Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
O'Brien, Flann

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Working name, for fiction, of Irish writer, journalist and civil servant Brian O'Nolan or Briain ÓNuallàin (1911-1966), also known for his humorous and polemical Irish Times newspaper column Cruiskeen Lawn (1940-1966), written as Myles na Gopaleen (or gCopaleen). This Humour was occasionally fantastic – with, for example, satirical Technofantasy notions about Trains – and is notorious for absurdist anecdotes about John Keats and George Chapman (circa 1559-1634) that culminate in puns; a good sampler is The Best of Myles: A Selection from "Cruiskeen Lawn" (coll 1968 UK) ed Kevin O'Nolan, FO's brother.

FO's first novel was At Swim-Two-Birds (1939 UK), a multi-layered Fabulation of contemporary Irish life and Celtic Fantasy which drew praise from James Joyce and Dylan Thomas. Its Frame-Story narrator is writing a novel about a would-be novelist, Trellis, whose characters resent their imposed roles (see Bondage) and go their own way whenever Trellis sleeps. Then Trellis impregnates his leading female character, and a farcical pooka (see Puck) and Good Fairy bargain for the child's Soul. Evil wins, at Cards; the grown child is chosen to write a further Story killing off Trellis and freeing his creations. But his too-elaborate narrative strategies are constantly interrupted, and eventually Trellis is saved when his own manuscript pages establishing the vengeful characters are accidentally burnt. The interruptions echo those inflicted earlier by modern Dubliners on lovingly pastiched recitations of Irish Myth by Finn Mac Cool, contrasting with Finn's still earlier telling to a spellbound Land-of-Fable audience: this Thinning of appreciation comments glumly on the modern Matter of Ireland. Narrative layers can interpenetrate (see Arabian Nightmare), as when the Pooka and Good Fairy encounter cowboys created by a Dublin Pulp writer, and also the mythic King Sweeney whose Curse of thinking himself a bird has been narrated by Finn Mac Cool. The contrasts of Diction are finely handled throughout.

The Third Policeman (written 1939-1940; 1967 UK) – inexplicably rejected by publishers in 1940 – is a grimly comic Posthumous Fantasy whose protagonist is a murderer who, unknowingly, has himself been murdered by his accomplice: the warped Ireland he inhabits is Hell, its unreality signalled by what Jorge Luis Borges called "games with time and infinity". These centre on a police station whose geometry and perspective throb with Wrongness. One comic-sinister policeman's hobby is to create boxes within boxes that regress forever (see Great and Small), a spear whose extreme sharpness extends far beyond the material point, and a new colour whose beholders suffer insanity; another is obsessed with a molecular interpretation of the Law of Contagion (see Magic) whereby bicycles absorb humanity from their riders (see Animate/Inanimate) and in return contaminate them with bicycle-ness. These policemen have interpreted cracks on a ceiling as a Map, leading them to a timeless (see Time in Faerie) Underground boiler-room where space is mere repetition (to leave one room is to re-enter it or an identical one) and which mysteriously regulates the Universe. The more elusive third policeman has constructed his own station within the thickness of the walls of the murderee's house, and ominously has this man's face and voice (see Doppelgänger). Eventually the narrator finds his quondam accomplice, who dies of fright on seeing this Ghost. Both dead men come again to the police station, now only dimly recognized (see Memory Wipe). Counterpointing this narrative, mock-learned footnotes expound the bizarre natural philosophy of one de Selby, who theorizes, for example, that night is an Illusion caused by accretions of black air. He is the Maggot of the protagonist, who murdered for money to publish a "de Selby Index"; FO, a Catholic, may be hinting at the theological speculation that pursuing secular knowledge is itself sinful (see also James Blish).

FO pillaged parts of The Third Policemen – e.g., the bicycle theory – for The Dalkey Archive (1964), a romp in which mad scientist De Selby (now with a capital D) has learned to annihilate Time by destroying the air's oxygen. By this means he matures whiskey with abnormal speed, calls up St Augustine, and threatens the End of the World. Though very funny, the novel goes astray in a counterplot to distract De Selby by introducing him to the unexpectedly still living James Joyce, who now wishes to become a Jesuit. A stage version was produced in Dublin as When the Saints Go Cycling In (1965).

FO was one of the finest of modern Irish fantasists. [DRL]

other works: An Béal Bocht (1941; trans Patrick C Power as The Poor Mouth 1973 UK), part-fantastic Satire on preoccupations of the Irish-language movement; Faustus Kelly (1943) as Myles na Gopaleen, a play featuring the Devil; Rhapsody in Stephen's Green (produced 1943; 1994 UK), satirical Beast-Fable play based on The Insect Play (1921) by the Brothers Čapek; The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor (1961 UK); Stories and Plays (coll 1973 UK); Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn (coll 1976 UK) ed Kevin O'Nolan; The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman and The Brother (coll 1976 UK) ed Benedict Kiely; A Flann O'Brien Reader (coll 1978 US) ed with commentary by Stephen Jones.

further reading: Myles: Portraits of Brian O'Nolan (coll 1973) ed Timothy O'Keeffe; Flann O'Brien: An Illustrated Biography (1987) by Peter Costello and Peter van de Kamp.

Brian O'Nolan or Briain ÓNuallàin


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.