with Dorcas' husband poling his boat across the Lake of Birds in the background.
To this day, I have such a difficult time envisioning Agia. She is described as broad, high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes which often leads me to see her as Asian, or part Asian. But she is also described as having rich chestnut-colored hair, thick and wavy, and light freckles. Although in some ways, this painting of Agia might be fairly accurate. I don't know about Hildegrin there though. (And I really hope this is Hildegrin and NOT Severian, or the painter didn't read the books at all).
This last piece, printed in black and white although almost certainly painted in color, is the best. The ship of the Hierodules, hovering above Baldanders' tower on the shores of Lake Diuturna. I love the technique, and the way that this, for me, recalls the science fiction art of my childhood.
It was chapter three of Realms of Fantasy that changed everything though.
How could anyone read that and not feel an almost feverish need to read the entire book? "This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven." I read and re-read that one paragraph so many times that I memorized it without even trying. To this day, I could repeat the entire thing to you, word for word. The rest of the chapter was equally fascinating, giving some background on Peake's life as a writer and artist and exploring more fully the complex world of Gormenghast. All gorgeously and very appropriately illustrated by an artist whose work I had already seen (and loved) many many times, the legendary Ian Miller. Here is his Tower of Flints.
Here is the Hall of Bright Carvings.
Look at those figures! Look at the detail that Miller lavishes on them. Each of these is truly a work of Art (capital intended) and altogether like this the effect is almost overwhelming.
Here is the Room of Roots, the home of the Cora and Clarice Groan, the twin sisters of Earl Sepulchrave. The twins live high in an abandoned area of the castle, and out of one of their rooms grows a monstrous tree whose seed must have been brought there by the wind generations before. In almost total solitude, the twins spend their days painting the roots of the tree in a wild spectrum of color, each root given it's own hue. When the weather is favorable, they venture forth on the trunk to have tea in the open air.
And here is the exterior of Gormenghast castle, with all its rambling wings and buildings, towers and outcroppings, kitchens and armories. Again, the scale and the spectacle of this piece!
Even though in some ways Realms of Fantasy is disappointing, it will forever hold a place in my heart because, like the best books, it was a gateway for me. It opened new worlds to me, and introduced me to Gene Wolfe and, most essentially, Mervyn Peake. For that reason alone it is priceless. Almost immediately after reading the Gormenghast chapter, I drive as fast as I could to Booksellers and bought old tattered paperback copies of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy editions of Titus Groan and Gormenghast. This was the late 1980s and they were much easier to find then. Titus Alone, the third book, was much harder to find but eventually I tracked that down to and read and re-read and re-re-read them. They are treasures, and I owe that to Holdstock and Edwards and this book, Realms of Fantasy. It can often be found for very low prices, so perhaps it will be worth it to you? I think so.