Updates: Recent Fantasy Acquisitions No. I (Hoban + Peake + Eddison)

Something different!

I have always had a soft sport for fantasy (mostly the non-Tolkein ripoff type) à la Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (1946), Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword (2006).  Yes, as a kid I read tons of “standard fanasy” i.e. almost all those horrid Wheel of Time novels + Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow & Thorn  sequence, etc. etc.  And then I discovered SF and my reading parterns shifted drastically….

Over the past few months I’ve collected the two sequels to Titus Groan and a few Russell Hoban novels—my site name Joachim Boaz is  partially derived from Hoban’s remarkable The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973).

I’m not sure if I’ll review these novels here but, I might read Peake’s Gormenghast (1950) soon.


1. Pilgermann, Russell Hoban (1983)

(Rowena’s cover for the 1984 edition)

From the inside flap: “Russell Hoban startled readers with RIDDLEY WALKER, a haunting portrayal of life in a post-Armageddon landscape.  Now, in PILGERMANN, the scene shifts dramatically from imagined future to historical past, but the harrowing vision remains essentially unchanged… PILGERMANN is a meditation on history, loss and grief, a dark treatise on the mysterious nature of things narrated by a ‘microscopic chip in the vast circuitry in which are recorded all the variations and permutations thus far…’ REMARKABLE.”

2. The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison (1922)

(Keith Henderson’s cover for the 1967 edition)

From the inside flap: “When J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” was published in America, reviewers immediately saw that there was only one book with which it could be legitimately compared: E. R. Eddison’s great adventure fantasy, The Worm Ouroboros.  The first of three related but independent books by E. R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros is a novel of thundering adventure.  Set on a far planet of spectacular beauty and peopled by lords and kings, mighty warriors and raven-haired women, Eddison’s sotry of great war for dominion rises to peaks of splendor and excitement.  A novel which creates its own fantastic world, The Worm Ouroboros makes our present age seem pale by comparison and is considered one of the masterpieces of imaginative fiction.”

3. Gormenghast (Volume II of the “Gormemghast Trilogy”), Mervyn Peake (1950)

(Bob Pepper’s cover for the 1970 edition)

From the inside flap: “While in the army he began work on Titus Groan, the first book of the monumental ‘Gormenghast’ Trilogy.  The first two volumes are set in an enormous crumbling castle, in which rituals are compulsively carried out by grotesque characters, grotesque in the way that Dickens’ characters are grotesque, in a way that has meaning and purpose […]”

4. Titus Alone (Volume III of the “Gormenghast Trilogy”), Mervyn Peake (1959)

(Bob Pepper’s cover for the 1973 edition)

From the inside flap: “In which Titus turns against the iron discipline of Gormenghast’s ritual and sets forth on an uncertain quest…”

“That quest and its resolution form the substance of Titus Alone. Titus’s quest is for himself.  His pilgrimage leads to encounters with mysteriously omnipotent, ruthless police; a battle to the death with Veil, a gaunt ogre with a body like whips and a face that moves ‘like shiftings of the gray slime of the pit'[…].”

36 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Fantasy Acquisitions No. I (Hoban + Peake + Eddison)

  1. Thanks pleased to have found your blog. Russel Hoban has been a key writer for me .. A mystic and sage who told fabulous stories! Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now).

    • Thanks! (I review mostly experimental/literary SF from the 50s-70s although I throw in other stuff from time to time)

      As for Hoban, I’ve only read Riddley Walker and The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz… But I plan on reading more eventually.

  2. During the early 1980’s I read the two Donaldson trilogies. The first three were enjoyable but the second three got to be a drag. I have the Gormenghast books, with the cover type you show, in my long standing TBR pile. Didn’t the BBC produce a TV version of Gormenghast several decades ago?

      • You’ll like Angela Carter’s “Heroes and Villians”,Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” and Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood”.I know I’ve mentioned them before,but it seems it’s where you should head for.

