Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Ship of Fools

This Motif dates back at least to medieval times, where a voyage in a ship – packed with every sort of person – is given as an Allegory of the follies of society. The theme took significant literary shape with Das Narrenschiff (1494; trans Alexander Barclay as The Ship of Fools 1509 UK; best modern trans E H Zeydel 1944 US) by Sebastian Brant (1457-1521), a long narrative poem in which an SoF embarks for Narragonia ["Fool-Country"], which the passengers think will be a Heaven on Earth. They never reach their goal, as Brant's energy is almost entirely spent on Satire. Renaissance "Folly" literature – the most famous example being Moriae encomium (1509; trans J Wilson as The Praise of Folly 1688 UK) by Desiderio Erasmus (1466-1536) – derives from Brant.

So pervasive was Brant's tale – and so well known were its Illustrations, long thought to have been by Albrecht Dürer – that any subsequent story set on a ship capable of carrying more than few passengers inevitably echoed the motif. More specific SoF narratives include Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark (1876), Gerhart Hauptmann's Atlantis (1912), Robert Neumann's Ship in the Night (coll of linked stories 1932), John Brunner's sf Sanctuary in the Sky (1960 dos), Ship of Fools (1962) by Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) – an Allegory of doom-bound humanity set in 1931 and intended to point symbolically towards World War II – Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun (1987) and Iain Sinclair's (1943-    ) Radon Daughters (1994). The original SOF, with an updated passenger list, is explicitly featured in John Myers Myers's Silverlock (1949). [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.