How did you get into fantasy? My road to realms fantastical was really quite direct, as it started with—as with so many others, I suspect— The Lord of the Rings, but the road to LotR was a long one, and not so direct.
That work had been in print for some time and I remember seeing the old Ace paperbacks on the book rack at the local Safeway in Douglas, Wyoming, where I lived at the time (1965), and my journey should have started then, but it did not. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school and the only fantasy I had ever read up to that point was David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd way back in second grade. Although I had enjoyed that book immensely, it did not cause me to venture further into that realm. I stuck with my non-fiction reading, as all I wanted, like Sgt. Friday, was the facts. Fiction did not interest me. I was interested in mythology which is how I was caught by David, but I considered mythology a section of history, in that it was the study of ancient religions. I read no other fiction until 7th grade, and so those LotR paperbacks meant nothing to me and the outlandish cover art puzzled me more than anything else. I was so firmly entrenched in factual mode that I found such fantastical fiction essentially unintelligible. Seriously. I distinctly remember reading the back cover blurb on one of the Ballantine paperbacks and finding the words simply making no sense whatsoever. I shake my head over that today, finding it hard to believe I once thought that way, but there it is.
Seventh grade English class included English literature, and so I perforce read the assigned works which included Thomas Hardy (The Return of the Native) and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Shakespeare was included as well, of course. It wouldn’t have been English lit without the Bard! Outside of class however, fiction just was not on my plate.
I must now introduce my good friend Dennis, for he has a large part to play in this little tale. He was a grade ahead of me and lived on the next street over, but here was an empty lot between his street and mine, as we were on the edge of town. By this time, we had moved from the eastern Nebraska of my second grade years and earlier, the place of my birth, to eastern Wyoming where I had started third grade in the small town of Douglas. I got to know Dennis while I was in junior high school. His mother and mine often had coffee together of a morning and it was inevitable that we became acquainted. What really got our friendship off the ground was a mutual interest in butterflies, but that is another story entirely.
Dennis was solely responsible for my appreciation of fiction. I might never have cracked the cover of another work of fiction without his goading. While I was a sophomore at the University of Wyoming, ca. 1967, he was flabbergasted at my ignorance of certain authors he considered essential reading for any college student and so provided me with a reading list of required reading. These included such things as John Barth’s The Sotweed Factor and Giles, Goat-boy (loved them both), Hesse’s Steppenwolf (mind-numbingly awful, although the tale of the Steppenwolf itself within the novel was fun) and Siddhartha, which I enjoyed. With these under my belt, I began to explore and during this time, I found, read and immensely enjoyed to my surprise Jane Austen’s Big Three (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion) and Russian literature, among others. But what about fantasy, you ask? Ah, patience, Grasshopper.
The following summer, Dennis and I were in his basement room/lab talking butterflies when he threw a paperback at me and said (and I quote him exactly), “Read this or I’ll kill you!”
It was the Ballantine pb of The Fellowship of the Ring. I recognized the cover and was really not that interested, but considering Dennis’ very strong desire that I read it and not wanting to test his resolve to follow through on his threat, I conceded, took the thing home and read it.
I stayed up all bloody night reading the thing. I could NOT put it down and I was amazed that I had passed over such a fantastic book for so long because it had looked & sounded weird to me. Within those pages, I left my own world and journeyed into a new one, one which seemed so real to me that I wanted to stay there. So, after breakfast, I gave Dennis a buzz on the phone to make sure he was up and about and practically ran over there. Accosting him in his room, I demanded, “This was great! Got any more???”
Oh, the fiend! Grinning like a slightly demented gargoyle, Dennis, my friend mind you, said in an almost warlockly cackle, “Buy....your....own.” Then he laughed.
AAAAAARRRRRGGGHHH! He had me good and he knew it. A Tolkien addict had been born!
Well, what could I do? I said some not very polite things and left, ran home, jumped into my car and headed downtown where I promptly bought the whole trilogy, the went immediately back home, headed to my room in the basement and did not emerge until sometime late on the third day. I had read The Two Towers & The Return of the King back-to-back and had then fallen into a state not far from a coma for hours. Upon arising, I stumbled upstairs to find my mother giving me a quizzing look.
“Been reading. Finally finished the books. What’s for supper?” That was about all I could muster at that point, as I was still a little muzzy from insufficient sleep. I ate and went back to bed, but was up early the next day and got over to Dennis’ as soon as I was able. I told him I’d read the other two volumes of that trilogy and asked him if that author had anything else out, so of course he told me about el hobbito. It took me a while to locate a copy of Mr. Baggins’ story, but I did and read it straight through, too.
Those four books awakened in me a flame that still has not been quenched and I doubt e’er will be. I craved more fantasy, and fortunately, Ballantine Books came out with their Adult Fantasy Series (“At the Sign of the Unicorn”) and I bought ’em all right up until the series’ demise. I also discovered Conan along the way, thanks to those incredible Frazetta covers on the original Lancer paperbacks. Bought all of those, too.
The thing is, fantasy was only the beginning. As I traveled down that road, I kept finding interesting side branches which took me to places I’d never thought of. And each of those side roads had branches and those, too, branched out. So, I’ve spent time delving into the life and times of William Morris, fine printing, Icelandic & Norse sagas, typography & book design, hand bookbinding (self-taught there), the Kalevala, Lord Dunsany, fine printing, Thomas Burnett Swann, H. P. Lovecraft, Immanuel Velikovsky, catastrophism, H. Warner Munn, and the road goes ever on and on.
The road to the worlds of fantasy leads to many other places and you never know where you will end up!
I must confess, I haven't read much fantasy lately...been too busy writing/editing it. Our first book, long overdue, is almost finished. Look for The Last Giant: Transgression soon. Seriously!
--scribbled by R. Hardesty. J has her own tale to tell and I'll let her tell it, if she wills.