Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Thurber, James

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(1894-1961) US writer and cartoonist, generally acknowledged as one of the 20th century's finest humorists. Many of his stories and distinctive cartoons show episodes in what he called the "War Between Men and Women"; in his most celebrated piece, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939; in My World – And Welcome To It coll 1942) the would-be hero Mitty escapes a relentlessly unsympathetic wife in daydreams (see Dreams) which parody fictional and Cinema cliché ("The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking") and whose miniaturist perfection was lost in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (coll 1940) and Further Fables for Our Time (coll 1956) assemble humorously updated Fairytales and sometimes bitterly wry Fables (see Allegory) featuring a variety of Talking Animals, a Unicorn and subversive "morals" throughout. All JT's novels are short Children's Fantasies which adults can enjoy, and all show a love of words and language (see Diction): alliteration, assonance, metrical prose with occasional rhymes. The White Deer (1945) inventively elaborates the fairytale situation of king, princess and three suitors who must be tested – and also features a Witch, a Dwarf and a Transformation of a princess into a deer, or vice versa. The exuberant The Thirteen Clocks (1950) has a memorably icy Villain in a castle of frozen clocks (like the Mad Hatter, he has murdered Time), an unseen clammy Monster made of "glup", a woman who weeps jewels, and a dotty Trickster/Mentor who keeps insisting in vain that he is no mere device (see Plot Devices); it begs to be read aloud. Wordplay runs riot in the Fabulation The Wonderful O (1955 chap), as monomaniac Pirates excise the letter O from a gentle Island's language and life ("Otto Ott, when asked his name, could only stutter") – until finally halted by the Magic Word "freedom". [DRL]

other works: The Last Flower: A Parable in Pictures (graph 1939) (see Graphic Novel; World War II); Many Moons (1943 chap) and The Great Quillow (1944 chap), more fairytales; The Thurber Carnival (coll 1945), a useful compendium of shorts and cartoons; The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O (omni 1962 UK) illus Ronald Searle.

further reading: Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (1994) by Neil A Grauer.

see also: Humour; My World ... and Welcome to It (1969-1970, 1972).

James Grover Thurber


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.