[Originally posted April 6, 2006]
One of my favorite authors of anthropomorphic stories was a well-known name in science fiction fandom 40 years ago but has been almost forgotten today. Thomas Burnett Swann (1928-1976) was an American poet and critic who first ventured into published fiction in 1958 with a story called “Winged Victory.” Most of his fantasy stories and novels focus on the decline of magic in the ancient world, beginning with early Egypt and working up through classical Greece and Rome. In the same way in which Tolkien chronicled the passing of his elves from the mortal world, Swann related the gradual disappearance of the ancient gods and demi-gods from our daily lives. His dryads, minotaurs, centaurs, satyrs, and silkies know they are doomed by the coming of technological civilizations and Christianity, though they often try to put the best face on it and keep going forward as if it weren’t happening.
Swann published many short novels during the 1960s and 1970s, but the one I consider to be the peak of his work is The Forest of Forever (1971), which tells some of the loves and adventures of the last minotaur, Eunostos. Set on the island of Crete, the story is populated with beautiful dryads, bear-girls, bee-people, and panisci (sort of small satyrs.) Eunostos is a young bull just coming into his maturity, a poet and a carpenter, and an orphan who has been largely raised by his aunt Zoe, a dryad who serves as narrator of the tale. Illustrations by George Barr, who provided art work for many of Swann’s later novels, help establish the atmosphere.
Eunostos is in love with the young (well, young for a dryad) Kora, and writes poetry and makes gifts to try to win her. Unfortunately for both, the courtship is doomed by a double interruption: the arrival of a human male who distracts Kora and breaks her heart, and the arrival of a queen bee with designs on Eunostos to fulfill her need for a mate of another species. Inevitably, tragedies ensue, typical for Swann’s pessimistic view of change, but Eunostos comes out stronger and a grown and wiser bull in the end.
In general, Swann’s characters are classically frank about sexuality or nudity and unabashed in their accounts of activities and desires. Some of his work was subject to censure if not actual censor at the time he was writing, though today it may look fairly tame. There is plenty of innuendo, but nothing explicit.
Eunostos’ encounter with the queen bee, Saffron, in which he declines to die the way a proper drone should but succeeds in ravishing her beyond her expectations (even though she set out to seduce him from the start) is typical of such incidents.
The author is also often at pains to make it clear that his characters are really anthropomorphic, usually hybrids of some sort. So it is with Eunostos, who is described in detail as having cloven hooves and hands both, a bull’s horns and pointy, mobile ears. He has a tail, of course, and a noble mane. Barr’s drawings do present him as handsome, fit, and very sensual.
The Forest of Forever is actually the second of three novels Swann wrote about the decline of the minotaur race. They were published in reverse chronological order, but are only loosely linked and can be read in any sequence. The other two are Day of the Minotaur (1966) and Cry Silver Bells (1977). The author had declared his intention to go back and revise, correcting inconsistencies for a second edition, but his untimely death by cancer prevented that eventuality.
For the fan of furry tales, especially anyone who appreciates classical or Egyptian themes, Swann’s novels are well worth pursuing. I don’t think any of them are now in print, but used copies are readily available. Most were published as inexpensive paperback editions by Ace or DAW Books and can be found through used booksellers such as abebooks.com or in larger libraries.
Thomas Burnett Swann
The Forest of Forever
Ace Books, 1971 (original price, 60 cents)