Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

(circa 445BC-circa 385BC) Greek dramatist who wrote at least 40 comedies. The 11 that survive are the sole extant examples of their extraordinary genre, Athenian "Old Comedy", which in general seems to have disregarded concern for narrative logic and demanded absurd ideas, so that most books on Aristophanes include a chapter on "fantasy"; this is certainly what his contemporaries saw his plays as. In relation to modern fantasy, however, his work falls into three groups: relatively realistic topical Satires; Parodies of Myths; and plays introducing mythic elements into the present day, of which four survive. During 427-421BC he presented 10 plays, nine of them mostly mundane, but Peace (421BC) depicts a flight to Heaven on a dung-beetle (parodying Euripides' lost Bellerophon) to recover a person from imprisonment there. About 20 plays seem to date 417-405BC. The Birds (414BC; good trans William Arrowsmith 1961) brilliantly parodies the theology and history of the Athenian Empire with the rise and ideology of its Cloud-cuckoo Land (a kind of Wonderland), Topsy-Turvy and dystopia (see Utopias). The Frogs (405BC; good trans Richmond Lattimore 1962) more tamely shows Dionysus searching the Underworld for a good tragedian. Plutus (388BC; vt Wealth) is a fairytale with little of his vicious glitter. In the Middle Ages his most popular work, it is today the least.

Self-referential, obscene, relentlessly punning and allusive, prejudiced, slanderous, eloquent, musical ... Aristophanes' work both demands and defies translation. Within a few decades of his death, it seems clear that fantasy was abandoned in Greek comedy (except in myth-parody). He matters to the history of fantasy as the sole example of what fantasy meant to the Greeks (see Greek and Latin Classics), while his importance to today's fantasy, or more broadly the Fantastic, lies in his early and extreme illustration of the power of absurdity (see Absurdist Fantasy).

Aristophanes appears as a prominent character in Plato's Symposium and in Tom Holt's Walled Orchard books, which travesty his career slightly less viciously than he travestied others'. [JB]

other works: The Acharnians (425BC; good trans Douglass Parker 1961); The Knights (424BC); The Clouds (423BC; original version lost; rev circa 417BC; good trans William Arrowsmith 1962); The Wasps (422BC; good trans Douglass Parker 1962); Thesmophoriazusae (411BC; vt The Poet and the Women); Lysistrata (411BC; good trans Douglass Parker 1964); Ecclesiazusae (circa 392BC; good trans Douglass Parker as The Congresswomen 1967; new trans [see below] vt The Assemblywomen). Additional recommended trans are The Wasps/The Poet and the Women/The Frogs (coll trans David Barrett 1964) and The Knights, Peace, The Birds, The Assemblywomen, Wealth (coll trans David Barrett and Alan H Sommerstein 1978).

further reading: Aristophanic Comedy (1972) by K J Dover.



This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.