Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Hoban, Russell

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(1925-2011) US-born illustrator and writer, resident from 1969 in the UK. He began his professional career as an illustrator in 1951, moving into copywriting, and only later publishing his first book, the nonfiction What Does It Do and How Does it Work? (1959). For the first decades of his writing career, RH wrote exclusively for children, the most successful of these early tales being the Frances series, about a badger child: Bedtime for Frances (1960 chap), A Baby Sister for Frances (1964 chap), Bread and Jam for Frances (1964 chap), A Birthday for Frances (1968 chap), Best Friends for Frances (1969 chap), A Bargain for Frances (1970 chap) and Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs (coll 1972 chap), the last being poetry. The emotional and linguistic intensity of RH's children's books prefigures his most ambitious efforts.

In The Mole Family's Christmas (1969 chap), illustrated by RH's first wife, Lillian Hoban, a mole becomes obsessed with the stars he cannot see, and writes a letter to Santa Claus, who grants his wish for a telescope. A tiger-hunting Rajah, who blasphemes the way of the jungle by playing "light classics" on his cassette while out hunting in The Dancing Tigers (1979 chap), illustrated by David Gentleman, is tricked into watching his prey dance: by dawn, after they have "danced the moon down low and pale into the morning", the Rajah and his beaters are dead from the sight, for the tigers are in effect the tygers of William Blake. In The Marzipan Pig (1986 chap), illustrated by Quentin Blake, a sweet in the shape of a pig falls behind a sofa, suffers, is eaten by a mouse who becomes transfixed by romantic longings and is eaten by an owl, who is likewise infected and falls in love with a taxi meter; eventually, another mouse in a hibiscus-petal frock dances on the Albert Embankment, and is not eaten. In 30 brief pages, a profound fantasy of Transformation is enacted. (See listing below for a full list of RH's work for younger children.)

RH's most famous single work for children, The Mouse and His Child (1967), is for an older audience. The mouse and his child, who are wind-up clockwork creatures, are bound together back to back. When they are not wound up, they are helplessly immobile; when wound, they cannot stop. They are, in other words, caught in a profound Bondage, and seem incapable of transcending that state. After years as Christmas toys – for RH, Christmas is a frequently evoked, highly dangerous passage of the Seasons – the mice are broken and abandoned. Fixed by a tramp so they can progress in a straight line, they find themselves in the thrall of a Rat King – Manny Rat – who uses wind-up toys as indentured labour; after many adventures, during which they continue to wear out, they find themselves in the precarious miniature Polder of an abandoned Doll house, where a reformed Manny Rat jiggers their workings so they can wind each other up – but not forever: the toll of friction is explicitly acknowledged. The book was adapted as an Animated Movie, The Mouse and His Child (1977), which proved to be more worthy than entertaining.

Another tale of complex fascination is The Sea-Thing Child (1972), in which an animal, washed up on a beach, has intense conversations with other creatures, including a crab whose haunting "face" prefigures The Medusa Frequency (see below).

RH's adult novels are of various fantasy interest. The first, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973), is dominated (as its title hints) by a sense of a Mirror-like identity between the father, long-absent on a Quest for the ultimate Map which he had been promised, and the son who goes on his own quest, for the older man; both are haunted by the eponymous lion, who is in one sense long-dead but in another a manifestation of the Being of the world who transcends the map searched for. The eponymous protagonist of Kleinzeit (1974) inhabits an internal world broken in upon constantly by fantasy representations (Death lurks outside his door) that monitor his increasing incapacity to find himself in the world. Riddley Walker (1981) is sf; it and The Mouse and His Child perhaps represent the two peaks of RH's career.

In Pilgermann (1983), the presence – he is more a device of fabulation than a Ghost – of an 11th-century European Jew, likely called Pilgermann (it is never stated), tells his story; one of the characters he encounters appears also in The Flight of Bembel Rudzuk (1982 chap), a book for younger children. The Medusa Frequency (1987), which may be both the most enigmatic and the funniest of all RH's adult books, is a quite savage portrayal of a writer, Orff, who attempts to cope with his creative block – and his erotic nostalgia for a woman who left him nine years earlier – by undertaking a long dialogue with the severed head of Orpheus. At the same time, Orff ploughs deeper and deeper into dark waters in his search for various women, all of whom he thinks are Eurydice, and who most profoundly manifest their Underlier Eurydice aspect (see Face of Glory) as a dread figure of the Threshold between the protagonist's mortal state and a further place he cannot reach. In the end, The Medusa Frequency is a tale of defeat, a tale whose protagonist – in this it is typical of RH's work – is caught in a Story which cannot find a proper conclusion and so lames him, though some ambivalence remains.

Though often hilarious, RH is not a writer of comedy (see Humour). His importance for the genre, beyond the visible merits of his large oeuvre, lies in his presentation of the anguished complexities attending his heroes' attempts to penetrate the unpassable thresholds that mark our mortality. [JC]

other works (for children): Herman the Loser (1961 chap); The Song in My Drum (1962 chap); London Men and English Men (1962 chap); Some Snow Said Hello (1962 chap); The Sorely Trying Day (1964 chap); Nothing to Do (1964 chap); Tom and the Two Handles (1964 chap); The Story of Hester Mouse who Became a Writer and Saved Most of her Sisters and Brothers and Some of her Aunts and Uncles from the Owl (1965 chap); What Happened when Jack and Daisy Tried to Fool the Tooth Fairies (1966 chap); Henry and the Monstrous Din (1966 chap); The Little Brute Family (1966 chap) and its sequel, The Stone Doll of Sister Brute (1968 chap); Save My Place (1967 chap); Charlie the Tramp (1967 chap); Harvey's Hideout (1969 chap); Ugly Bird (1969 chap); Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (1971 chap); Letitia Rabbit's String Song (1973 chap); How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen (1974 chap) and its sequel, A Near Thing for Captain Najork (1975 chap); Ten What? (1974 chap); Crocodile & Pierrot (1975 chap); Dinner at Alberta's (1975 chap); Arthur's New Power (1978 chap); The Twenty-Elephant Restaurant (1978 chap); La Corona and the Tin Frog (in Puffin Annual anth 1974; 1979 chap); Flat Cat (1980 chap); Ace Dragon Ltd (1980 chap); They Came from Aargh! (1981 chap); The Great Fruit Gum Robbery (1981 chap; vt The Great Gumdrop Robbery 1982 US); The Battle of Zormla (1982 chap); The Serpent Tower (1983 chap); the Ponders sequence, comprising Big John Turkle (1983 chap), Jim Frog (1983 chap), Charlie Meadows (1984 chap) and Lavinia Bat (1984 chap), all 4 assembled as Ponders (omni 1988); The Rain Door (1986 chap); Moustery (1989 chap); Jim Hedgehog and the Lonesome Tower (1990 chap) and its sequel, Jim Hedgehog's Supernatural Christmas (1992 chap); The Court of the Winged Serpent (1994 chap).

other works (for adults): Turtle Diary (1975); The Moment Under the Moment (coll 1992).

Russell Conwell Hoban


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.