        Have you read George Martin’s “Ferve Dream”?

        • haha, definitely! (it’s probably the third time you’ve recommended those three).

          However, I tend to read my own course… As a PhD student in the midst of preparing for research abroad, dissertation chapter writing etc etc I tend to read for pleasure what interests me at the moment. So all of those books are on my list but not exactly what I “feel” (and yes, it’s a general feeling) like at this juncture.

          I can’t wait to get my hands on Carter’s Heroes and Villains…

          Have you gone out and purchased/read any of the novels I’ve rated highly whose reviews you’ve read?

          No, I have not read anything by Martin. Somewhat tempted by his early SF though.

    • I actually really enjoyed the second trilogy. I’m just surprised others out there actually like the Thomas Covenant books. All I hear is hate spewed about them. Though I couldn’t bring myself to read the last four. The second trilogy ended perfectly in my opinion.

  3. Ok.”Heroes and Villians” was published the same year as Ursula LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”,which might be or is probably not significant.They do seem to resemble each other however,although not necessarily just because they were women authors,but rather both thought I think that they were able to create something new in modern times that would allow them to write freely and with an honest spirit of conviction.

    Carter,unlike LeGuin,composed her book away from the sf genre,but whose literary stuff seemed to imitate each other inside and outside the two spheres.Maybe it’s just parallel development though.

  4. What sorcery is this? The name specifies ruminations of the science fictional kind!

    I read Worm Ouroboros a long, long time ago; most of what I remember is that it’s very picaresque and kind of plods along. (In part due to the antiquated prose.) Fascinating setting but I think there’s a reason Tolkien is remembered and Eddison isn’t.

    Peake on the other hand is a forgotten master, and it’s a crying shame the Gormenghast novels get so little recognition. I remember them being plodding as well, but in a good way… Peake’s prose is sublime and the setting/characters are fully realized. Titus Alone had some flaws since it was published posthumously using bare notes, but man that was a good series.

    Look forward to reviews!

    • The Worm Ouroboros is not a picaresque novel. It is high fantasy in the standard, most typical sense. Eddison writes in highly formal language–formal language that many high fantasy writers use to this day, including Tolkien. Any comedy is unintentional.

      And Titus Alone is a matter of taste. Though very different in appearance (i.e. much more surreal, even Weird), I think it is just as good as the first two Gormenghast books, but in other ways.

      Joachim, are you feeling well this week? Fantasy titles, discussion of Donaldson, Angela Carter…

      • Considering that Eddison’s deliberate melange of Shakespearean, Elizabethan, and Jacobean prose is often cited as a unique aspect of the novel, I’d be very interested to know some of those “many high fantasy writers” who write in those dialects today. Eddison’s writing is the pure joy of the English language, but I find it hard to define a 400-year-old writing style as not archaic.

        Also confused about the comedy comment—was that because I referred to it as very picaresque? Because that’s not what I meant to imply:

        adjective \ˌpi-kə-ˈresk, ˌpē-\: telling a story about the adventures of a usually playful and dishonest character

        It’s not fully picaresque as the characters are honest nobles rather than from lower social classes, it follows a group of characters rather than an individual, and there is an underlying plot, but at its core it’s a boys-own adventure about four roguish characters and their (somewhat episodic) adventures. It is the prototypical high fantasy adventure, but it has some strong picaresque elements. (I felt his Zimiamvian Trilogy had much more consistent plotting, for example.)

      • @essexric, I won’t get into a debate about whether or not magic realism is fantasy, so we’ll have to agree to disagree as I think that magic realism is a branch of fantasy at large.

        @Mr. Ironbombs, you’re right. There are no writers today who use the older forms of English that Eddison did. What I was thinking but stupidly didn’t write was that many modern writers try to effect older forms of English thinking that it translates into the same proper sense of epic we see in The Worm Ouroboros. Michael Sullivan, Robert Jordan, Pat Rothfuss, David Eddings, and others make an effort, but without proper education just can’t consistently produce the same caliber of language as Eddison.

