Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Humour

The traditions of humour, Parody and Satire in fantastic writing are very ancient, notable early examples being the wild exaggerations of Lucian, the bawdy Picaresque of Apuleius and the spoofing even of the Gods by Aristophanes – whose The Frogs (405BC) makes a particularly comic figure of Dionysus. Subsequent highlights, still predating the emergence of anything resembling Genre Fantasy, include: the impossibilist excesses of François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564), as when Friar John, using a wooden cross as weapon, exuberantly destroys an army of 13,622 men; the prankish humour, shading into Allegory, of the Chinese classic Monkey by Wu Ch'êng-ên (circa 1505-circa 1580) (>>> Monkey); such comic scenes in Shakespeare as that between Bottom, after his Transformation, and the magically besotted Fairy Queen Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600); and the crueller guying of the deluded Knight of the Doleful Countenance in Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605-1615).

The most memorably grotesque humour of 19th-century borderline fantasy was by Charles Dickens, as in his description of the almost literally fiendish energy of Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), which goes far beyond naturalism to depict a classically comic-malevolent Dwarf of Fairytale. Victorian and Edwardian humorous fantasy favoured Topsy-Turvy themes; these repeatedly appear in the Wonderlands of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. More common, though, are liberating or minatory irruptions of Magic into conventional life. Several of W S Gilbert's Bab Ballads verses and Savoy Opera librettos follow this pattern: Ruddigore (1887 chap), for example, inverts the fictional cliché of the wicked baronet to present a goodish one compelled by a Curse to do one Evil deed each day on pain of death (the Quibble being that failure to commit a crime equates to suicide – which is a crime). F Anstey subjects his hapless heroes to a variety of reversals like the Identity Exchange of Vice Versâ (1882). Later, G K Chesterton adapted topsy-turviness for his own ends, using paradoxical humour to jolt his readers into a freshened Perception of the world.

The Club Story is a natural setting for humorous Tall Tales: H G Wells's "The Truth about Pyecraft" (1903) is a celebrated specimen, as are many of Lord Dunsany's Jorkens stories and some of the Mr Mulliner tales by P G Wodehouse; Maurice Richardson's surreal The Exploits of Engelbrecht (coll 1950) pays lip service to the club-story format. John Kendrick Bangs cosily merges the club story with Posthumous Fantasy: in his Afterlife bar, no one ever calls time. Max Beerbohm's fantasies contain veins of parody, like the mockery of Oscar Wilde in The Happy Hypocrite (1896); Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung pastiches of the highly flowery rhetoric of Land-of-Fable China once had a substantial cult following (>>> Chinoiserie). Comical Revisionist-Fantasy reworkings of fairytale themes appeared from Anthony Armstrong, A A Milne and others – Milne's Once On a Time (1917) is still reprinted.

In the USA, James Branch Cabell also borrowed extensively from mythic traditions; like Bramah he wrote with unwavering irony, and, unusually, wrapped his humorous barbs in the highest of High-Fantasy style. An example of Cabell's deadpan prude-baiting occurs in Figures of Earth (1921), where husband and wife conceive their child by the Ritual of stepping across a row of asterisks drawn on the floor. (Something of Cabell's erudite irony is echoed in the Cugel and Rhialto picaresques by Jack Vance.) Thorne Smith's comic fantasies all convey a sense of wistful or maudlin Escapism – the desire for Bacchanalia to enliven the suburban USA.

Much humour, often spicy and/or black, appears in the Contes Cruels and Slick Fantasies of Saki, John Collier, Fredric Brown, Roald Dahl and others. Less classifiably, John Myers Myers's Silverlock (1949) uses the pleasant conceit of an Imaginary Land which is a melting-pot where all Stories meet and incongruities abound. R A Lafferty is an important later writer of extravagant Tall-Tale humour. Michael Frayn's Sweet Dreams (1973) suggests, with deadpan Satire, what we really want Heaven to be like.

Humorous Children's Fantasy has been popular ever since Carroll. Edward Lear, unusually, extracts such humour from almost pure Nonsense. E Nesbit makes highly inventive use of topsy-turviness, with many variations on the theme of disruption caused by Wishes and Answered Prayers – her first fantasy, Five Children and It (1902), is a fine example. A A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh sequence (1924-1928) remains a commercial success of almost frightening proportions. T H White's fantasies of Arthur – especially The Sword in the Stone (1938) – contain many passages of high comedy, contrasting with the darker Matter of Britain. James Thurber's fairytale comedies, like The Thirteen Clocks (1950), are characterized by brilliant Diction. Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) is a comic Allegory. J P Martin's Uncle stories have a bizarre inventiveness and charm. Tanith Lee's early children's fantasies, like The Dragon Hoard (1971), are pleasantly funny. The most notable modern exponent of humorous children's fantasy is perhaps Diana Wynne Jones, who deploys magic with equal confidence and comic effect in both contemporary settings and Secondary Worlds.

The humour of Parody is rarely sustainable at book length. Although there are some good jokes in Henry N Beard's and Douglas C Kenney's spoof of J R R Tolkien, Bored of the Rings (1969), weariness soon comes. One interesting double parody is P H Cannon's Scream for Jeeves (coll 1994 chap), reworking H P Lovecraft stories in the manner of P G Wodehouse.

The Unknown school of Rationalized Fantasy extracted much humour from Anachronism in the application of modern thought to fantasy situations. Thus applied psychology is drolly used to cure Roland's magic-induced Amnesia in L Sprague de Camp's and Fletcher Pratt's The Castle of Iron (1941), while an understanding of physics explains the Curse side-effect of a Giant's Transformation to stone in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961).

In Cinema, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) are notable as comedies which revolve hilariously around Arthur and a quasi-Christ without lessening or cheapening either of their subjects. There are many other relevant movies, including Ghostbusters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Erik the Viking (1989), Death Becomes Her (1992) and The Mask (1994), plus numerous Animated Movies. Humorous fantasy artists of note include Charles Addams, Raymond Briggs, Rowland Emett, Edward Gorey, Goscinny and Uderzo, Josh Kirby, W Heath Robinson and Gahan Wilson. Additional Comics are Cerebus the Aardvark and Howard the Duck.

Modern humorous fantasy has become an extensive subgenre, in which imitation and bandwagon-jumping are rife. The typical setting is some parodic Fantasyland in which themes like Quests and the search for Plot Coupons are spoofed with varying seriousness, and virtually any standard fantasy theme, Mythical Creature or Monster is likely to be sooner or later featured; much depends on the quality of incidental invention. Among such sequences, Terry Pratchett's Discworld combines artistic and commercial success to best effect; Piers Anthony's Xanth has produced various bestsellers but is debased by contrived puns. Further humorous Fantasylands have been explored by Robert Asprin, Jack Chalker, Esther Friesner, Craig Shaw Gardner, Mary Gentle, Andrew Harman, Dan McGirt and others. The converse approach – importing Magic and Myth into the contemporary world – is the favourite gambit of Tom Holt, who excels in conveying simultaneous hilarity and Wrongness. Other writers of humour in this vein include Robert Rankin – whose wildly anarchic combinations of tropes tend to genre-slip into sf – and Collin Webber. Both approaches are combined in J B Priestley's The Thirty-First of June (1961), a sunny Arthurian Portal fantasy which ultimately Crosshatches its mundane and magical worlds. [DRL]

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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.