COLUMBUS, HUMBUG; the world is flat!

Flat, at least subjectively, in terms of variety and excitement, for large numbers of people who read paperback books. How else can we explain the mass yearning for other dimensions which has led to such a florescence of fantasy fiction in our time?

Fantasy is flourishing today as it has in no period since the Middle Ages - the last time the world was flat. And it is doing so, of course, under the aegis of that eminent medieval scholar, the late John Ronald Reuel Tolkien; all of it bears the imprint of his brilliant inventions, and inevitably it carries some flavor of the medieval period that had so thoroughly tinged his imagination.

What justification (beyond the compulsion to waste time and the flatness of one's inner landscape) can an intelligent reader offer for drenching his brain in tales of wizards, elves and trolls, ancestral curses, humanoid animals, impalpable menaces, magic weapons and struggles between the forces of light and darkness? The science fiction fan can at least maintain the pretext that his field relates to possible future realities if not the present - that the reader of Verne and Clarke and Asimov was familiar with submarines, television, atomic power, radar, lasers and space ships long before the Hemingway fan club. Fantasy seems to lack this redeeming social value.

In purely literary terms, I can think of several possible reasons for reading fantasy. A book my simply be so well written that you want to wallow in its prose, regardless of the subject-matter. Or it may have such a breathtaking pace, such a depth and variety of characterization, such strangely beautiful concepts and images that it wins your attention in spite of the druids and dwarves scattered across the terrain. Or it may have symbolic patterns in its incongruous characters and events, patterns that add up to a statement of enduring value on human life. None of these items, unfortunately, are immediately notable in The Sword of Shannara, which is begin busily boomed as a new blockbuster in the Tolkien tradition.

There is enough action in The Sword, but for a long time it moves slowly, picking up momentum; except for a bit of background information that could be squeezed into a few paragraphs, the first hundred pages and more are nearly wasted; they tend to wander, to drift aimlessly through blind alleys. By the time the hero, Shea Ohmsford, who is half-human, half-elf, begins to wield the fabled weapon in the title we are at page 687, and a long, sometimes dry voyage it has been. The reason for all the extraneous issues contrived adventures and deceptions soon becomes evident; it has been essential to keep Shea from reaching the sword because, once he has his hands on it, there is not much left to do and the novel ends quickly. Fair enough; when you get the Grail, the Grail-quest is over. But it could have been done better in 400 pages than in 726. Brooks is working on a sequal. I hope it will be better edited because this writer has potential, at present largely submerged in leaden verbiage.

Two other current fantasy novels lack some of the pretensions of The Sword of Shannara and, perhaps for that reason, perhaps because the authors have a lighter style and get the action going more expeditiously, both give more immediate satisfaction. Say "fantasy" to the average American today, and he will automatically think: "sex fantasy", but that is an area largely overlooked in fantasy fiction - as it was for decades in science fiction. Astra and Flondrix smashes the particular taboo into tiny pieces; it brings in eroticism (a curiously exotic sort; Elves are built differently) from the very beginning, and if the blurb's claim that we have here "the first erotic Tolkien" seems a bit overstated, the book remains nonetheless absorbing for those who want their fantasy X-rated.

In contrast to the atmosphere of Shannara (Arthurian-Wagnerian heroism) and of Astra and Flondrix (erotic-pastoral), Greyfax Grimwald with a bear, an otter and a dwarf among its heroes has some of the charm of Wind in the Willows in its style and characterizations as well as a finely realized sense of mystery. It is the first novel of a trilogy and I must say I'm glad.