Today marks what would have been the 89th birthday of Lin Carter, author, editor, and historian, and an altogether polarizing figure in fantasy fiction. Carter was half of an (in)famous duo along with L. Sprague de Camp responsible for the Lancer/Ace Conan Saga, a series that republished Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories with editorial amendments and alterations. Carter’s role included rewriting unfinished Howard fragments and creating new Conan stories out of whole cloth.
For some the Lancer/Ace Conans are a fun, exciting, nostalgic trip into the sword-and-sorcery’s 1960s renaissance; for others they are a bastardization of Howard’s works and best left in the dustbin of history. As for me, I own the complete run of Conan Saga on my bookshelf and can appreciate them for what they are—an editorialized presentation of Conan, with the best covers ever. If I want real Howard, I will read from my Del Rey collection.
But Carter’s contributions to Howard’s legacy represent only a small portion of his career. Carter also wrote many works of pastiche and original fiction and served as a fantasy critic and editor.
I’m not a big fan of Carter’s most famous creation, Thongor of Lemuria. I find him to be a pale copy of Conan, set in a pale copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars universe of John Carter. Carter’s prose is workmanlike at best—readable, but bereft of Howard’s poetry and economy, and Burroughs’ headlong dash and invention. He also wrote dozens of pastiches of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Lord Dunsany, in addition to several original works of varying quality, including the likes of Lost World of Time and The Warrior of World’s End. This is not to say Carter’s fiction is wholly without merit. Recently I re-read “Vault of Silence” in the Barbarians anthology (Signet, 1986; original publication 1977) and found it a very good piece of sword-and-sorcery, featuring a hard-bitten wandering wizard not unlike Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name as the protagonist.
Carter is perhaps best regarded for his pioneering early critical studies of the fantasy fiction genre. These include works like Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, H.P. Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, and Imaginary Worlds. While some of the scholarship particularly in the former two lacks rigor, Carter was working largely without precedent in the very early days of fantasy, before the latter existed as a defined genre.
But Carter is perhaps best known today for his role as series editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, or BAFS, during its principal run from 1969-1974. The BAFS reprinted a wide swath of fantasy authors from the pulps to high fantasy and everything in between, including the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, Poul Anderson, Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, and William Morris.
Jamie Williamson’s The Evolution of Modern Fantasy: From Antiquarianism to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) makes the bold claim that the BAFS was responsible for canonizing fantasy’s greatest works and in so doing, created fantasy as a standalone literary genre. Prior to the BAFS, Williamson claims, fantasy did not exist—certainly not as we think of it today. Instead, the “field” such as it was consisted of disconnected, solo artists (described by Williamson as “literary mavericks”) working independently, creating works largely free of the influence of an established body of fantastic literature. This is not to say that the likes of Morris, Dunsany, Evangeline Walton, James Branch Cabell, et. al, were free from influence—far from it—but only that their influences were largely idiosyncratic.
This all changed with the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Tolkien boom of the 1960s, as well as the publication of the BAFS. The latter served to both establish a fantasy canon, as well as “define the terrain” by offering a coherent, working definition of “fantasy” for the first time. Writes Williamson:
If Williamson’s claim is correct, it significantly elevates Carter’s role in the shaping of fantasy fiction as we know it today. While I think Williamson’s evaluation of the BAFS is somewhat inflated—I believe that fantasy was already being defined and canonized in the likes of the fanzine Amra (sword-and-sorcery as a subgenre was already coined by 1961)—there is no doubt it was a very important series in the evolution of fantasy fiction. The BAFS restored to print many fine stories and authors who otherwise would have been destined for obscurity, and as Williamson notes spliced together an older, literary strand of fantasy fiction with the popular fantasy of the 1960s-onward to create a coherent genre. Carter’s editorial decisions proved largely shrewd, and his introductions to the volumes lucid, entertaining, and contagious in their enthusiasm, worthy of a collection of their own.
In summary, Carter today deserves our appreciation as a fantasy fan, champion, and pioneer scholar. Had a virulent form of cancer not claimed his life, he might still be alive today, and I’m sure his eyes would have lit up with glee to see just how pervasive and mainstream his favorite genre has become with the likes of the bestselling Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire series.
But alas, Valar Morgulis.
If your eyes can bear the nuclear holocaust shade of green, one of the best sites to learn more about Carter’s life and art can be found here: http://www.angelfire.com/az/vrooman/index.html