        Regarding the picaresque quality of The Worm Ouroboros, there is some playfulness in the transitional scenes, i.e. the banter amongst the heroes before the plot shifts in a new direction. But these are just way points which help to distinguish the action scenes. Tolkien likewise included such breaks for light entertainment in The Lord of the Rings, but would you consider his novel “very picaresque”?

        At its core, I would say The Worm Ouroboros is a story that seeks to define a cycle of societal behavior, i.e. the redux of humanity to conflict, and that the fight between the Demons and the Witches is the means to arriving at that point, the playfulness incidental. In keeping, the overt formality of the narrative lends itself to this interpretation.

  5. Fantasy like science fiction,is a generic term,but the literary stuff outside these categories,imitates much inside sf/f,and vice versa.This is why I prefer the indefinite non-category,speculative fiction,that covers all of literature and more,including magic realism.”Heroes and Villains” is eclectic in this respect.

    I honestly don’t think science fiction or fantasy,which overlap at times,can be properly defined,and it’s better to place it all in a super “category”.

  6. There’s an excellent anthology for those interested in an in-depth engagement with magical realism, Magical realism : theory, history, community. It’s older (1995), but still highly relevant.

  7. I watched the BBC dramatisation of Gormenghast, about 15 years ago, and it was bloody awful. Really bad, in the main. They tried to make it far too whimsical and playful, more like a comic fantasy, as opposed to the dark, Gothic atmosphere of the novel (albeit with comic interludes). I should say I have yet to read the Gormenghast trilogy but all of my siblings have, and love it, and they all said exactly the same – that the BBC adaptation was a load of cr*p and missed the pure genius of the novels by light years!

    • Yeah, I can imagine — this is what I would expect from an adaption of the novel. I have no idea how the slow yet fascinating, moody as hell pace would be conveyed for the screen…

  8. Both Gormenghast and The Worm Ouroboros are fantastic, in their very different ways they’re not just among the best Fantasy novels ever but also true classics of 20th century literature.

    Gormenghast is kind of Gothic-novel-meets-Dickens-meets-Kafka-and-then-goes-completely-over-the-top, it’s totally extravagant and larger than life in every single aspect, from the lavish prose to the incredibly bizarre setting to the even bizarrer characters populating it. I’m not sure I’d actually classify it as Fantasy, but it’s definitely a work of feverish imagination, which is even more astonishing when you consider that it was written at a time when everyone else was doing bland realistic fiction. Peake on the other hand was going for the grand, imaginative gesture and succeeded brilliantly, his Gormenghast is one of the most memorable and iconic place in literature (not just Fantasy), and while there have been many imitators none has come even close to the haunting, eerie atmosphere of the original. Very much a must-read, if you ask me. 😛

    Eddison is something completely different – he was clearly influenced by the Icelandic sagas and attempted to re-create something like them for our modern times, while remaining well-aware of the artificiality of such a project. It does have plot but that’s mostly irrelevant as is weird decision to set the novel on Mercury and his even weirder naming of the people fighting each other. What is relevant is his writing, and that’s indeed of a kind you won’t find anywhwere else – it does look archaic, but is actually made up by him to resemble older writing styles (you get different layers, too – language his characters use in dialogues is more ancient than the descriptive prose, and the occasional letters are in pseudo-Middle English). There is a grand rhythm to his writing that fits his larger-than-life characters perfectly, and what you end up with is sort of a decadent fin-de-siecle version of Medieval sagas – very strange, but also very worth reading, you’ll definitely never read anything like it again.

    • Heloise, thanks for such a thought out comment! I really enjoyed the first novel in the Gormenghast sequence so I expect I’ll enjoy the remaining volumes as well.

      Have you read and Russell Hoban? I highly recommend “The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz” and “Riddley Walker.”

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