Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

A sequence in a fantasy text when the proper ordering of the world and society is deliberately overturned (>>> Topsy-Turvy), the lowly become kings and queens for a night, justice and mercy are mocked (and perhaps uncovered as shams), and creatures who dwell in the Wainscots of the world come out to frolic and to parade. A revel is a time when all values and hierarchies are reversed; a time of sexual liberty, rudeness and unexpected mercy. The revel takes place in a psychic night, a night which has taken over from the day. A revel is therefore a Parody of the normal world. The god of the revel is Dionysus.

Revels are almost always under the ultimate control of a Magus or monarch, or (for instance) the Lord of Misrule, who typically presides over the Christmas Saturnalia in honour of the turn of the Seasons. Folk dramas, full of scabrous scenes of upsets and comic humiliations, were common in the Middle Ages, but became domesticated as they entered establishment culture; a tamed form of revel became a licensed part of formal theatrical performances, for instance, in the various "anti-masques" by Ben Jonson (1572-1637), first performed in the early 17th century (> Masque). And in what may still remain the central examples of how to compose revels while ultimately maintaining control over the Chaos they induce – William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600) and The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) – the reversals are righted in the end. In Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991), the subversive danger inherent in the unleashing of primordial forces is emphasized.

Subversion is a particular feature of the kind of Satire Mikhail Bakhtin described as carnivalesque (> Carnival), and which was characteristic of works by writers like E T A Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe and Nikolai Gogol. In Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981) Rosemary Jackson agrees that the roots of the carnivalesque lie in the traditional Menippean satire, a form utilized in works like Apuleius's The Golden Ass (circa 165), François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564), Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Charles Dickens's Christmas Books, particularly The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848) and, more importantly, "mundane" novels like Our Mutual Friend (1865). Understood as an acting out of the Menippean impulse, the revel can be seen as fantasy's way of incorporating transgression. (Revels in Supernatural Fiction and Horror, where they are likely to be closely linked to the basic transgressive actions of the antagonists, tend to be described as events which seduce protagonists from normal life into something, as in the Black Mass, inherently Evil.) The fantasy revel may loosen the stays of Story, but normally so that, in the end, a new order can be recognized, and calm restored. A revel that does not end is hard to distinguish from Apocalypse.

There are revels in Robert W Chambers's The King in Yellow (coll 1895); in much Fin de Siècle and Decadent writing (> Decadence), though the closest an Edwardian writer came to creating an upside-down world before WWI seems to have been the picnic of the under-beasts in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908). Two of Gustav Meyrink's novels – The Green Face (1916) and Walpurgisnacht (1917) – are revels; and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924) sublimates – as does much of his work – revel into elaborately taming discourse. Later fantasy texts dominated by the subversion of revel (there are not many) include: most Dying-Earth tales, which are set in venues which could almost be defined as post-facto revel versions of our world; Charles G Finney's The Circus of Dr Lao (1935) and the various tales, from authors like Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon, that examine the same ambivalent relation between nostalgia for a world well lost and subversion of the present; Elizabeth Hand's Winterlong sequence, which is as much sf as fantasy; the "antifantasies" that make up M John Harrison's Viriconium sequence; Wyndham Lewis's Malign Fiesta (1955); almost any Magic-Realism novel; and Michael Moorcock's The Sound of Muzak (1977). [JC]

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.