Dragons! Centaurs! Sex! Bad puns! A writer confesses her embarrassing love for Piers Anthony's epic, cheesy fantasy novels.
I first discovered Piers Anthony in ninth grade, killing a Saturday afternoon with my friend Bell in a used bookstore. “Have you read this?” she asked me, pulling Anthony’s first Xanth novel, “A Spell for Chameleon,” off the children’s shelf. “It’s good. I mean, it’s pretty cheesy, but it’s fun anyhow.”
I took it home, read it in a weekend. Centaurs! Dragons! Titillating sexual references, action, jokes and people being transformed into basilisks and sphinxes. I was hooked.
I then consumed “The Source of Magic” (Xanth 2), “Castle Roogna” (X3), “Centaur Aisle” (X4), “Ogre, Ogre” (X5), “Night Mare” (X6), “Golem in the Gears” (X7) and “Crewel Lye” (X8) in swift succession, only stopping when I got a boyfriend who read philosophy and made me feel embarrassed about my reading habits. Now Anthony’s latest, “The Dastard” (X24), is out in hardcover, and it’s been years since I immersed myself in the pleasure of reading series fantasy. (Well, that’s not exactly accurate. Like everyone else, I read the Harry Potter books, and their popularity has led me both to return to Xanth and to contemplate just what makes this genre so satisfying. Also, Anthony is devilish fun, and nobody is paying him any critical attention, even though a large number of Xanth books have hit the New York Times bestseller list.)
“A Spell for Chameleon” is the story of Bink, a young man who is about to be exiled from the magical land of Xanth because he has no talent — all humans must demonstrate magic ability by the age of 25. In hope of avoiding deportment, he travels through the perilous wilderness (populated by harpies, dragons and a wide variety of dangerous magical plants) to ask Humphrey, the Magician of Information, whether or not he has any undiscovered ability. Humphrey discerns that Bink does indeed, but the magic remains somehow unidentifiable, so Bink is wrongly exiled to dreary Mundania (where the rest of us live). There, he encounters Evil Magician Trent, banished from Xanth for trying to overthrow the Storm King.
Trent is a transformer. He can change any living thing into any other living thing. And though his talent has been worthless all his many years in Mundania, and though there is an enormous deadly shield preventing his return, he is nonetheless plotting the conquest of his native country. He imprisons Bink and a fellow exile — a fiendishly smart and painfully ugly woman named Fanchon — and forces them to help him eliminate the shield; all three return to Xanth (it’s a long story), huge and complex adventures ensue, Bink prevails through what appears to be a series of miraculous coincidences, and eventually Trent discovers our hero’s talent: Bink cannot be hurt by magic in any way. Fanchon reveals that she is a chameleon — stupid and gorgeous at the start of the month, ugly and smart at the end of it (she left Xanth to escape the constant transformation) — and she and Bink fall in love and get married (he likes variety). Trent turns out not to be so evil after all; he takes over from the aging, incompetent Storm King, and everyone lives happily ever after.
What my friend Bell said about “A Spell for Chameleon” — “Good — I mean, pretty cheesy, but fun anyhow” — is, I imagine, absolutely typical of how Anthony’s fans describe his work to others. I describe it that way, because there’s something deeply uncool about liking series fantasy, especially in the New York literary circles I find myself in. But the fun Anthony offers is pretty huge, and if I can admit I like Adam Sandler and “South Park,” I’m certainly mature enough to admit I get a huge kick out of Xanth. The books are full of silly humor and zippy adventure. For example, in “Centaur Aisle” (X4), Bink’s son Dor (whose magician-level talent is speaking to inanimate objects) has to face three challenges in order to gain entry to Humphrey’s castle. He out-maneuvers a zombie sea serpent in the castle moat; climbs a glass mountain by feeding the bizarre, uneven-legged animal that keeps interrupting his progress (“Give me strength to survive the monumental idiocy of the animate,” the mountain prays obnoxiously, before Dor figures out what to do; and opens the top of the glass peak by banging his cranium against it. (“That’s using your head,” the mountain quips.)
