Mar 5, 2023

Golden Cities, Far: The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series

I discovered The Lord of the Rings in junior high, and thought it the best thing ever written. Heroic fantasy!  Elves, dwarfs, and wizards fighting the Dark Lord in an alternate Medieval world!  Infinitely superior to sword and sorcery (about mighty-thewed barbarian heroes in an ancient world), and to those dreary naturalistic novels about high school basketball stars that teachers were always pushing at us.  Even better than science fiction.

During the spring and summer of seventh grade, my friend Darry and I started working on our own alternate Medieval world -- if we couldn't find a "good place" in our world, why not make one of our own?   We developed a gazetteer-full of new countries, wrote historical timelines spanning thousands of years, compiled detailed genealogical charts, and learned to speak a dozen languages of Elves, Dwarves, and Men. We got ideas from fantasy novels, myths, folklore, the histories of obscure countries, and anything else we could get our hands on: we named the country of Runoe after Runde Island in My Village in Norway, and the forest-dwelling Colemonas after Coleman camping equipment. We worked fervently, every day at lunchtime and after school, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, during holidays.

Fantasy worlds must be used as the setting for novels, so by eighth grade we were working on a plot about a Midwestern teenager named Jim swept away through a time-space warp to the world of Toulbium, where he gathered companions to fight the Dark Lord.

Everyone we told about the story screamed “You’re plagiarizing The Lord of the Rings!” But we patiently pointed out that Jim traveled west, not east like Frodo; that he got hiscompanions by accident, not through the Council of Elrond, and that the Dark Lord’s land of Moraine was bounded by dark forests, whereas Sauron’s land of Mordor was bounded by mountains.

Every Saturday we took the bus downtown to Readmore Book World to spend our allowance on heroic fantasy novels.  Between 1969 and 1974, Ballantine published 65, bright, shining paperbacks with evocative titles: The King of Elfland's Daughter, The Broken Sword, The Wood Beyond the World, Beyond the Golden Stair, Golden Cities Far.  

But there was a problem: the cover art often showed naked women.  Beefcake was highly stylized, when you could find it at all (here the Welsh god Manawyddan wades across the English Channel).

And another problem: they were unreadable, with stilted Medieval diction, boring characters, and clich├ęd plots.

The biggest problem: the male heroes were entirely obsessed with goddesses, fairy queens, and damsels in distress. With the exception of Tolkien and maybe C.S. Lewis, heroic fantasy was nauseatingly heterosexist.  The Well of the World's Desiring, the Goal of the Quest, the Reason for Living is a man falling into a woman's arms.  No bonding, no gay subtexts, no gay symbolism, no nothing.

Even the cover of Imaginary Worlds, a survey of the fantasy genre, morphs into a woman's face

It's no better today.   No matter if it is print fiction, a movie, or tv (as in Legend of the Seeker, top photo).  There may be a few battle maidens and Amazons who fight side by side, but men are always questing after women.

Even in naturalistic literature, as I discovered in my college class in Fiction Writing.


  1. Time warps seem more in line with Conan and the like. We know they exist in the same universe as Yog-Sothoth and the rest. 80s man mountains sometimes even were sent through time. Other sword and sorcery movies like Krull (and no, that's not a glaive) were on another planet and had aliens, while others like Yor were future Earth all along.

    The use of science fictional elements in fantasy is typical sword and sorcery. And it was getting tiresome by the late 70s anyway.

  2. True, "The Broken Sword", a book solidly in the Norse saga tradition, is utterly heterocentric (and so was Poul Anderson; his wife Karen was pretty open-minded on the subject). On the other hand, the cover art was by more-or-less-openly gay artist George Barr. He had a distinctive style to be sure!

    1. Is he the one who invented the convention of the hero standing with a woman attached to his leg?

  3. While Poul Anderson was pretty heterocentric, and The Broken Sword, first written in the 1950s, was heavily in the Norse saga tradition, at least that cover art was by openly (by 1970s standards) gay artist George Barr. He had a distinctive style, and his work was quite popular for a time.


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