Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Trompe-L'Oeil

This French term, meaning "deception of the eye", is used by art critics in discussing Illusionist paintings (> Illusion). Illusionism as a whole attempts to trick the beholder into "seeing" a painted surface as a solid object. A similar ambiguity can be established between two simultaneously present versions of an image: the eye may be deceived, which is a matter of perception, but the fact that the eye has been deceived does not affect the Reality of the painted double scene. This is important for an understanding of Fantasy narratives.

Some of the most famous TLP tales are those of E T A Hoffmann – whose work comes towards the beginning of Fantasy as a conscious literary form – "The Sandman" (1817), are profound studies of abnormal psychology, and their protagonists' visions of supernatural incursions into their lives are almost certainly intended by him to be taken as projections (> Perception) of diseased minds. The world they see is not, therefore, objectively there. On the other hand, in a Hoffmann Literary Fairytale like The Golden Pot (1814), the constant flow of TLO effects – the most vivid being the transformation of a door knocker into the Face of Glory of a Witch from the dawn of time, and back again, so that the two realities become interchangeable – is precisely meant to describe the kind of objective and self-coherent world that fantasy narratives normally inhabit.

The most profound moments in many fantasy novels, moments when the meaning of the story tends to unfold itself, are often those moments when a Metamorphosis of some sort occurs, or is about to occur. An example is when Pan, in Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams (1907), suddenly manifests himself after the protagonist has strayed Into the Woods: "Green mosses were hair, and tresses were stark in grey lichen; a twisted root swelled into a limb." At such moments TLO effects are common, and serve as a convenient pointer to the mysterious heart of metamorphosis: the sense that it simultaneously contains both the being whose essence is changing and the being whose essence is taking shape. In fantasy texts TLO generally registers the fact that something or someone actually is one thing and is another. Among many examples are: the scarecrow in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Feathertop" (1852), described as being perceived by others in passages simultaneously animate and inanimate (> Animate/Inanimate); in John Collier's "Evening Primrose" (1941) literal TLOs lead us into a discovery of the wainscot society inhabiting department stores; the protagonist of Sarban's The Sound of His Horn (1952) observes the woman he loves kneeling to drink and sees her as a Cat; Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983) is full of TLO effects, including walls that are bulkheads and men with prostheses who are really cyborgs with flesh-bits; the transitions between this world and Faerie in Wolfe's Castleview (1990) – as when a Cherokee jeep seems (rightly) to be, as well, a great Arthurian charger – are constructed around the effect; and in Peter S Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song (1993) the man/woman or woman/man warrior flickers from one state to another like a trick of the light. In movies, a noteworthy example is in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991), which depends on its chief protagonist's discovery that Reality can be seen, simultaneously, as two quite different things; for example, the goblet that he must steal is both the Grail, at one level of reality, and just a goblet, at another. [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.