Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Recursive Fantasy

1. RF exploits existing fantasy settings or characters as its subject matter. But, since fantasy is an ancient mode of Story, full of retellings, Twice-Told tales and recurring figures of Myth (>>> Archetypes; Underliers), it is useful to qualify this definition by requiring that RF deal with a specific former fiction. Arthur, for example, has boiled so long in the Cauldron of Story as to become a universal Icon, detached from any single telling; the same has arguably happened in this century to Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. Fantasy forms related to RF include: fictional Parody, such as Henry N Beard's and Douglas C Kenney's clownish reworking of J R R Tolkien in Bored of the Rings (1969); pastiche Sequels by Other Hands; and Revisionist-Fantasy re-examinations of Fairytales etc., as in Tanith Lee's Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer (coll 1983).

The flavour of true RF derives from intersecting levels of Reality, with "real" protagonists encountering worlds and characters which are as "fictional" to them as to us. Examples include: Walter de La Mare's Henry Brocken (1904), whose hero meets various imaginary folk, including Jonathan Swift's Gulliver; John Myers Myers's Silverlock (1949), whose Commonwealth of letters is an Imaginary Land densely populated by fictions, from Apuleius's Ass to the SHIP OF FOOLS to creations of Mark Twain and G K Chesterton; L Sprague de Camp's and Fletcher Pratt's Incomplete Enchanter sequence, plunging modern Americans into stories which they know or think they know, including Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-1596) and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516); Edward Eager's The Time Garden (1958), whose author's debt to E Nesbit is acknowledged in an encounter with some of her characters; the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) by Tom Stoppard (1937-    ), whose eponymous attendant lords are trapped in the machinery of Shakespeare's Hamlet (performed circa 1600; 1603), baffled and "real" when offstage, assured and "fictional" when speaking their lines; Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno (1975), revisiting the Hell of Dante Alighieri; Marvin Kaye's The Incredible Umbrella (1979), which freewheels through a medley of W S Gilbert librettos, climaxing with Holmes and Frankenstein's monster in the 2D world of Flatland (1884) by Edwin A Abbott (1839-1926); Robert A Heinlein's "The Number of the Beast" (1980), which, though nominally sf, includes a visit to Oz; and Roger Zelazny's The Changing Land (1981) – whose Edifice setting is eventually transformed into that of William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland (1908). Although John Crowley's Little, Big (1981) has no such overt appearance, its sheer density of allusions to Lewis Carroll's work conveys a feeling of subliminal RF, or RF in disguise. A fine movie example is Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), with its numerous Toon characters from past Animated Movies.

2. RF's sense of tangled reality-levels may also be attained in metafictions without reference to past works. Celebrated examples include: Six Characters In Search of an Author (1921) by Luigi Pirandello; Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1939); Jorge Luis Borges's "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1941), whose dizzying intellectual conspiracy proposes to relegate our real world to the status of fiction; and such images by M C Escher as the lithograph "Drawing Hands" (1948), where each of two pictured hands is engaged in drawing the other. William Goldman's The Princess Bride (1973) dwells lovingly on the supposed editing of its eponymous fiction to present only the "good bits"; in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story (1979) the child protagonist becomes literally absorbed into the Story of the Book he is reading; the nostalgically evoked fantasy tales of Marshall France in Jonathan Carroll's The Land of Laughs (1980) first leak characters into, and then prove to be scripts for, a small town's reality; the "real" and "fictional" diarists of Christopher Priest's The Affirmation (1981) create and reflect each other, like Escher's hands. Relevant movies include The Princess Bride (1987), The Neverending Story (1984), and all those featuring characters' transitions between the worlds of movie and audience, using the screen as a Portal – like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984) and The Last Action Hero (1993). [DRL]

see also: Shared Worlds.

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.