Saturday, December 18, 2010

Appendix N: John Bellairs "The Face in The Frost"

Moving on from the "A's" to the "B's" listed on the DMG's Appendix N, I had the pleasure of reading John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost.

Originally published in 1969, Bellairs has stated that he was inspired to write a book staring a wizard after reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Having a wizard as a protagonist, or in the case of Bellairs two wizards, is where most of the similarities end; both works are without a doubt grounded in High Fantasy.

Bellairs is better known for his Young Adult works. Initially, The Face in the Frost was billed as such; however, be that as it may, this is a novel easily enjoyed by any reader who loves fantasy, regardless of age.

I first became aware of this novel after having read Lin Carter's non-fiction book about fantasy, Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy. In his book, Carter discusses The Face in the Frost as the third of three works published since The Lord of the Rings, that in Carters own words: I have read three absolutely first class fantasy novels published since The Lord of the Rings first appeared in print in this country (the United States) during the mid 1950s. And only three.... The first two Carter wrote of were Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, and Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain; Katherine Kurtz and Ursula K. LeGuin get honorable mentions. John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost gets the nod from Carter as being worthy of being placed upon the book shelf alongside The Lord of the Rings.

I bring this forward as I would like to emphasize once more my love for Lin Carter as an editor and fellow fanatic of great literature. By many critics accounts, he had glaring faults as a writer, and if stories are true perhaps as a person as well, but as a lover of Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery fiction, Carter did much for the genre and his fellow fans with his editorship of The Ballentine Adult Fantasy Series, which I've spoken of before.

It's a mystery to me as to why some works made Gygax's Appendix N while others did not. For instance, John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost does, but neither Peter S. Beagle nor Katherine Kurtz do. My suspicions lean towards a theory that Dungeons & Dragons grew from Gary Gygax's love of pulp fiction, not the fantasy literature that exploded upon the scene after the publication of Tolkien. I believe this for Gygax names EC Comics and fantasy/horror/science fiction movies as inspiration as well. Gygax was known fan of Hammer Horror Films, which were pulpy in tone as were EC Comics.

It is again the old odd argument of D&D's inspirational material. The outsider looks into the gaming circle and sees the usual assortment of gamers seemingly reliving a Tolkien fetish as they hack their way through dungeons in the guise of elves, dwarves and halflings (hobbits). The fans of the game, or at least many, know that they are actually playing out their fantasies of yes kin akin to the kindred of Tolkien, but more in the vein of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and nightmare tales from H.P. Lovecraft. Some, perhaps even Gygax himself, are angered at the simplification of The Lord of the Rings = Dungeons & Dragons and vice versa.

It is mystery. If Tolkien had not published his masterpiece, there would have been no boom of interest in the 1950s/60s/70s in the genre of fantasy. This resurgence of interest lead to a fan named Lin Carter who took the reigns of editing at Ballentine and reintroduced, and in some cases introduced for the first time, fantasy readers to such greats as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Katherine Kurtz and John Bellairs. It should not be forgotten that Lin Carter as the men-tee of L. Sprague de Camp had a hand in reintroducing fantasy lovers to Howard's creations as well; although the manner in which it was done angers Howard purists to this day.

What I'm driving at is simply that Gary Gygax, having stated himself that he was avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950...most likely was exposed to many great works by being a fan of the Ballentine Adult Fantasy series. For instance by reading the Ballentine paperbacks he could have been exposed to H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was one of the authors re-introduced by Carter to the public in the Ballentine Adult Fantasy series. Most likely, with his age being taken into account, his exposure to Bellairs was the Adult Fantasy series.

Also, it is possible that Gygax never read the pure versions of Howard's Conan yarns. Gnomic Press published them prior to the altered versions that de Camp pushed onto the public, but the de Camp versions, along with Marvel Comics, were the stories that most readers in Gygax's age group would have been exposed to. After all, Gary Gygax was born two years after Howard's death, and wouldn't have come into his formative reading years until four years prior to the cancellation of Weird Tales.

The popularity of the character of Conan led to the formation of the sub-genre of Sword & Sorcery. I believe, and I have no proof there of, that Gygax's leisure reading was more geared towards Sword & Sorcery rather then the High Fantasy inspired by Tolkien. Many of the works included in the Ballantine series were more geared towards High Fantasy. So while Gygax certainly read some, perhaps many or even all of the titles in Carter's Adult fantasy series, he would have paid attention to other works more in the vein of Howard's Conan tales. I specifically point out the Conan tales, as Gygax specifically named them in Appendix N.

I find myself curious as to why, if H.P. Lovecraft got the nod in Appendix N, why not Clark Ashton Smith? Perhaps the answer to that lies in the proper full title of Appendix N, Inspirational and Educational Reading. The italics on "Educational" are mine. Perhaps I can only answer many of my own questions by reading the appendix in entirety with the goal of educating myself about Dungeons & Dragons.

I did not intend such a long ponderous entry, but it is interesting to see how reading Appendix N gets my gears turning about the origins of the game. Gary Gygax aptly named Appendix N. It can inspire great gaming and educate the reader about Gygax's creation.

Back to the work at hand, I really can not state more then has been stated elsewhere. The Face in the Frost is a joy to read and it reads quickly. The fact that Prospero studies his spells from a spell book prior to casting, has been pointed out as a possible influence upon D&D. I would also like to point out that there is a scene which may have been the introduction for the spell magic mouth as well.

In Carter's Imaginary Worlds, a prequel to The Face in the Frost is talked about and was to be published in a volume of literature aimed at young fantasy readers titles Young Magicians. That book never saw print, and the manuscript for Bellairs story is assumed lost. He did begin work on a sequel titled The Dolphin Cross. It was never finished, but the 150 pages of it which were written are available in print.

My copy is a used Ace printing (1981) that I found in a local used book store. I have seen multiple copies available. There is a current edition in print as well. As always, I encourage you shop locally and support your favorite non-corporate owned book store. Hopefully one that serves coffee not bought from Starbucks and has a lazy cat rolled up in a cozy corner.

Happy Reading. Good Gaming.

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