Having already written several gamebooks, including the seminal Sorcery! series, 1985 saw Steve Jackson experimenting with a different kind of puzzle book. The finished product was a hardback, lavishly illustrated throughout by Stephen Lavis, called The Tasks of Tantalon.
Jackson: “We’d been approached by David Fickling at Oxford University Press. David was interested in publishing an FF book in colour, concentrating on puzzles instead of quests. This was going to be something like Kit Williams’ Masquerade – the treasure hunt puzzle book where you had to discover the location of a buried silver hare. Only with The Tasks of Tantalon there wasn’t a prize. But David had a great gimmick; printing text at a size that made it look like a straight line, but under a magnifying glass you could read the sentence. It meant you could design quite an elaborate puzzle, which appealed to me. On a memorable train journey coming down from Edinburgh with Ian, I came up with ten of the twelve puzzles.”
It might not have taken Jackson long to conceive the book but its execution was something else.
Stephen Lavis: “It was a great opportunity for me to illustrate The Tasks of Tantalon, which took me a solid year to complete. I can remember my first meeting with Steve Jackson and David Fickling in a pub and, as a young illustrator, was greatly impressed when Steve Jackson arrived in his Porsche, already successful on the back of the FF books. This was very different from previous illustration work where I had made a name for myself as a book cover artist... There was some professional friction between Steve and myself over the level of blood and gore. Steve wanted to make The Tasks of Tantalon more like an FF book whereas I wanted the book to be more beautiful, along the lines of Masquerade.”
Hornhelm’s Crown, by Stephen Lavis. (© Stephen Lavis, 1985 and 2021)
The solution to the puzzle contained within the book has vexed many an adventurer over the years, so what is the secret to solving Tantalon’s tasks?
Jackson: “I self-published a small booklet which gave the entire solution to The Tasks of Tantalon. I actually dug out a copy of Tantalon recently, and found two letters from readers who claimed to have solved it (before the Solution Booklet). I admit, it was extremely hard to solve.”
Did you know...?
Steve Jackson’s smiling face can be seen in the artistic surround of the map that accompanied the hardback edition of The Tasks of Tantalon.