Monday, April 19, 2010

In A Magic Mirror, Darkly

In 2009, the New England Science Fiction Association Press published Magic Mirrors: The High Fantasy and Low Parody of John Bellairs. In the Editor's Preface, Timothy Szczesuil states that there are no hard and fast criteria for NEFSA choosing an author to publish, but that it is often "that one particular NEFSA member loves a particular author enough to be willing to put together a book, and other members agree that there might be enough like-minded people 'out there' who would like to have that book."

In this case the editor's have brought together Bellairs' non-juvenile fiction into an easily available omnibus volume. These works include St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies, The Pedant and the Shuffly, The Face in the Frost, and, perhaps most significantly (certainly for many Bellairs enthusiasts), The Dolphin Cross, the previously unpublished fragment of a sequel to The Face in the Frost. While Fidgeta and Pedant have been hard to find (I was blessed to fortuitously locate both years ago), FF has enjoyed a long popularity, and its readers have had promises of further adventures of the wizard Prospero and his friend Roger Bacon dangled in their faces since at least 1973.

That was the year that Lin Carter announced in Imaginary Worlds (his book on 'epic fantasy') that FF was one of the three best fantasy books to come out since Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings. He also claimed that Bellairs had produced a short story telling how Prospero and Roger Bacon first met, for Carter's planned anthology, Magic Kingdoms. As it turns out, that volume was never made, and whether or not a copy of the story still exists in the enormous but chaotic files that Carter left when he passed away is a moot but tantalizing point. Apparently none existed in Bellairs' own archive when he passed away in 1991.

What is known is that Bellairs never quite abandoned Prospero and the South Kingdom, and according to testimony by both Carter and Bellairs' son Frank (who himself passed away in 1999) he had a file of notes, maps, and outlines for the wizard and his world. Whether this file still exists or went by way of the stove in the backyard where he apparently burned old work from time to time is anybody's guess. What is now known is that he sent a copy of the extant 130 pages of so of The Dolphin Cross to Ellen Kushner, the author responsible for getting the rights for paperback publishing of FF for Ace, and it is thanks to her efforts that we now have a last glimpse of Prospero and his world.

The Dolphin Cross begins some six months after the story of FF, and Prospero is soaking up the joys of spring in the backyard of his eccentrically anachronistic home. Soon he is having bad dreams of marching armies, however, and is caught up in the machinations of the mysterious Othamar, who is apparently trying to unite the little realms of the South Kingdom under his rule. Although it seems obvious he has magical help himself, Othamar is down on wizards and sorcerers, and most of the action of The Dolphin Cross is Prospero's imprisonment and escape, first from exile on a little island and then from an evil magician calling himself the Bishop. Along the way there is plenty of the beautifully observed nature, eccentric characters, and nightmare imagery that made FF the uniquely wonderful experience that it is. If The Dolphin Cross seems a darker work, it is perhaps because it stops in the middle of the tale, where things look bleakest in most stories.

Magic Mirrors is a must have for any Bellairs fan, and not only for The Dolphin Cross. Seeing Marilyn Fitschen's illustrations for FF in the larger, clearer hardback format is something of a revelation, and the Appendix translating Bellairs' Latin quotations (he had degrees from both Notre Dame and the University of Chicago) is very handy. But I also enjoyed the insights and reminiscences of John Bellairs' character revealed in the editor's preface, introduction, and the prefatory note to The Dolphin Cross, especially Bellairs characterization of himself as "a sporadically shy person, and a permanently eccentric one." John Bellairs claimed he gave Prospero his own "phobias and crochets"; Magic Mirrors, as even the cover art by Omar Rayyan seems to suggest,is a loving last look at a great wizard and a great author.


John said...

What is meant by "Dolphin Cross?"

Brer said...

It is a symbol (a cross made out of four dolphins, touching tails) of the four elements, that Othamar and his cabal are apparently using as a rubric for their plot. It was also used by the evil wizard Melichus in "The Face In The Frost."