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I was raised on Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books, those practical and wild and good-humored works about children who get to camp and sail and fish and play-war and climb mountains just that touch more than anyone I knew ever quite did. My father read me the entire series, when I was small, and that is probably why I enjoy camping.

When I was a bit older, I read E. R. Eddison's magnificent The Worm Ouroboros, as one does, one of the greatest of the pre-Tolkien fantasies, with its real fifteenth-century language and its heroes out of some unknown epic, and I loved it.

And when I was a bit older than that, I found out that Eddison and Ransome were friends; dear friends, close friends, friends of the heart, that Ransome was the primary manuscript-reader for The Worm Ouroboros and that as boys together they made world upon world out of sagas. I have seen Eddison's handwriting, very runic, inscribing one of the Zimiamvia books 'for Arthur', at a rare books show.

The question that immediately crossed my mind, of course, was why in the name of wonder Ransome never wrote any fantasy, then. A collection of retold Russian folktales, certainly, which is relatively famous, but that isn't quite the same, and from that day to this it has bothered me.

Thrud brought home a rare book catalog the other night, and in the midst of the various things for which I would give my eyeteeth or possibly my left kidney there was listed this book by Arthur Ransome I had never heard of, with an intriguing title. I looked it up, and while it is sufficiently obscure not to make it into, say, his Wikipedia entry, it is the same Arthur Ransome, and it exists free for download on the internet, and what do you know, the man wrote fantasy.

I feel existentially better, knowing this.

Mind you, I am not saying it is brilliant. It was very early in his writing, almost juvenilia, coming out in 1911 when he was twenty-seven, and the first of the Swallows and Amazons books not till 1929; the only thing I can find he'd published before this is a history of Bohemian life in London (1907), which I have to locate. And the five stories and one critical essay in this collection were written earlier than they were collected, as early as 1905 in one case, and oh, you can tell, you can tell.

But his prose has got the bones of the practical, flexible solidity he'd have in later life, though you can see Eddison around the edges of his adjectives, and despite a certain juvenile pretentiousness these tales are solid at the core. There are two about fauns, which are really about love disappointed, and both of them work, atmospherically and otherwise; and there's one that is a fantasy about dream-sharing which suffers from terribly purple rhetoric but has a serious emotional bite if you are familiar with a certain set of British folk beliefs. (The lyke road. He did the lyke road. I wish it were better.) The critical essay is incredibly awful, exactly the sort of thing people write when they're trying to Become Serious Critics And Influence The World-- it is winceworthy and I am very glad his later career as an investigative reporter beat this sort of dreck out of him. There's a very good not-quite-fantasy about obsession and insanity and snakes that suffers moderately from orientalism and moderately from anticlimax but indicates, and this confuses me, that if so inclined he could have turned into A. Merritt, but he didn't want to.

And then there's 'Rolf Sigurdson', which is why you should download this, because it is Arthur Ransome correctly doing Norse mythology, in the tone of the sagas, and I cannot even tell you how happy a thing that is. That is a thing I had not even expected from the book title. Just go read that one, I can't even. I suppose it is possible you have to have my emotional associations for this to be that awesome a story but it is like tying my entire childhood together and if you were raised on Ransome and Norse this is for you, this is yours.

I will certainly be trying to hunt down an accurate bibliography and the rest of his obscure works, now. This is definitely minor work but it makes me so happy I don't care. I should know better than to trust the insides of dust jackets for a list of what a person's written.


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March 2017

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