Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Piracy is as old as marine trade and is still widely practised, but there was a heavily mythologized "Golden Age of Piracy" in the 16th and 17th centuries following the development of sailing ships capable of transoceanic navigation. Legions of pirates – some licensed as privateers – were active in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, but it was those who preyed on the ships which carried American bullion to Spain who became central to modern pirate mythology. The core of this mythology derives from A General Historie of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724) by "Captain Johnson", belatedly revealed as the novelist Daniel Defoe; although many of the individuals covered therein were certainly real, the existence of others is dubious and much is invented. There is a sense, therefore, in which all fiction about pirates has a fantasy dimension – a fact appreciated in such nonsupernatural historical fantasias as The Pyrates (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser (1925-2008) as well as more wholehearted fantasies like "Typewriter in the Sky" (1940) by L Ron Hubbard and There Were Two Pirates (1946) by James Branch Cabell. Such is the essential romance of piracy that pirates are often treated with considerable sentimentality, as in Richard Middleton's "The Ghost Ship" (1912), in which the "young" ghosts of an English village set forth in search of the adventure they never found in life. Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver remains an Archetype of ambiguity as well as providing a key image of the perfect pirate.

The most famous pirates in fantasy fiction are Captain Hook and his crew in J M Barrie's Peter Pan (performed 1904; rev 1928) and its many spinoffs. Their presence in Never-Never Land is required as a key element of boyhood fantasy; it is for the same reason that the hero of William Goldman's The Princess Bride (1973) has to put in a stint as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Other imaginary pirates of note include Scarcabomba in The Green Lacquer Pavilion (1926) by Helen Beauclerk, Captain Darkness in The City of Frozen Fire (1950) by Vaughan Wilkins (1890-1959), Black and Littlejack in The Wonderful O (1958) by James Thurber and Langoisse in The Empire of Fear (1988) by Brian Stableford.

Pirates also found a natural home among the stock characters of Sword and Sorcery; Robert E Howard's Conan was often involved with them, most notably in "Queen of the Black Coast" (1934), which features the bloodthirsty female pirate Belit. Pirates figure prominently in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the pastiches of Lin Carter. A female pirate plays a major role in The Eyes of Sarsis (1980) by Andrew J Offutt and Richard K Lyon (1933-    ). Recent fantasies which make extravagant use of pirates in order to reflect more-or-less ironically on this tradition include On Stranger Tides (1987) by Tim Powers, Chase the Morning (1990) by Michael Scott Rohan and Pussy, King of the Pirates (1995) by Kathy Acker (1948-    ). [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.