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Wall of Serpents by L. Sprague de Camp
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Wall of Serpents (1978)

by L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Harold Shea (3)

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The first of the ‘D’ challenge books. This one is a bit of a cheat as these stories weren’t written by one writer, but two. They were the result of a long term collaboration by friends and fellow authors; L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Fletcher Pratt is best known in SFF circles for his work on the Harold Shea Incompleat Enchanter stories. He unfortunately passed away at the tragically young age of 59, just as his books had begun to hit the best seller lists. L. (Lyon) Sprague De Camp had a 60 year long career as a writer, spanning over 100 books, he was best known for his sword and sorcery novels and this collaboration with Pratt, the World Science Fiction Society awarded him the title of Grand Master in 1976, he won a Hugo in 1997 for his autobiography and won the Nebula as a Grandmaster in 1978.

People tend to think that ‘funny’ fantasy began with Terry Pratchett, however De Camp and Pratt predate the great British author by around 40 years, they began working on the Harold Shea stories in 1940.

Harold Shea is an occasionally reckless and generally eccentric pyschologist. He comes up with a form of mathematical magic which he believes can transport him from this world into ages of myth and magic. In The Roaring Trumpet he begins by trying to send himself to the Ireland of Cuchulainn and Queen Maev, but instead finds himself in Asgard rubbing shoulders with Odin, Thor, Loki and Heimdall.

One thing that was a little disconcerting was how long it took for Harold; he appeared to have a strong working knowledge of a number of well known mythologies, to work out where he was, despite knowing what Odin was supposed to look like and even after hearing the name Heimdall, he still didn’t work it out until it was spelled out to him.

Harold has the great misfortune to arrive in Asgard not long before Ragnarok and accompanies his godly companions, and their servant Thjalfi on a quest to reclaim Thor’s hammer and Frey’s sword from the giants. The depiction of the gods was very much as anyone with a decent knowledge of the myths would expect, however the giants were different. They looked and acted like the warlike barbaric characters they are, but they spoke using a mid 20th century American slang. I have to admit that I quite liked this innovation. Harold manages to use his psychological knowledge and his modern day sensibilities to get himself and his companions out of a number of scrapes and finds his way back to his own world and time just before Ragnarok really kicks in.

It’s a fun romp and a very promising start to what became a classic series.

The second of Harold Shea’s adventures; The Mathematics of Magic takes place directly after his unexpected journey to the Asgard.

Harold tells best friend and colleague Reed Chalmers about what happened and how. Initially Reed thinks Harold is mad, but goes along with it to humour Harold before realising that the theory behind what the younger man did is at least sound. Harold still wants to visit the Ireland that he tried for the first time, but Reed convinces him to instead shoot for the world of Spenser’s epic poem; The Fairie Queen. This time, possibly because Reed is helping Harold, they get to their intended destination.

I’m nowhere near as familiar with the world of The Faerie Queen as I was with Norse mythology, so a lot of what Reed and Harold saw was new to me. It seemed a little fresher, definitely funnier and better written all around. It may have been that De Camp and Pratt were more comfortable with what they’d created the second time around.

The story improved with Reed along for the ride, it gave Harold someone to talk to and bounce things off. Reed also tends to counsel his younger friend and prevent him from making ill considered moves that could have disastrous consequences for all concerned. I’m not sure who’s idea it was to include the program for the wizard’s convention in this, but that had me laughing out loud. It was expertly done and a nice dig at conventions in general.

Reed decided to stay in the world with Florimel and Harold inadvertently got transported back, taking the object of his affection; Belphebe, with him. It will be interesting to see Belphebe make the transaction from 15th century epic poem warrior woman to 20th century girl about town.

One criticism is Harold’s treatment of Gertude Mugler. Gertrude works with Harold and his friends Reed Chalmers and Walter Bayard. Gertrude appears to carry a bit of a torch for Harold, she was the one who hired a private detective to investigate his disappearance when he went missing one his first adventure, and yet Harold dismisses her when he speaks about her and quite happily flaunts Belphebe in front of her at the end of The Mathematics of Magic. Maybe I’ve read it wrong, but Harold needs a smack for that behaviour.

The third of the Harold Shea adventures: Castle of Iron, begins with Harold being quizzed by the police about the disappearance of his wife Belphebe. Harold is convinced that she’s somehow been sorcerously removed from our realm and so is his other colleague and friend Walter Bayard, however Gert reported the incident to the authorities. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, eh Harold?