The jokes are fast and furious. The action is fantastical. In many ways, Xanth offers the same kind of entertainment as a good Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. But one of the real reasons it’s compelling and the reason it has the power to hit bestseller lists over and over despite critical savagery or (more likely) critical neglect is that it offers the opportunity to return to a familiar world. Xanth develops, but in its essence, it is always the same.
True, non-fantasy series by P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming offer the opportunity to return to beloved imaginary worlds, but the Xanth books’ explicit agenda is the creation of an alternate universe. Anthony’s novels (and probably series fantasy as an entire genre) offer a comfortingly repetitive escapism you can’t get from a single story, or from a series ostensibly set in reality — not even in anything so close to reality as to lack dragons, nymphs and unicorns.
Whereas in science fiction novels the fun is in the author’s invention — in novelty — the Xanth books are populated with magical creatures we already know from Western myth and legend. Anthony takes these familiar beasties and gives them his own twist, and has thus generated his own body of lore. There are maps at the front of almost every novel, as well as a handbook for ardent fans: “Piers Anthony’s Visual Guide to Xanth” lists all the animals, plants, magical elements of the world, from angelfish (“Very nice fish with gauzy wings which allow it to hover … Devilfish like to pursue angelfish and do something censored to them”) to the Zomonster (“the zombie Monster under Lacuna’s bed”). The guide also summarizes Xanth history and provides sleek, comic-book style illustrations of all the major characters, with special attention devoted to bare-chested creatures like centaurs, merfolk, naga and fairies.
There are lots of naked bodies because all the Xanth books carry a frisson of naughtiness, which was no doubt an even larger part of their appeal to my teenage self than it is to my adult one. In many cases the sexual references are so ludicrous they make me laugh out loud. For example, in Xanth all children are kept ignorant of the facts of life by “The Adult Conspiracy” until they come of age. Once initiated, they know dirty words (usually rendered in *%!** symbols) and learn how to “summon the stork,” an intimate activity that replicates ours in Mundania exactly — except that the resulting progeny are, in fact, delivered by an actual stork.
Creatures in Xanth tend to mate with their own species — goblins with goblins, centaurs with centaurs — but there are also a lot of “love springs” around, some of which produce lasting affection and some of which produce only momentary lust. Thus, a dragon may mate with human to produce a half-breed dragon/girl, or a winged monster may mate with a centaur to produce a centaur with wings. In the magical tapestry that depicts all Xanth history in tiny moving images, such liaisons are misted out to prevent the breaching of the Conspiracy by inquiring children.
The Adult Conspiracy is the object of much titillating speculation on the part of the (usually) juvenile heroes and heroines; nearly every leading character shows a decided interest in sex. In the earlier books, that interest takes the form of lusty references to the various naked female creatures who populate Xanth; centaurs, nymphs and harpies, among others, see no need for the human affectation of clothing. In “A Spell for Chameleon,” for example, Bink has just had a ride on a female centaur, and stops off at a remote cabin in the woods for a night’s rest. “A filly!” chuckles his host. “Where’d you hang on when she jumped?” Bink smiles ruefully. “Well, she said she’d drop me in a trench if I did it again,” he replies.
In the later books, sexuality takes shape as an intense preoccupation with underwear: one of the Xanth novels is even titled “The Color of Her Panties” (X15). Nudity, because it is natural for nymphs, centaurs and the like, is nowhere near as exciting as underclothing, and no man gets to see a (humanoid) woman’s panties unless the two are going to be sexually involved.
The Dastard (anti-hero of the 24th book), who traded his soul and conscience for the talent of “unhappening” events, is particularly aggressive in his desire to see feminine underwear; he asks nearly every woman he meets if she’ll show him some, and his 14-year-old traveling companion only saves herself by turning into a dragon when he tries to look up her skirt. “You’re trying to see underage panties –” she cries, “and you don’t care at all!” “Certainly I care,” he replies. “I’m frustrated because my effort was wasted. All I can see is your stupid feet.” The Dastard’s eyes repeatedly glaze over at the sight of cleavage, and in the climactic scene Princess Melody nearly stuns him into a state of total idiocy by showing him a pair of green, “princessly” panties. Indeed, panties and artfully packaged dicolletage are often a useful weapon in Xanth; the well-endowed Nada Naga (in human form) stuns an attacking ogre into a stupor merely by inhaling suggestively in the novel “Isle of View” (X13).
