A couple of years ago, fantasy author Peter S. Beagle was a houseguest at our place. Before bed, he asked to could borrow something to read. In a house filled with close to five-thousand volumes, that wasn’t hard to arrange. Finding something that was both wonderful and something Peter hadn’t read was more of a challenge. As it happened, I had an old Ace paperback of John Myers Myers’ (that’s not a typo) Silverlock on hand. To my very great surprise, Peter had not read it. The next morning, he looked at me with the bleary eyes of someone who’s been awake far too late reading (a look I know all to well) and said, “My God! How could I have missed this? What else is out there?”
That’s a question I’ve pondered myself more times than I can count. How many wonderful gems are waiting to be discovered? How many treasures have I passed by, my eye diverted from just the right dusty, forgotten shelf at just the right instant? It breaks my heart, but that’s a question I’ll never be able to answer. I suspect, though, that when it comes to books like Silverlock, the answer is pretty simple. Not nearly enough. But then, the scarcity of the experience is what makes it precious, I suppose. And God, I love this book.
I’ve read more than a few books since I first discovered the Ace paperback re-release of Silverlock back in the ’70s. I’ve certainly read better books. When I came across Silverlock, I had yet to experience most of Dumas, Dickens, and Bradbury, and Proust, Cervantes (author of the very first post-modern novel, although that’s a point for another essay), Faulkner, and Joyce were still in my future. I’d read Tolkien, of course, but I don’t think I’d even begun to appreciate his work as it deserves. I’ve read more elegant prose, tighter plotting (certainly that), and more profound insights into character, the human condition, and all that. But so help me, I’ll swear before God and all His angels, I haven’t found a book I loved more than Silverlock. In fact, I’d even say that reading Silverlock actually enhanced my ability to love those other books.
When we meet the lead character, A. Clarence Shandon, he’s about as unlikeable a hero as we’re likely to meet anywhere. But Shandon, soon to be called Shandon Silverlock, is shipwrecked on a strange island called the Commonwealth. There, along with his companion, the bard Golias (who is also known as Orpheus, Widsith, Amergin, Taliesin, and pretty much every other bard name you can think of from myth and legend), he encounters the witch Circe from Greek myth, Beowulf, Robin Hood, Puck, the Mad Hatter, Oedipus, Hamlet, Pangloss, Don Quixote, Faustopheles, and … well, dozens of other characters from myth, lore, legend, and literature.
You see, this isn’t just any island. It’s an allegorical place, in the most mythic sense. It’s the Commonwealth of Letters, and it changes you. Chapter by chapter, we see Shandon awaken into personhood, tempered and reshaped, until he, at last, is left with the trembling desire to make. He begins as someone that’s easy to, well, loath, and grows into someone we can admire. And yes, someone we can relate. A little too well at times, maybe, but that’s always the danger.
The plot is loose at best. It’s episodic and meandering, and makes no real effort at world building. And there are more references than an entire university full of tweed-coated academics could hope to identify. Don’t let that bother you. You’re about to learn the joyous game of reference hunting. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds. When I read Silverlock for the first time, I doubt I could identify more than a quarter. It didn’t bother me in the least, and every time I found a beloved friend from Silverlock waiting for me in some other book, I found myself grinning, the way you do when you suddenly find a dear old friend again, one you haven’t seen in ages, but for whom time has not dimmed your love. There’s a lot of that kind of beloved nostalgia waiting in Silverlock.
And back in my day, we didn’t have the Silverlock Companion or sites like this one where one could quickly check a reference or two. I urge to read it the first time without an answer guide. You might feel that you’re at a party filled with people you feel you should know, but where no one is wearing a nametag. No worries. Everyone is friendly and ready to welcome you. You can get to know them better later on.
Silverlock is a booklover’s book, sure. But more importantly, it’s fun. There are battles, quests, love lost and won, drinking bouts, and enough adventure to fill a library. Which is, of course, fitting. There are belly laughs a plenty, and songs you’ll ache to sing. For me, maybe, the love is more personal. Maybe I read it at just the right time, or under just the right circumstances. But it has stayed with me in deeper and truer ways, and for a longer time, than many overtly better books have.
When I shared Silverlock with my wife, Carol, she grinned all the way through, loving every page. At the end, she smiled, handed the book back to me, and said, “This is your myth!” I looked at her with a slightly puzzled expression. She added: “Here’s a story about a man who sort of moves from one mythological experience to another, making friends and growing and changing with every encounter. Your personal mythology!”
She’s right, of course. So much of my life has been spent exploring the Commonwealth of letters, and I’ve been changed by it, educated deeply in the heart. Did I love Silverlock because I recognized that part of myself? Or did Silverlock teach me to love the marvels I find between the covers of books?
In his introduction to the 1979 paperback edition of Silverlock (I still have my first 1979 Ace paperback, as well as a hardcover first edition and a lovely new hardback that includes the Companion), author Larry Niven enthuses: “You’ll get drunk on Silverlock. When you finish reading, you will feel like you got monumentally drunk with your oldest friends; you sang songs and told truth and lies all night or all week; you’ll sit there grinning at nothing and wondering why there isn’t any hangover.” I couldn’t agree more.
Jerry Pournelle added, “you now have the pleasure of reading Silverlock for the first time. I envy you.” God, I love this book. I mentioned that, right? And I’m thrilled to be able to share it with you.
On a related note, be sure to see my dear friend Lee’s Silverlock Reading Journal. Also, the link above goes to the hardcover edition. You can still find the Ace paperbacks at used bookstores. I understand it’s about to be released, and a Kindle edition is available for preorder. But if you can swing it, I’d go ahead and get the hardcover. The additional material is terrific.