Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Confidence Man

In the world of fantasy, anyone described as a CM is likely to be a Trickster figure, a Shapeshifter whose origins may be divine (and are certainly mysterious); the divine CM in fantasy probably owes much of his nature to the Underlier figure of Hermes. The CM can intrude upon and flim-flam his victims in order to shake them into moral shape (see Godgame); but more often than not is amoral. The most famous example in literature is the shadowy protagonist of Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857); the nature of Melville's CM – mundane or supernatural – is never fixed, any more than his motives can be determined or the face he may happen to wear anticipated. Ultimately, he transforms a riverboat into a Ship of Fools whose occupants lose all trust in Reality; and at the end of the day, he and the cast embark upon a Dance of Death.

US examples of the CM are numerous, but his inherent unreliability often works – as with Melville – to make the world of the text itself inherently unreliable. Mocking, ghost-like figures – like Burlingame in John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Ben Free in Gene Wolfe's Free Live Free (1984) and the eponymous Shaman in Terry Bisson's Talking Man (1986) – proliferate in this kind of tale (see also Picaresque). In fictions from colonized countries lacking a US-style frontier CMs appear as protagonists of Creation Myth: examples are numerous in Latin American literature, and a fine Australian example is Peter Carey's Illywhacker (1984). The CM can also be seen as a Liminal Being along the borderline between frontier and settled world. European examples tend – like K. in Franz Kafka's The Castle (1926) and the Double protagonists of Christopher Priest's The Prestige (1995) – to display a more profound entrapment in the worlds whose sense of reality they jostle. Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years (1954) was interrupted by its author's death before it could become clear where and how Krull would reach his apotheosis. [JC]

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.