The Well of the Unicorn Critical Essays

Fletcher Pratt


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Although The Well of the Unicorn belongs to the tradition of heroic fantasy following the works of William Morris and Lord Dunsany, Pratt infuses his work with a bawdy, humorous realism absent from the work of those authors. Pratt’s characters tell lewd jokes, urinate, refer to farts, are prey to passions, and talk frankly about their frequent heterosexual or homosexual lovemaking. Airar’s orgasm is even depicted. The earthiness grounds the heroic fantasy in human reality and makes works such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955) seem sanitized.

Pratt wrote approximately thirty books about actual military and naval history, and his expert knowledge of war casts a harsh light in The Well of the Unicorn. The rebels, who chop off the fingers of a prisoner before slaying him and behead another and flaunt the trophy, are as vicious as their Vulking enemies. This harrowing vision of war and human nature, in which good and evil are ambiguous and violent chaos is civilization’s norm, prefigures the antiheroic fantasy of works such as Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné (1972).

The Well of the Unicorn seems so realistic that it may appear to be an antisupernatural heroic fantasy. The seldom-seen sea-demons, hobgoblins, and trolls, however, play key roles, and the limited magic employed by Meliboë and Airar is vital because Airar rejects it as a foul, debilitating, troublesome...

(The entire section is 498 words.)