The thing that people don’t understand is that Gary Gygax lived in a world where de Camp and Pratt were more authoritative in fantasy than J. R. R. Tolkien. People go back and read these Appendix N authors, and assume that it’s all about Gary being Gary– ah, how quirky that old lunk of an insurance salesman was! Oh ho!
But it wasn’t just Gary that was that way. Ken St. Andre was that way, too. A whole lot of people were that way. See, the seventies were populated by a people that were brought up in an entirely different culture from ours. They had an entirely different definition of fantasy and worked from an entirely different set of assumptions. If you’re just now dipping into this stuff, you’re just not going to pick up on who are the outliers and who are the oddballs.
The thing I’ve been trying to figure out is why when these topics come up, I end up in the same camp as some of the New Wave people. At first blush, the shift from more-or-less Christian fantasy to post-Christian fantasy was what really blew my mind when I started reading Appendix N. But here’s the thing. As much as Michael Moorcock and Margaret St. Claire and Roger Zelazny were trying to redefine heroism and truth and everything else, they and the rest of the New Wave writers were just as much swept away by the shift in publishing as Poul Anderson and Lord Dunsany.
That po-faced Tolkien pastiche crap…? It wiped out a raucous spectrum of ideologically diverse approaches to fantasy. And that’s what I like about Appendix N: you had not only this connection to the past and a beautiful heroic ideal in a lot of the works, but you also had people that were trying just about everything they could think of to come up with something new. I think this is a potent combination, and the fact that a synthesis of this range of visions is preserved in D&D of all places is just about the most unlikeliest thing I can imagine.
More on this here:
RETROSPECTIVE: The Complete Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
Grognardia — “These tales are a great antidote to that kind of fastidiousness that says the modern day (or science fiction) and fantasy should never mix.” (From the comments: “I remember reading them, picking up on the laws of magic, and then recognizing their application with the components in the PHB.”)
19th Level — “I also encountered some additional some concepts which found their way into D&D. Being a tale of Norse mythology it was no surprise to find hill, frost, and fire giants and to see the clear inspiration they served for D&D. One surprise I did have is when Harold receives a scroll which allows him to cast a spell – I’d not anticipated I’d encounter the origin of D&D’s spell scrolls. There was also an encounter with a dragon who came accompanied by a strong chlorine smell.”
Dragonsfoot — “I’ve read the Complete Compleat (all five stories) a few times. It’s a little dry, but if you are in a pre-60s kind of mood (read some Dashiell Hammett, some Ray Chandler, some Henry Miller, maybe a little PG Wodehouse) and intermix the Harold Shea stories with that, you appreciate them more than if, say, you contrast them with George R R Martin and China Mieville.”
Reddit — “The authors present the mythological world with great vividness and attention to detail. There is also that sly sense of humour and deflating of pomposity that is so appealing. One aspect I really enjoyed is that the Aesir are arrogant, unfriendly and downright menacing. We have become accustomed in recent times to cleaned-up and idealized versions of the pagan gods (in all the New Age literature and yes, even in Marvel’s Thor comics), that it’s important to be reminded that the ancient Greek and Norse deities were not pleasant, safe superheroes. They were capricious, dangerous and often outright mean.”
Goodreads — “There’s two traits of these stories that are particularly striking. The first is that the depictions of each of the worlds are surprisingly rich, without ever lapsing into fantasy world-developing for its own sake. The characters are interestingly sketched and explored, social customs and mores come into play in important ways, even the rules and workings of magic vary from world to world. The second feature is that, for stories written in the 1940s and 1950s, they remain very fresh, unconfined by environing assumptions from their own epoch — precisely why these stories comprise a classic.”
Tor.com — “The fact that he goes out of his way to name not just these two authors, but The Carnelian Cube specifically as recommended reading is one of the great mysteries of Appendix N.”