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The Man Who Invented Fantasy

All those wizards, ogres, and barely-clad elf queens in the bookstore? You have Lester del Rey to thank.

By ABDUL RASHID Published 5 months ago 6 min read
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The Man Who Invented Fantasy
Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Lester del Rey wore 1950s-style horn-rimmed glasses,

an untamed billy-goat beard, and his silver hair neatly brushed back above a prominent forehead. Notably, he would generously distribute cards bearing the inscription: Lester del Rey, Expert. On occasion, he would humorously claim that his full name was Ramón Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heathcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del Rey y de los Verdes. However, it is important to note that he was actually born Leonard Knapp, the son of Wright Knapp, in 1915 in the rural southeastern region of Minnesota. Like many notable figures from the state, such as Jay Gatz, Prince Rogers Nelson, and Robert Zimmerman, del Rey was captivated by the idea of reinventing oneself. In 1977, at the age of sixty, del Rey harnessed his inclination for imaginative storytelling to great success, effectively revolutionizing the genre of fantasy fiction as we know it today.

Lester del Rey, a distinguished individual, was often seen sporting 1950s-style horn-rimmed glasses, an untamed billy-goat beard, and his silver hair neatly brushed back above a prominent forehead. Notably, he would generously distribute cards bearing the inscription: Lester del Rey, Expert. On occasion, he would humorously claim that his full name was Ramón Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heathcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del Rey y de los Verdes. However, it is important to note that he was actually born Leonard Knapp, the son of Wright Knapp, in 1915 in the rural southeastern region of Minnesota. Like many notable figures from the state, such as Jay Gatz, Prince Rogers Nelson, and Robert Zimmerman, del Rey was captivated by the idea of reinventing oneself. In 1977, at the age of sixty, del Rey harnessed his inclination for imaginative storytelling to great success, effectively revolutionizing the genre of fantasy fiction as we know it today.

Lester del Rey, a renowned science fiction writer, once provided an account of his life for a collective biography of fellow authors in the genre. However, the veracity of his statements remains uncertain. According to del Rey, at the age of 12, he spent a summer with a traveling circus. The following year, he embarked on a journey westward, hitchhiking his way and engaging in fruit picking in Washington. Subsequently, he worked as a water boy for lumberjacks in Idaho before returning home. At 16, del Rey ventured eastward to enroll at George Washington University but dropped out two years later due to the dire circumstances of the Great Depression. To sustain himself, he resorted to selling magazines door to door, working in restaurants, and assisting a researcher compiling a WPA bibliography of music in the United States.

During this period, del Rey developed a profound interest in science fiction, which primarily circulated through pulp magazines. He became particularly captivated by John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction magazine, which debuted in 1937. Del Rey frequently corresponded with the editor, expressing his admiration. In 1938, when challenged by a girlfriend, he took up the dare to write a story and submitted it to Campbell, assuming his name would be recognizable. To his delight, Campbell published the story, and later that year, another tale titled "Helen O'Loy," which explored the concept of a man falling in love with an idealized female robot, a narrative that eventually gained widespread recognition as a classic, despite its overtly sexist nature. Del Rey sustained himself through various odd jobs for an additional decade before finally achieving success as a full-time writer in 1950, coinciding with his 35th birthday.In England, J.R.R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of The Lord of the Rings, four years after The Hobbit. As a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, Tolkien drew inspiration from Beowulf and Icelandic sagas to create Middle Earth, a world inhabited by dwarves, elves, dragons, wizards, and hobbits. Despite its initial lackluster sales in the United States, The Lord of the Rings gained popularity a decade later in 1965 with the release of competing mass-market editions by Ace and Ballantine. The novel became a sensation on college campuses, surpassing The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies as the preferred reading material for disaffected youth. The fervor surrounding The Lord of the Rings was likened to Beatlemania, and its fandom, complete with Elvish language and ubiquitous “FRODO LIVES!” buttons, was labeled a cult by cultural commentators.

During that period, the publishing industry underwent a significant transformation characterized by inefficiency. The prevailing culture involved indulging in boozy lunches, striking deals based on personal connections, and engaging in ample socializing. Most publishing houses were still under the ownership of their founders or their heirs, but this landscape was rapidly evolving.

In 1965, RCA, a prominent player in defense contracts and television manufacturing, acquired Random House. Subsequently, CBS acquired Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1967, followed by Time Inc.'s acquisition of Little, Brown in 1968. This trend continued, with formerly independent publishing houses being assimilated into conglomerates.

Simultaneously, Ingram, a book distributor, introduced groundbreaking innovations that revolutionized the distribution process for trade paperbacks and hardcovers. These advancements enabled unprecedented speed and scalability. As suburban areas experienced rapid expansion and the emergence of shopping malls, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks capitalized on the distribution revolution by establishing chain bookstores.

Lester del Rey became a part of the emerging publishing industry in 1974, after being invited by his fourth wife, Judy-Lynn del Rey, a highly skilled editor. Judy-Lynn, who had previously studied James Joyce as an English major at Hunter College, began her career as a gofer at Galaxy, a science fiction magazine, which exposed her to the genre. Through her dedication and talent, she quickly climbed the ranks and eventually became the managing editor of the magazine.

When Betty Ballantine, one of the founders of Ballantine along with her husband Ian, decided to retire, she handpicked Judy-Lynn as her successor. In 1973, the same year Ballantine was acquired by Random House and subsequently owned by RCA, Judy-Lynn joined the company. As her first title, she brought along Arthur C. Clarke's latest novel.

Lester, on the other hand, had been an established writer for several decades, using various pseudonyms such as John Alvarez, Marion Henry, Wade Kampfaert, Erik van Lhin, Edson McCann, Charles Satterfield, and Philip St. John. Recognizing Lester's expertise and reputation as a highly sought-after editor in the science fiction community, Judy-Lynn wanted to bring him on board as an editorial consultant.

At the time, a significant manuscript had arrived unexpectedly, a work of epic fantasy by Terry Brooks called The Sword of Shannara. While Judy-Lynn had limited knowledge of sword-and-sorcery books, Lester possessed a deep understanding of the genre. She entrusted the manuscript to him, and after reading it, Lester recognized its resemblance to Tolkien's work but saw potential in it. He saw an opportunity to create a whole new genre that would captivate readers who were avid fans of Lord of the Rings. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Lester expressed his belief that there was a lack of similar literature available for these fans, stating, "There's nothing else out there for them to read. They just have to reread their Tolkien."

Note: The original text contains informal language and personal opinions. The revised version aims to present the information in a more professional and objective manner.

EssayChildren's FictionAutobiography
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About the Creator

ABDUL RASHID

Hi my name is Abdul Rashid a novelist. Seeking opportunities to continue exploring the world of fiction and connecting with a wider audience through my writing. People who show my story them satisfaction is my satisfaction.

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