Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Judeo-Christian mythology has the transgression of a prohibition at its core – Adam and Eve disobey God's command and eat the fruit; Greek and Scandinavian mythology include transgression of prohibitions in their explanations of how evil came into the world; the theme occurs elsewhere. The idea that evil and pain are the consequences of some forbidden action is common enough that it perhaps suits a deep-seated human need; or it may simply be that the writers of wisdom literature are as committed as anyone else to the telling of Story, one of the most fertile generators of story being the transgression of a Condition or a taboo. The breaking of a prohibition usually entails punishment; this punishment may be remitted, as in Christian doctrine. More often, the punishment will be rewritten in the course of the story as an ordeal or Night Journey; Psyche (see Cupid and Psyche) looks at her sleeping lover despite his instructions, discovers him to be Cupid, and is cast out into the wilderness.

The consequence of breaking a prohibition often depends on the legitimacy of the authority of the person doing the forbidding. Bluebeard forbids his wife to open one particular door, relying on his authority as her husband; when she opens the door she discovers she was right to disobey him, since he was a murderer and thus had no rightful authority. In those versions of the legend in which she is rescued, the presumption remains that earlier wives who disobeyed him were not. It is only in such revisionist versions of the legend (see Revisionist Fantasy) as Paul Dukas's Opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleu (1907) that her transgression has even the potential of saving anyone save herself.

The transgression of prohibitions is often closely linked to such themes as Quibbles, and the Fool. In fantasy, as opposed to Fairytale or Legend, the question is often one of knowing what the prohibition was in the first place and knowing how exactly one can be deemed to have transgressed it. The awakening of Malign Sleepers or other wanderings into prohibited realms is rarely announced by an explicit prohibition; normally the transgression lies in imprudence. Sometimes, on the other hand, the prohibition is entirely explicit and entirely unfair. The Endless, in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels and particularly in The Kindly Ones (graph coll 1996), are prohibited from directly harming each other or their kin; Dream is driven to his destruction by the Furies for finally taking the life of his decapitated yet living son Orpheus in a mercy killing. [RK]

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.