Fantasy is full of pacts – especially Pacts with the Devil – and other explicit or implicit Contracts with entities, magical law or Fate (> Conditions; Curses; Prohibitions; Prophecies). Human nature demands a loophole: a quibble allows reinterpretation of the contract, usually by strict adherence to the letter of the law (> Read the Small Print). Nordic mythology anticipated William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1600) when Loki lost a bet and forfeited his head to the Dwarf Brökk, but quibbled that his neck had not been wagered and must remain undamaged. In Macbeth (performed circa 1606; 1623), a Witch reassures that "none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth"; but Macduff was born not naturally but through Caesarean section. Frederic, in W S Gilbert's The Pirates of Penzance (1879), is indentured to Pirates until his 21st birthday – but was born on 29 February, so must serve until aged 84. H G Wells's obese Pyecraft in "The Truth about Pyecraft" (1903) suffers from quibbling euphemism: using a Spell to lose weight, rather than fat, he becomes weightless. In James Branch Cabell's The Music from Behind the Moon (1926) the hero's lover is doomed to spend 725 years in Bondage, as written in the Book of the Norns of which "no man nor any god may alter any word" – but this allows the double quibble of inserting, after the 7 and using a quill pen from the Devil's wing, a decimal point. A prophecy in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) says of the Nazgûl king, "not by the hand of man shall he fall": he is duly despatched by a woman and a hobbit. Som the Dead in Fred Saberhagen's The Black Mountains (1971), whose pact with Death has made him a walking dead man immune to any weapon, is destroyed by an innocently meant splash of healing Potion. In Terry Pratchett's Moving Pictures (1990) legends promise awful fates to any man opening the Necrotelecomnicon (> Books); the actual opener suffers only mild migraine and eczema, since he is an orang-utan. Sometimes the quibble can void a contract through logical paradox: on the Island of Barataria in Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605-1615) those crossing a certain bridge must first state their business and are hanged if they lie – whereupon a traveller declares that his business is to die on the adjacent gallows, which paralyses the law. The Wizard-kings of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) patch up their quarrel when informed that their determination to disagree about everything is flawed, for they agree about disagreeing. More surreally, James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks (1950) offers an outrageous verbal quibble when a hand-touch fails to wake the frozen clocks: "If you can touch the clocks and never start them, then you can start the clocks and never touch them. That's logic ..."
Virtuous wishes can bring, as it were, easing of the clauses in a contract. Goethe's Faust is saved because, in the moment at which he utters the specific formula – Verweile doch, du bist so schön/"Moment stay, thou art so fair" – it is in respect of an unselfish desire. William Butler Yeats's Countess Cathleen in his play The Countess Cathleen (1892; performed 1899) tries to sell her Soul to buy food for starving peasants, but cannot be damned for an act of charity. Fredric Brown's short-short "Millennium" sees Satan's power destroyed by an ultimately unselfish wish.
In Gustav Holst's Opera Savitri (1916) Death, who has taken Savitri's husband, offers her a consolatory boon and she asks for life, which he gives her. Life without her husband is meaningless, and so Death has perforce to return him. Here what is at stake is not just the logical implication of what is offered, nor the intelligence of the Trickster heroine, but also a view of the Universe in which all is Illusion, and Reality itself merely a quibble. [DRL/RK]