Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Swann, Thomas Burnett

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(1928-1976) US poet, novelist and academic who taught English literature at Florida Atlantic University before turning to full-time writing in the late 1960s, after publishing some sentimental poetry, beginning with Driftwood (coll 1952 chap) for a vanity press; his academic studies included Wonder and Whimsy: The Fantastic World of Christina Rossetti (1960), The Classical World of H.D. (1962), Ernest Dowson (1964), The Ungirt Runner: Charles Sorley, Poet of World War I (1965) – who is homaged in The Goat Without Horns (see below) – and A.A. Milne (1972). As a critic he was personal and committed; most of his subjects were childhood loves, to whom he remained loyal.

Almost all his fiction – beginning with "Winged Victory" for Fantastic Universe in 1958 – fits into a single vision of the course of Western history, and can be seen as comprising a sustained meditation on the theme of Thinning, viewed through a reiterated central story in which the matriarchal, prelapsarian old order – represented by "Beasts", including Minotaurs, fauns (> Satyrs), Sibyls, Dryads, Halflings and occasional highly significant appearances by the god Pan – is destroyed by the world-devouring patriarchy of the Achaeans, or Romans, or Christians. There are several venues – ancient Egypt, Crete, Rome, medieval Britain – but all have a similar Land-of-Fable relationship to the mundane world, whose geography they rarely violate, and the general history of which is reinterpreted rather than ignored. Most of the novels describe Rites of Passage of children into ambivalent maturity; it is arguable that TBS saw adulthood and thinning as very similar conditions.

The order of publication of individual volumes of TBS's work is distinctly confusing. His series were all published in reverse chronological order, and the chronology of the overall meditation is likewise jumbled. It seems appropriate, therefore to follow the internal chronology compiled by Bob Roehm and published by Robert A Collins in Thomas Burnett Swann: A Brief Critical Biography and Annotated Bibliography (1979 chap).

The happiest of the novels is – naturally enough – the one set first. The Minikins of Yam (1976) follows the Quest, a couple of millennia BC, of a young Pharaoh (in the company of a "minikin", a pert young girl-like figure typical of TBS's females) who must find out why his land has been thinning drastically. His father (in TBS's fiction a father was almost invariably a negative figure) has, it turns out, banished Magic, and with it the regenerative power of the Mother (> Goddess). He reverses the edict, and Egypt is saved.

Set in the mountains of Crete, the Minotaur sequence – Cry Silver Bells (1977), The Forest of Forever (1971) and TBS's first novel, Day of the Minotaur (1964-1965 Science Fantasy as "The Blue Monkeys"; 1966) – is less idyllic. The three volumes are a litany of loss, as first the Cretans, then the Achaeans, relentlessly shrink the mountain Polder of the folk, who include most of the fabulous creatures inhabiting the twilight regions of Classical Mythology – centaurs, dryads and others of that ilk. In the end, Eunostos the Minotaur sets sail, with two children and other survivors, towards the Isles of the Blest. Moondust (1968) and How Are the Mighty Fallen (1974) are both set in Biblical Israel. In the first a Changeling has Sex in Jericho with an Israelite spy, and the walls tumble. The second tale occurs at the time of Saul and David. Jonathan is a Goddess-worshipper and David's homosexual lover; he is soon killed and David is exiled.

With TBS's second sequence, the Latium series – Queens Walk in the Dusk (1977), Green Phoenix (1972) and Lady of the Bees (1962 Science Fantasy as "Where Is the Bird of Fire?"; exp 1976) – the picture continues to darken, the polders to shrink. The first volume recounts the tragic story of Dido, who is betrayed by Aeneas, a forward-looking patriarch in utero. The viewpoint character of the remaining volumes is a dryad named Mellonia, who ages slowly, through heart-wrenching liaisons with short-lived mortals, into the time of Romulus and Remus, falling in love with the latter, who is halfling-like (and doomed). Two further novels – Wolfwinter (1972) and The Weirwoods (1965 Science Fantasy; 1967) – are likewise set in Roman times. In the first, a sibyl recounts her adventures, climaxing in a pathos-ridden Love affair with an extremely short-lived faun; in the second, some humans learn lessons from the increasingly marginalized elder folk. The stories assembled in The Dolphin and the Deep (coll 1968) also focus on this period, while those in Where is the Bird of Fire? (coll 1970) range further ahead.

The Gods Abide (1976) constitutes something of a counterattack. It is set in the 4th century, when Christianity is beginning in earnest to root out previous Mediterranean faiths. But the Goddess attempts to save her followers from a God who (despite lamb's clothing) remains the Old Testament Yahweh at heart; and, although there is no real hope in the south, or even in Britain (where Christianity is beginning to take root), She creates a "Not-World" for her people, an Alternate-Reality polder where they will be forever safe.

TBS's remaining novels are set in the human world, into which occasional memories of the Golden Age intrude. They include: The Tournament of Thorns (fixup 1976), set in the Middle Ages, Will-o-the-Wisp (1974 Fantastic Stories; dated 1976 but 1977 UK), which subjects the poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) to experiences in the old world; The Not-World (1975), which introduces Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) to the polder created by the Goddess in The Gods Abide; and The Goat without Horns (1971), which is set in the late 19th century, as close as TBS came to the present. The latter describes the love of a dolphin for Charlie – based on Charles Sorley (1895-1915) – a glowingly beautiful young man who arrives at a Caribbean Island to tutor a young girl, falls in love with the mother, is saved from a were-shark by Gloomer the dolphin, and finally goes off with Gloomer to a secret enclave.

It is easy to mock TBS for sentimentality, for displacement of attention from adult sexuality to innocent relationships between boys and friendly older men, and for his sense that the best contrast to the reductions of history was a clambake of beasts in Arcadia. But the intensity of his sense of Belatedness is at times overwhelming. [JC]

further reading: Thomas Burnett Swann: A Brief Critical Biography and Annotated Bibliography (1979 chap) by Robert A Collins; "Thomas Burnett Swann" by John Clute in Supernatural Fiction Writers (anth 1985 2 vols) ed E F Bleiler.

Thomas Burnett Swann


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.