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The Mathematics of Magic (L. Sprague De Camp)

by Lyon Sprague DeCamp

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ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt co-wrote five fantasy stories about psychologist Harold Shea and his colleagues for the pulp magazines. The Mathematics of Magic: The Enchanter Stories of de Camp and Pratt collects all five of these original Enchanter stories, plus an introduction by Christopher Stasheff (who edited many of the later Enchanter stories written by other authors), an article written by de Camp about Fletcher Pratt and their collaboration, two additional Enchanter stories written by de Camp after Pratt’s death in 1956, and two essays by SF writer Jerry Pournelle called “Arming the Incomplete Enchanter” and “Rearming the Incomplete Enchanter,” in which he lovingly criticizes Harold Shea for his choices about what to take with him on his adventures (I must say that I agree with Dr. Pournelle).

The five original Enchanter stories are:
1. “The Roaring Trumpet” (Unknown, May 1940) — This first story explains how Dr. Reed Chalmers, Harold Shea’s director at the mental institution, develops a scientific technique for visiting imagined parallel universes. Harold, who styles himself an adventurer and is learning how to fence and ride horses, decides he’d like to go to ancient Ireland to look for his dreamgirl. But when he tries Dr. Chalmers’ technique, he accidentally ends up in the world of Norse mythology just before Ragnarök.

2. “The Mathematics of Magic” (Unknown, October 1940) — Harold Shea and Dr. Chalmers visit the land of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene where they must act chivalrously and where they meet Belphebe and Florimel who later become their wives.

3. “The Castle of Iron” (Unknown, April 1941) — While experimenting with his techniques, Dr. Chalmers accidentally whisks Belphebe off to another world. When police officer Pete Brodsky comes to investigate the disappearance, he is swept away, along with Harold and his colleagues Walter Bayard and Vaclav Polacek to Coleridge’s Xanadu. From there, Harold and Polacek (“the Bouncing Rubber Czech”) are imported to the world of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso where Chalmers and the ladies are, while Walter and Pete the cop, a good Presbyterian, are left in a harem in Xanadu.

4. “The Wall of Serpents” (Fantasy Fiction, June 1953) — Trying to retrieve Shea’s colleagues and the cop from the various universes they’re stuck in, Harold and Belphebe end up in the Finnish epic The Kalevala.

5. “The Green Magician” (Beyond Fiction, 1954) — Trying to get back to Ohio, Harold, Belphebe, and Pete end up in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology where everyone decorates their dining halls with the heads of their enemies. They try to avert war between Cuchulainn and Queen Maev.

The two later stories written by de Camp after Pratt’s death have previously been collected in two Baen editions (The Enchanter Reborn, 1992 and The Exotic Enchanter, 1995) along with Enchanter stories written by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Christopher Stasheff, Holly Lisle, John Maddox Roberts, Roland J. Green & Frieda A. Murray, and Tom Wham:

6. “Sir Harold and the Gnome King” — Harold Shea goes to L. Frank Baum’s Oz to find the Gnome King’s Magic Belt because he thinks it will help him retrieve Walter Bayard from ancient Ireland.

7. “Sir Harold of Zodanga” — “Professor Doctor Sir Harold Shea” visits Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom.

It took me weeks to get through the 504 pages of The Mathematics of Magic: The Enchanter Stories of de Camp and Pratt. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the Harold Shea stories (some are actually novellas), because I did. They (especially the de Camp and Fletcher collaborations) are clever, witty, irreverent, and fun. I liked all of the main characters, and the secondary characters were also entertaining.

The writing isn’t anything glorious (1940s SFF isn’t known for its glorious writing), and it will sometimes make you cringe (such as when Shea says to Belphebe “it is damn white of you”). The plots are often ridiculously silly, but they’re still amusing, effectively blending deadpan and slapstick humor.

However, after a few hundred pages, the 1940s slang has become tiresome and the conceit starts to wear thin. I read the stories back to back because I had the book on loan from the library (I even had to renew it), but these stories probably worked better in their original serialized format — when you read one and take a break for a few months before picking up another. The Mathematics of Magic: The Enchanter Stories of de Camp and Pratt is a great purchase because it collects all the Harold Shea stories, which are classics of fantasy literature, but I recommend reading them one at a time as a comical break from more serious fare. ( )
  Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
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