Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Bramah, Ernest

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Working name, for all his fiction, of UK author Ernest Brammah Smith (1868-1942). His most influential fantasy creation is the impossibly romanticized Old China narrated and inhabited by professional storyteller Kai Lung. This series runs: The Wallet of Kai Lung (coll 1900), whose lead story appeared separately as The Transmutation of Ling (1911 chap); Kai Lung's Golden Hours (coll 1922); Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (coll 1928), of which two stories were republished as The Story of Wan and the Remarkable Shrub and The Story of Ching-Kwei and the Destinies (coll 1927 chap US) and another as Kin Weng and the Miraculous Tusk (1941 chap); The Moon of Much Gladness (1932 vt The Return of Kai Lung 1937 US), a parodic detective story "related by" but not featuring Kai Lung; Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (coll 1940); and Kai Lung: Six (coll 1974 US chap), a posthumous round-up of uncollected 1940-1941 tales from Punch magazine. The Kai Lung Omnibus (omni 1936) assembles the first three books; a selection appeared as The Celestial Omnibus (coll 1963).

Kai Lung undergoes various improbable though nonfantastic adventures in this milieu, and tells many included tales – sometimes, like Scheherazade, to delay his own execution (thus the frame story of Kai Lung's Golden Hours, leading some to consider this a novel). Often these inner stories feature tropes of fantasy Chinoiserie, including Dragons, Demons, capricious and fallible Gods, Identity Exchange, Metamorphosis and Transmutation. Several are humorous Myths of Origin – e.g., for bamboo, Chess, tea and willow-pattern crockery. EB's achievement was to relate the whole sequence with unwavering mock-Chinese floweriness and conversational politesse, buttressed by a remarkable vocabulary and phrase-coining skill, all to considerable ironic effect.

EB's aphorisms are still much quoted by connoisseurs, and Kai Lung once enjoyed quasi-cult status. But the stories' constant irony and stylistic density may repel casual or lazy readers, and later visitors to this Land-of-Fable China, such as Barry Hughart, have presented it in diluted form. EB is not easily imitated. [DRL]

other works: The Mirror of Kong Ho (1905), a comic novel about a stereotyped Chinaman in London; What Might Have Been (1907 anon; vt The Secret of the League 1909 as by EB), sf; associational stories about blind detective Max Carrados in Max Carrados (coll 1914), The Eyes of Max Carrados (coll 1923), Max Carrados Mysteries (coll 1927) and The Bravo of London (1934); The Specimen Case (coll 1924), assembling tales from as early as 1894; Ernest Bramah (coll 1929), reprinting four Kai Lung stories amid other material.

Ernest Brammah Smith


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.