One of the unsung delights of series fantasy is the way it can make you nostalgic for itself. Talking about C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series recently, a friend of mine pointed out that in the later books, the central characters (Lucy, Edmund, etc.) had become the stuff of Narnia legend. They were historic figures: still present, but grown into their kingly and queenly roles, no longer the center of the action. The same is true for Xanth, and it’s one reason the “Visual Guide” is such a kick. By the third and fourth books, the protagonists of “A Spell for Chameleon” (X1) — Bink, Chameleon, Magician Trent — have become part of a back story that lets readers of the earlier books savor the thrill of special knowledge. Anthony always checks in with these characters. Indeed, by the 24th book there are so many that parts of the novel feel like an obligatory roundup, but the books create a wonderful sense of history that lets readers muse fondly back on, say, the high jinks of Grundy the Golem in his early days, before he settled down and married Rapunzel.
Essentially, Anthony is massively accessible, both as a narrative voice and as an author: He gives his fans what feels like a real opportunity to influence both his fictional and actual worlds. Before the Web, he had a 1-800 number readers could call for information, and he has always answered his many letters (more than 100 a month) with unfailing good humor. In fact, at the end of all the later Xanth novels is an author’s note, which credits Anthony’s readers with the various egregious puns that have found their way into print (in “Yon Ill Wind” (X20), “ant-acid,” a “thyme bomb” and a “junk male,” among others). Anthony even created a character named Jenny Elf, who first appears in “Isle of View,” because a girl named Jenny — a major Xanth fan — had been hit by a drunk driver and paralyzed for life. Each author note updates the public on the real Jenny’s health and doings.
Now, he reaches people through his Web site, where Anthony writes a newsletter detailing the adventures of his grandchildren, the length of his daily jogs and his opinions on matters ranging from gun control (he’s in favor) to e-tickets (they make him nervous). He even gives the gory details on his difficulties acquiring a stool sample for his doctor: “I defecated into a plastic bag. As fate would have it, I had a huge cumbersome movement the consistency of hot fudge.”
Piers Anthony hears his readers. He responds to them, gives them what they want. Yes, I love Charles Dickens and Jane Austen more than I will ever love Anthony, but they will never write any new novels that will immerse me, say, in the social world of Bath, circa 1800. Even if they were still alive, they wouldn’t answer my fan mail or let me influence their writings — authors of literary fiction rarely do. Series fantasy, and Anthony’s Xanth novels in particular, appeal to a different part of me than do “serious” novels. Xanth gives me a history, nostalgia, a regular dose of the familiar, an opportunity to be an active fan.
That he is so incredibly prolific (he’s written over 113 novels), and that he delivers his brand of pleasure so consistently, probably accounts for Anthony’s poor critical reputation (though the sex jokes and puns shouldn’t be discounted, either). Essentially, it is uncool to like him, and uncool to take any series author very seriously, so critics ignore him when in fact there’s ample fodder in the novels for speculation and analysis: Anthony has a complicated relationship to feminism, sometimes ardent, sometimes dismissive (women exist to make men happy; rape is a constant threat; the patriarchy is a problem); he tackles issues like biased intelligence testing and racism with a complexity belied by his lightness of tone; and he consistently parodies cultural sexual attitudes and censorship, via the Adult Conspiracy. This is not to say he’s Dickens, but that the moral universe of Xanth is fairly complex, and his books warrant rereading because I discover new stuff to ponder each time.
So yes, the Xanth books are pretty cheesy, but fun anyhow. Of course, fun is something comic writers like Dickens and Austen offered their readers, too, but a lot of critically acclaimed contemporary novelists don’t seem to concern themselves with it. I believe reading can, and should, be fun. Who cares if it’s cheesy? I can return to Xanth as often as I like, and going there feels like coming home.
Emily Jenkins is the author of "Tongue First," "Five Creatures," and a forthcoming novel: "Mister Posterior and the Genius Child." More Emily Jenkins.
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