(1897-1956) US writer and historian, a prolific contributor to the Gernsback Science-Fiction pulp Magazines, mostly as a translator. During the 1930s he produced much weighty nonfiction, seeming to regard his fiction as light relief. He teamed up with L Sprague de Camp to write comedies for Unknown, most famously the Incomplete Enchanter or Harold Shea sequence, whose heroes visit a series of Alternate Worlds in which various ancient Mythologies are reified and where they must pit their 20th-century wits against the naïve Magic of the indigenes (>>> Rationalized Fantasy). The Incomplete Enchanter (1940 as "The Roaring Trumpet" and "The Mathematics of Magic"; fixup 1941) conflates two novellas featuring the world of Norse mythology (in the run-up to Ragnarok) and the world of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. The Castle of Iron (1941; exp 1950) involves Shea and his associates with the dramatis personae of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516), whose close similarity to Spenser's characters causes much confusion. The Land of Unreason (1941; exp 1942), whose protagonist is a US tourist in the UK who is carried off by drunken leprechauns to Oberon's Faerie, is more slapdash than its predecessors. The last novel FP and de Camp wrote for Unknown (although the magazine died before it appeared) was The Carnelian Cube (1948), in which an archaeologist wishes himself into a series of alternate worlds in the forlorn hope of finding one that will suit him. When FP and de Camp came together again after WWII they found a more congenial literary form in the anecdotal whimsies collected as Tales from Gavagan's Bar (coll 1953; exp 1978); the Tall Tales (>>> Club Stories) therein are a good deal slicker than the two slightly dispirited novellas which they belatedly added to the Incomplete Enchanter series, reprinted as The Wall of Serpents (1953-1954 as "The Wall of Serpents" and "The Green Magician"; fixup 1960; vt The Enchanter Completed 1980 UK). The former features the world of the Kalevala, the latter the realm of Irish mythology. The first two volumes of the sequence were reissued as The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea (omni 1975) and the third was added into The Intrepid Enchanter (omni 1988 UK; vt The Complete Compleat Enchanter 1989 US); the titles became even less appropriate when de Camp later added a further story to the sequence.
FP's post-war Science Fiction is earnest but not ambitious. Two stories of some fantasy interest are "The Wanderer's Return" (1951) and The Undying Fire (1953 as "The Conditioned Captain"; 1953); the former is a transfiguration of the story of Odysseus, the latter the story of Jason and the Argonauts (> Golden Fleece).
The two solo fantasy novels which FP wrote in the time before reteaming with de Camp are very different from his purely commercial work; they represent a determined and conscientious attempt to bring a new gravitas to Sword and Sorcery. The Well of the Unicorn (1948 as by George U Fletcher; 1967 as by FP) is a quasihistorical fantasy set in a world borrowed from Lord Dunsany's play King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior (1911 chap); magic plays a marginal and largely symbolic role in a Bildungsroman tracking the growth to maturity of the son of a dispossessed landowner who turns rebel. Ahead of its time, it did not sell. The Blue Star (in Witches Three anth 1952; 1969) – a more original and more impressive work – could not find a publisher until FP published it in one of a series of anthologies he was editing anonymously. The hero seduces a Witch to win control of the eponymous Talisman on behalf of a revolutionary movement, thus initiating a long and difficult relationship; it is one of the finest Heroic Fantasies of its period, but FP concluded there was no point in attempting more fiction of this kind. [BS]