Before things can get too unpleasant for our hero, he, one of the policemen, Walter Bayard and another colleague Vaclav ‘Votsy’ Polacek, also known as the Rubber Czech, are whisked off to the court of Kubla Khan as imagined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his epic poem. While Harold is trying to work out how this happened and get back to his own world he and Votsy are removed from the court and find themselves in another realm. At least this one has two familiar faces in it; Harold’s good friend Reed Chalmers and Reed’s lady love Florimel from the Faerie Queen.

Apparently Reed had an issue with Florimel. She’s made of snow and won’t last unless they can find a way to make her enchantment as a lady more permanent. In order to accomplish this Reed has transported himself and Florimel to the land of Orlando Furioso as that is not dissimilar to the Faerie Queen. In fact Orlando Furioso is believed to have inspired Spenser’s epic work. In doing this Reed also managed to remove Belphebe as the character of Belphegor is analogous to that of Belphebe. He brought Harold along for extra assistance and Vaclav was a total accident.

I wasn’t greatly impressed by this installment. I wasn’t familiar with the work, but that didn’t present a problem with the Faerie Queen and De Camp and Pratt take significant liberties with the source. To the best of my knowledge the Astolph or Astolfo in Orlando Furioso was not an adventuring English duke with knowledge of this world’s 20th century, nor was he a friend of Merlin’s. I felt that this one was a little formulaic. Harold is transported to a fictional world, he uses his psychological knowledge to personal advantage and amazes the inhabitants with his knowledge of sword play, gets in and out of scrapes by the skin of his teeth and often does it in the most incredible of ways. It may be that I’ve read a number of works inspired by these ones and it’s become a bit tired to me. The other problem was Votsy. He was the stereotypical socially awkward, sex obsessed nerd. There didn’t seem to be much of a reason to have him there really. He may have been included as comedy relief, but I found him irritating and hope he doesn’t reappear.

The Wall of Serpents finds Harold and his lady love Belphebe adjusting to married life in modern day Ohio, however they are concerned about their friend, the laid back Walter Bayard and the detective Pete Brodsky, whp are still stuck in the court of Kubla Khan as imagined by Coleridge. To get them back Harold needs a high powered enchanter. He decides that Vainamoinen from the Finnish epic The Kalevala is what he's after. He manages to get himself and Belphebe into the epic, but not to Vainamoinen, they instead find themselves dealing with the boastful and lecherous Lemminkainen.

After the duo equal Lemminkainen with sword and bow he agrees to help them and true to his word does transport Walter and Pete to the world of The Kalevala. They find themselves having to help the magic using warrior. Both Bayard and Brodsky prove themselves of worth. Walter, being of an extremely practical mind, can see through any magical illusion and Pete is a dab hand at jiu jitsu, claiming that any detective who has worked in Chicago needs it.

Walter's attempt at magic gets them tossed in a prison and held for execution. Harold transports them before things can get worse and this is how they end up in Cuchulainn's Ireland and The Green Magician.

The story was much the same as all the others. The skills of the adventurers are strange and useful to the natives of the story they find themselves in and they have to put them to use to save the hero, before managing to get back home. I read some of the Cuchulainn stories as a kid and I have to admit I wasn't happy with his portrayal in this story. He was an unpleasant bully and sexist, he also had the strange habit of referring to male companions as darling.

The character of tough detective; Pete Brodsky, was these stories comedy relief. He was less annoying and more useful than Vaclav Polacek, however I found much of his dialogue almost unintelligible, littered as it was with, to my eye, anachronistic mid 20th century street slang.

The stories were enjoyable and easy to read, although I felt they hit a high point in The Mathematics of Magic that they never attained again. They are however well worth reading as an example of the evolution of the SFF field and proof that even in the 1940's the field had developing sub genres.

I haven't read a lot of fantasy where the protagonist enters works of fiction, but one that I can heartily recommend is Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, especially the first book; The Eyre Affair. If you like Harold Shea, you'll love Thursday Next.
  EJAYS17 | Apr 26, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
L. Sprague de Campprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pratt, Fletchermain authorall editionsconfirmed
Barr, GeorgeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
De Camp, Catherine CrookIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Also known as "The enchanter completed".
(The Enchanter Compleated is an alternate title for Wall of Serpents. The Enchanter Completed appears to be a different book, a tribute anthology edited by Harry Turtledove.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0440196396, Mass Market Paperback)

The Mathematics of Magic was probably the greatest discovery of the ages - at least Professor Harold Shea thought so. With the proper equations, he could instantly transport himself back in time to all the wondrous lands of ancient legend. But slips in time were a hazard, and Shea's magic did not always work - at least, not quite as he expected . . . The Wall of Serpents is the third in L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's much-loved Compleat Enchanter series.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:17 -0400)

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