There are seven deadly words at the end of every fairy tale, words that signal that the train of narrative has reached a terminus beyond which it is impossible to proceed without switching to a different gauge: “And they all lived happily ever after.”
At the end of every fairy tale the girl gets her prince and the wicked witch gets her justly-deserved red-hot dancing shoes; but never should the wisdom of breeding be questioned, nor the justice of kings, the malice of witches and the treachery of the ugly. Inside the sweet pastry of closure there’s a hard and bitter kernel of unbending tradition.
If you want to traverse the rugged and increasingly hostile terrain of broken assumptions and questioned conventions, you need a different kind of vehicle. And that’s what Robert A. Heinlein engineered in Glory Road, perhaps the most mistakenly underrated of his 1960s novels.
Glory Road opens by introducing us to Oscar, naive young sword-wielding hero and GI everyman; fast, deadly, and mistakenly believing himself to be a match for the universe. Discharged from the army and at a loose end, Oscar answers a job ad asking for a hero and finds himself plunged into a perilous quest with a princess and a page at his side. What follows is a high fantasy romp in the pre-Tolkeinian mode: with tongue firmly in cheek and more than a touch of camp to season the stew, the first half of Glory Road reads like Fritz Leiber writing a portal fantasy. Even so, there are intrusions from outside the box. Oscar’s unthinking assumption that his values are universal axioms of civilization is undermined and then dissected with cruel precision: there are signs, even early on, that he is not fully informed as to the true consequences of his actions.
Then, halfway into the novel, the express train of Heinleinian story-telling runs into the buffers of ever-after at full speed and explodes — and we are left to pick over the wreckage with the increasingly baffled and frustrated Oscar, as the lessons of the first half finally sink in. Life is a process, heroism is a vocation not a destination, and the girl comes with unwelcome strings attached.
Oscar has fulfilled the quest, gained the castle, married the princess (except she’s actually an immortal empress witch, powerful and cynical beyond his imagination) … and everything turns to ashes in his mouth.
I first read Glory Road when I was younger and dumber than Oscar; it took me a long time to get what the novel was about, and then I felt even stupider. Life isn’t about growing up and having done things, it’s a process rather than a destination: Oscar works it out eventually, and the novel ends when he decides, rather than passively sitting on his hoard, to follow the admonition on his sword: “Dum vivimus, vivamus!”
Verdict: to a first naive reading Glory Road might be mistaken for a swaybacked nag of a high fantasy experiment that tails off into bathos. But there’s much more to it than that, and once the reader recognizes that Oscar is an unreliable guide to his world the true story comes into focus.
… And they all *lived* happily ever after.
Charles Stross can be found online at http://www.antipope.org/charlie/
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve (978-0-7653-1960-9 / $29.99) will be available from Tor Books on August 17th 2010.
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