Thursday, January 17, 2019

Retro Hugos for 1943

This is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, as drawn by Mervyn Peake. Vivid, isn't it? Peake's illustrated edition of the Coleridge poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was published by Chatto and Windus in 1943, and is the first reason you should consider nominating Peake for Best Professional Artist of 1943,1 for the Retro-Hugos 1944 (works of 1943) are being presented by this year's World SF Convention in Dublin. (The book might also be eligible for the special category of Best Art Book, for while it's not completely a collection of visual art, the illustrations were the point of this new edition of the classic poem.)

Though remembered now mostly for his Gormenghast novels, Peake was primarily an artist. He had in fact 3 illustrated books published in 1943, and all three of them were arguably fantasy or sf.2

I'm here, as I was last year, to peruse the bibliographies of five of my favorite English fantasy authors who were active in the era covered by the Retros for eligible works. Peake illustrated those 3 books. J.R.R. Tolkien didn't publish anything in 1943. That leaves:

C.S. Lewis, who published 3 books in 1943, two of them popular theology/moralist treatises a little removed from Hugo interest, but the third is Perelandra (Bodley Head), and this is most emphatically a good candidate for nomination. This is the novel in which the hero, Ransom, is supernaturally transported to Venus to serve as a Heavenly kibitzer in what is essentially a re-run on a new planet of Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden. If Lewis's novels may be classed by which of his favorite authors most influenced them, this is his George MacDonald novel. I'm not that fond of MacDonald either, and I've always found Perelandra a bit airy and dull. When people question the authenticity of certain posthumously-published Lewis works on the grounds that they're not very well-written, my reply is to crack, "What about Perelandra, then?" A couple points in its favor, however. One is the character of the Unman - and I trust it's clear that he's not the same person as Weston whose body he occupies? The Unman is a horrifyingly vivid creation, emphasizing the sheer emptiness and nihilism of the mind of the devil. The other point is the famously fantastical Venus of the setting. It's completely scientifically implausible - we didn't know much about Venus in 1943, and Lewis knew even less - but the lush green floating islands are unsurpassed as a landscape of the imagination.

Charles Williams' principal work of 1943 was his treatise on The Figure of Beatrice (Faber & Faber). This study of Dante is commonly held to be Williams's greatest achievement in literary criticism. I'm afraid it's beyond my ability to judge or even much to understand, for Williams, who's not easy to grasp at the best of times, travels far beyond the Divine Comedy in Dante's output, devoting much attention to La Vita Nuova, Convivio, and De Monarchia, none of which I've read. The Comedy, at least, is fantasy by our retroactive standards, making The Figure of Beatrice a worthy candidate for Best Related Book.

Lord Dunsany. Of the 8 short stories - all of them quite short, though not quite as aphoristic as the 51 Tales - that he is recorded as publishing in 1943, 3 are fantasies. Two have been reprinted in a collection of his stories.

"The Widow Flynn's Apple Tree" (reprinted in The Man Who Ate the Phoenix3) is the longest of these, and one of the finest of Dunsany's later short stories. The bulk of it is a young man's account of how an Irish village sorceress turned him into a goose - no, not that kind of a goose, the kind that flies and honks - a shape he kept for subjectively many years. As with the man who was a dog in My Talks with Dean Spanley, Dunsany's evocation of the goose's perspective is lyric and memorable. The difference in the animalic psychology and the intensity of the sense perceptions merges with the flailing attempt of the narrator to find human language to describe these things that are beyond human ken. He's telling this story in court, having been found unconscious under the titular tree with a broken-off branch in his hand, and consequently charged with attempted burglary of the apples. He explains that the widow had kept her promise to return him to human form, but he was still flying at the time, so he grabbed at the tree to break his fall. This being Ireland, or more accurately Dunsany's Ireland, the judge listens patiently to the whole story and lets the defendant off.

"The Gratitude of the Devil" (also in The Man Who Ate the Phoenix4) includes two of Dunsany's pet peeves in one brief story. This is one of several stories in which he rails against processed foods, which he considered poison. A man who's invented a clever new processed breakfast food is visited by the devil, who's so pleased that he offers the man a boon. At this point the story switches gear as the man, taken by surprise, asks to be able to write the greatest poem in the world. The devil looks unhappy at that request, but the man soon finds himself automatically writing down a sonnet that's beyond his own ability to understand. The successive people he asks to evaluate it fail to give him a straight answer as they're overcome by varying emotions of grief, hostility, or rejection. (The text, or anything about it, is of course not given in the story.) Eventually, just to get rid of the thing, he submits it to a newspaper, and when they send it back with a "not suitable for our needs" slip, he destroys it. Unstated moral, and Dunsany's peeve: the public doesn't appreciate Art.

"A Bit of Bad Luck" (published in Punch, but not reprinted5) is an ironic squib in the form of a complaint by a man whose clever son has invented a matter-transmutation device and changed every bit of iron and steel in the house to gold. Does this please him? No! He doesn't want a golden bootscraper or golden fire tongs or a golden toilet tank chain.6 If he sells them, how will he explain them, what will it do to the price of gold, and above all what will it do to his tax rates? He won't be able to get enough money to buy replacements. What happens when burglars learn there's a houseful of gold in the neighborhood?

That's what I have to recommend for your consideration.

1. More illustrations from the book may be found here.

2. The other two were The Adventures of the Young Soldier in Search of the Better World by C.E.M. Joad (Faber & Faber), a Bunyanesque trek through a serious of tedious lectures on postwar planning, some of them delivered by fantastical creatures or a robot; and All This and Bevin Too by Quentin Crisp (Nicholson & Watson), a narrative poem in 48 verses of limerick, which depicts a sapient kangaroo who patriotically applies for a "kangaroos urgently needed" job at the zoo, only to be buffeted by an avalanche of bureaucracy and paperwork. Ernest Bevin, mentioned in the title but not the text, was the Minister of Labour in the wartime British government, so if it wasn't already obvious what Crisp is satirizing, it is now.

3. Originally published in The Listener, 17 June 1943, p. 724-26.

4. Originally published as "The Devil's Gratitude" in John O'London's Weekly, 10 Sept. 1943, p. 226.

5. 9 June 1943, p. 492-93. Not to be confused with "A Tale of Bad Luck" in the collection The Ghost in the Corner.

6. The story says they can't be changed back, but not why.

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