REVIEW: "The Compleat Enchanter" -- More like "meh"nchanter

The Compleat Enchanter The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up on the recommendation of Lester del Rey in his The World of Science Fiction, 1926 - 1976: The History of a Subculture (reviewed here), and having greatly enjoyed de Camp's short story "A Gun For Dinosaur" (as performed on the X Minus One radio show in the late 1950s). Unfortunately, in marked contrast with that story, I don't think The Compleat Enchanter holds up that well in 2016.

The premise is amusing enough: a research psychiatrist (because it's the 1950s, and psychiatry is hot shit) discovers that one can translate oneself to parallel worlds by reciting alternative logical formulae, such as the laws describing how magic works―"like affects like," and so on. The Compleat Enchanter follows Harold Shea as he bounces between worlds from Earth's mythical and literary history, interacting with the characters therein: first as he accidentally winds up in the world of Norse mythology on the eve of Ragnarok, second in the world of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and third in the world of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.

And that's about the right decreasing order of quality. Shea's adventure in Asgard is actually pretty fun, mostly because of the incongruity between a brash 1950s guy and the heroic characters of Norse myth, and Shea's discovery of how magic works. The key humorous element of the stories is that magic works, but not very reliably: if you scrounge up the right materials and chant some doggerel poetry, supernatural effects happen, but maybe at 1/10th or 100 times the desired effect.

I suspect there are other elements that are intended to be humorous, but let's just say that the stories are pretty relentlessly 1950s. Shea (and, in the third story, the seemingly pointless character of Polacek) speak in a (to my 2016 ears) ridiculous style, giving the whole thing an almost too-pulpy feeling. This might have been the point, but the high-contrast was probably funnier back in the day when pulp style hasn't been mocked (with and without irony) for the past half-century.

The other thing is that Shea (and Polacek more so) never seem to get that the worlds they travel to are consequential, even as those worlds continuously demonstrate that they are. This comes to a head in the third book (again with Polacek), where the characters from Earth are held hostage in the castle of a Muslim sorcerer: no matter the situation, Shea and Polacek blunder around saying "What's the big idea?" and casually challenging people to fights (or just threatening them with knuckle sandwiches). Again, maybe that's supposed to be funny, and maybe it was funny back in the Fifties, but to me it's just dumb.

For all that, I liked the book well enough; there were some pretty cool moments and enough amusing scenes (especially when magic is involved) to keep my interest. But I think the premise has been done better by later authors, in both humorous and straight contexts. Overall I would recommend this mostly for its historical value.

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