Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

There is a delicious imaginative liberation in fantasies of being invisible; caps and Rings which make their wearers invisible are common motifs in Folktales. Not unnaturally, public fantasies (e.g., written fictions) are mostly cast as cautionary tales exploring and explaining the limitations of such private fantasies. James Dalton's The Invisible Gentleman (1833) goes to extraordinary lengths to make certain its hero gets no joy from his ability, while Charles Wentworth Lisle's The Ring of Gyges (1886) proposes that the obvious practical advantages to be won would be outweighed by the cynicism and paranoia which would result from the ability to penetrate the poses and hypocrisies of one's fellows. Notable 20th-century thought-experiments in the same cautionary vein include The Gollan (1929 chap) by A E Coppard and J R R Tolkien's analysis of the costs of employing the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Science-Fiction stories in which a technology of invisibility is perfected tend to run along similar lines, although tales of invisible Monsters like Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" (1887) draw upon a rather different kind of paranoia. Straightforwardly self-indulgent fantasies like The Eavesdropper (1888) by James Payn (1830-1898) and The Wizard's Mantle (1902) by "Dryasdust" (> M Y Halidom) usually lack narrative drive, as all simplistic literary representations of popular daydreams tend to.

Most 20th-century tales of invisibility employ some kind of sf logic to add plausibility to their accounts, but in an interesting group of admitted fantasies "invisibility" becomes a metaphor for inconsequentiality; these include Charles Beaumont's "The Vanishing American" (1955), Robert M Coates's "The Man Who Vanished" (1957) and Harlan Ellison's "Are You Listening?" (1958). Longer and more robust exercises in this vein steadfastly take the side of the socially disadvantaged, thus tending towards a far more upbeat view of invisibility than the old cautionary fantasies, although Christopher Priest's The Glamour (1984) and Thomas Berger's Being Invisible (1988) are fully cognizant of the ironies implicit in this move. The gleeful element which is haunted by embarrassment in these tales is given slightly fuller rein in The Wondrous Physician (1979) by Jorge de Sena (1919-1978). [BS]


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.