Among the plethora of fantasy anthologies available today, this stands out as a volume full of surprises. Not the least of them is that editors Robert Boyer and Kenneth Zahorski have managed to bring a real sense of the fantastic -- the marvelous -- back to a genre cluttered with dragons and dungeons and rites of passage.
The substantial contents of this low-priced "paperback original" are also bound to surprise some readers; many, including librarians and collectors, will regret that it has not been produced in a more permanent hardbound edition.
An engaging and information-packed Introduction combines with brief essays preceding each of the 16 stories to provide the literary and historical contexts that will help the contemporary reader appreciate a group of works carefully culled from two centuries. The editors show a good knowledge of literary history as well as a talent for choosing lively stories that stand on their own. While this volume is instructional and may be studied in light of the many perspectives offered upon Christian themes, it also succeeds as a good collection of imaginative, even inspiring stories.
One of the achievements of the book is to prove the lasting appeal of writers whose names may be only vaguely familiar or entirely unknown to today's readers. A few of them, such and fairy-tale writer Goerge Macdonald, are known for work in other genres.
Most of the stories have long been out of print. Charles Williams' imposingly titled "Et in Sempiternum Pereant,"m for instance, a tale that supposes that hell abides in a idyllic English country house, reappears here for the first time since its original printing in the London Mercury in 1935.
As for the religious dimension, most of the tales do not propound strong sectarian points of view, even though their writers (with the exception of Isaac Bashevis Singer) may be readily identified with particular Christian denominations. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that several of the writers play so liberally with the dogma with which they may be identified, or with the texts from which their stories derive inspiration.
For instance, Oscar Wilde, a convert to Roman Catholicism, shows love as the force which reunites a fisherman with his soul. Selma Lagerlof embellishes a brief passage from the Gospel of Luke concerning a visit of Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus to a temple in Jerusalem to illuminate the universal concern of parents for their children.
In "Dr. Faust's Last Day," Maurice Baring sheds a new, eccentric light upon the Faust legend by placing his hero in Naples, where, away from the darker climes in which he forged his pact with the devil, the protagonist may forget -- almost -- his ultimate destiny.
In all, this remarkable volume owes its success to succinct background information and inherently interesting fiction, proving that the best of fantasy may inspire wonder, awe, and an imaginative, even spiritual awakening.