“For the appearance and names of these gods, there is a humorous as well as a serious explanation…for the gods are fond of a joke.
—Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus.
Humorists are not absent from modern fantasy fiction written in English: Terry Pratchett and Fletcher Pratt spring immediately to mind, followed quickly by Robert Asprin, Piers Anthony, Martin Millar. There are others. The main forms of humor, at least as practiced by those named above, are broad, even when elegantly executed: the farce, the parody, the screwball drama larded with puns and episodic slapstick. I have a weakness for such modes, but I wonder why the genre in general seems wary of humor and (for the most part) ring-fences the comic from the mainstream of fantasy’s serious purpose.
Of course, the comic sidekick is prevalent in modern fantasy, with Sancho Panza as one of several models. (“Samwise,” Tolkien tells us, means “half-wise, simple.”) And we have knaves, wisecrackers and tricksters a-plenty, drawing on traditions from around the globe. I am particularly partial to Cugel the Clever myself.
A few authors – Ursula K. Le Guin, Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Maurice Sendak, Ray Bradbury suffuse their work with mirth and whimsy, no matter that events described may be grim. Sparrowhawk and Vetch, Zahrah the Windseeker, Coraline (and Richard and Door), Max (and Mickey), Uncle Einar and the other Elliotts in the October Country…they are, as George Meredith in “An Essay on Comedy” wrote about Moliere’s Jourdain and Alceste, “characters steeped in the comic spirit. They quicken the mind through laughter, from coming out of the mind; and the mind accepts them because they are clear interpretations of certain chapters of the Book lying open before us all.”
Otherwise, fantasy hews strenuously to an epic mode that seldom admits humor, except for a dash of rustic or burlesque to highlight the seriousness of the main endeavor. The diction is high, the tone earnestthere is, after all, a world to save, evil (“Evil”) to be destroyed or, failing that, banished for eons to come, sacrifice to be endured and salvation attained. When confronting the Sublime, the sacred, the mysterium fascinans, the genre brooks little laughter, certainly not of the mocking kind, no matter how gentle (except when clearly marked and marketed as such, with a sort of invisible disclaimer shrink-wrapped around the cover: “this is a parody, thus acceptable; file it separately, so as not to pollute the noble volumes it lampoons.”). The agon must be preserved in its purest, most noble essence.
For the genre tends to the conservative: order must be restored, history set right, the king must return. (Michael Moorcock critiques these tropes effectively in the chapter entitled “Epic Pooh,” in his Wizardry and Wild Romance; A Study of Epic Fantasy which also contains sharp insights on wit and humor in fantasy). Core elements of conservatism, alloyed or half-buried though they may be, run through newer variants of fantasy as well, e.g., urban fantasy or steampunk.
I miss the fantastical equivalents of the comedy of manners, the satire and the absurd, and the humor implicit in the morose and the somber.
The comedy of manners would seem an ideal theme for fiction of the fantastical. I was reminded of this by another passage in Meredith’s essay:
“Politically, it is accounted a misfortune for France that her nobles thronged to the Court of Louis Quatorze. It was a boon to the comic poet. He had that lively quicksilver world of the animalcule passions, the huge pretensions, the placid absurdities, under his eyes in full activity; vociferous quacks and snapping dupes, hypocrites, posturers, extravagants, pedants, rose-pink ladies and mad grammarians, sonnetteering marquises, highflying mistresses, plain-minded maids, interthreading as in a loom, noisy as at a fair.”
Sylvia Townsend Warner mined this milieu for her Broceliande stories. I catch a similar droll sensibility, an archness, in the work of Theodora Goss, and that of Diana Wynne Jones, and more distantly of Angela Carter and, in yet another vein, J.K. Rowling. Oh, and Joan Aiken, about whom Farah Mendlesohn wrote in Rhetorics of Fantasy: “The acknowledged master of the fantasy of irony must be Joan Aiken, whose short story collections use irony to construct cryptic riddles and English comedies of manners.” But we need more such, decanters of Erasmus and Moliere, of Dickens and Austen and the Shakespeare of Much Ado and Winter’s Tale. The tradition is rich outside of our genre (to name just a few: Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, Alison Lurie, Gary Shteyngart…Shteyngart probably qualifies as a genre writer with his Super Sad True Love Story), if that might act as a spur to writers from Within The Tradition.
The absurd and the satirical sit even less comfortably within fantasy, perhaps because the genre does not want to acknowledge the propinquity, for to do so would mar the image of high seriousness that the genre strains for. I think that is why works such as White’s Once and Future King, Crowley’s Little, Big and Brunner’s Traveller in Black stories are oddities like Gargantua and Pantagruel or Tristam Shandy, like The Man Who Was Thursday or Jurgen — honored in the breach but directly followed by few. China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer each have a leg in this field, likewise Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Vandana Singh, Nathaniel Mackey, Steven Millhauser, David Nickle, Jedediah Berry.
Finally, a plea for a more Peakean approach within the genre, and praise for the absurdist, grave and melancholy humor epitomized by the Gormenghast trilogy. The ruler does not return in the Peakean world-view, in fact he abdicates, he flees. Chaos does not so much win as it is revealed to be the mainspring of the very Order upon which everything appeared to restthe sacrament reduced to dust, a bright carving in a neglected upper hallway of a castle that may or may not exist. That is cosmically funny, a folly, the lifted eyebrow of the gods, even if it is also possibly tragic.
ChiZine Publications published his first novel, The Choir Boats: Volume One of Longing for Yount, in 2009, and in 2012 brought out the sequel and series conclusion, The Indigo Pheasant: Volume Two of Longing for Yount, described by reviewers as “Gulliver’s Travels crossed with The Golden Compass and a dollop of Pride and Prejudice,” and “a muscular, Napoleonic-era fantasy that, like Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, will appeal to both adult and young adult readers.”
Daniel’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in Sybil’s Garage, Shimmer, ChiZine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Abyss & Apex, Goblin Fruit, Mannequin Envy, Bull Spec, Kaleidotrope, and Scheherezade’s Bequest. He has presented at Arisia, Readercon, Lunacon, and the Toronto Speculative Fiction Colloquium. He has also had twenty scholarly and professional articles published on subjects ranging from fairy tale to finance.
A former banker, Daniel earned his doctorate in 18th-century history, with a focus on family, gender and commerce in northern Europe. He is now an executive at a national workforce development organization in New York City, where he lives with his wife and soulmate, the artist Deborah A. Mills (who illustrated and provided cover art for both Daniel’s novels), along with the requisite two cats.
Novel preview links:
The Choir Boats [pdf]
The Indigo Pheasant [pdf]