Friday, 29 June 2001

Fletcher Pratt: The Well of the Unicorn (1948)

Edition: Ballantine, 1976 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 851

Lester del Rey considered this forgotten novel "the best piece of epic fantasy ever written". This is overstating things, particularly given the way in which the genre has evolved in sophistication since it was published, but there is certainly something more to it than most of its contemporaries.

The basic plot is fairly typical of the genre. After an invasion of his native country of Dalarna, Airar Alvarson is unable to pay the increased taxes demanded of him by the new Vulking overlords, and loses his family's farmstead. Refusing to work for the Vulkings as a serf, he ends up joining a resistance movement. Through this, he meets three women who play a large part in his increasing good fortune, a fisher girl, a woman who dresses as a man to be a mercenary captain, and finally the one he really falls for, a princess of the Empire who is way beyond his social reach.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is the spring from which it is named. This is the centre of the Empire's authority, and one of the most sacred sites of Pratt's world. It has magical properties, and if the parties to a dispute travel to the Well and drink of its water, it will bring peace to them. This should resolve the dispute, but it does not erase the personality of the drinker, and one of the stories about the Well recounted in the novel is of a Vulking count who defies the water's properties to attack his enemies again.

The Well of the Unicorn also has philosophical concerns unusual in the genre at the time. These centre around two main issues: free will (can it exist if the future can be foreseen magically?) and social organisation (how can people be free yet society still exist in an meaningful way?). No conclusions are reached, but the way that the ideas are incorporated into the novel is interesting.

Perhaps now seeming rather old-fashioned in style, The Well of the Unicorn has a bit more to it than many fantasy novels.

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