THE STONE AND THE FLUTE By Hans Bemmann Translated from the German By Anthea Bell Viking. 853 pp. $19.95

THIS IS fantasy on the heroic scale, inviting comparison with The Lord of the Rings. The story is too intricate and, indeed, discursive to be summarized here, but there is no doubt about what world we are in. We are in the world of German myth and folktale, the cut of its jib recalling partly Grimms' fairy stories, partly Wagner's Ring cycle and partly ingredients from farther east -- the invading equestrian Tartars from the eastern steppes. Wandering minstrels play and sing for their keep. Wayfarers seek hospitality in lonely homesteads. Smiths hammer on anvils. Country fairs pullulate with horses, cattle and gatherings of merry peasants. Out of the shaggy forests, extending for leagues and indeed for days, rise mountains embellished with turreted castles, the domicile, like as not, of beautiful, voluptuous chatelaines who turn out to be witches or werewolves. Elsewhere, on the rolling, verdurous steppes, dwell (in their black tents, of course) the Raiding Riders with their long, braided hair, fermented mares' milk and deadly arrows. Chance-met animals are liable to talk, dispensing wisdom and warnings.

The hero is a young man called Listener, son of the Great Roarer, judge of Fraglund, and grandson of the Gentle Fluter, a benevolent Old Wise Man who peers through anachronistic spectacles and can talk to the birds. It is he who teaches Listener to play the magic flute which he carries on his adventures. In one respect this flute is even more magic than Mozart's, for in some unexplained way Listener can make it convey specific information ("Hear me, little horse! Gallop out into the steppes, so that it's a joy for any man to ride you," etc.). Oddly, although toads and various other creatures can talk to him in words, neither Listener's horse nor his donkey can do so: they communicate by, e.g., rubbing their heads affectionately against his (although on page 225 his donkey suddenly and unexpectedly bursts into song).

Readers of The Lord of the Rings will recall two qualities of that great work: its taut, gripping plot, which never lets you go and amounts to nothing less than an all-out struggle between good and evil for mastery of the world; and its host of unforgettable characters -- Gandalf, Tom Bombadil, Boromir, Gollum, Saruman, Frodo, Sam Gamgee and so on. Hans Bemmann cannot approach these heights. The Stone and the Flute is irritatingly desultory, rambling and digressive. It is by no means easy to keep track of the story, which continually wanders off into recounted dreams, parenthetical digressions and reminiscences related by secondary characters. In plain English, the book is too long and should have been better edited.

Fantasy needs an economical, taut style and firm self-discipline to ensure that the author's imagination, free of the limitations imposed by realism, does not run riot. Here the narrative is prolix, and there is a want of homogeneity in conception and construction which too often leaves the reader groping and, if truth must be told, exasperated.

Fantasy is also the better for knowledgable authenticity. For example, The Wind in the Willows exhibits experience of boats and handling them. Throughout The Stone and the Flute, a recurring feature is the playing of board games for high stakes (including girls). The author, however, displays little or no informed knowledge of such games. Where one would like to be told the rules, he remains woolly. On pp. 406-07 there is an account of a game of chess which shows little knowledge of what real chess-players think about. The descriptions of the playing of the flute itself, which recur throughout the story, display no grasp of the principles of music as known to, say, the Elizabethans, let alone to Bach. Anachronisms are two a nickel, e.g., the aforementioned spectacles, steel, and tea. (It may be herbal tea, but you wait a long time to be told so.)

It is not only the rambling, self-indulgent quality of the invention and narration which makes it hard to become involved. Fantasy ought to be hard-grained, not sugary. (This is the virtue of Alice and the weakness of Pooh.) This book has a cosy, gemu tlich quality, which shows itself less by actually excluding harsh matters than by contriving to imply that they are not really all that dreadful. For example, near the beginning the hero orders a man's tongue to be cut out, but although this mutilation plays a continuing and important part in the story, the full nastiness -- what it would really be like -- is somehow skirted 'round and softened down.

The qualities of the book are its fecundity of invention and its strong sense of atmosphere and natural scenery. Its weakness likes in its undisciplined, circuitous verbosity and predictable sentimentality. In principle I admire heroic, ambitious fantasy, and I started this one with a strong predisposition in favor. I am sincerely sorry that I was unable to retain it. ::

Richard Adams is the author of many novels, including "Watership Down" and "Maia."