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11 June 2009 @ 08:27 am
Humorous Fantasy  

A glance at the shelves is enough to show that fantasy and humor go together like chocolate and peanut butter, swords and sorcery, or chicken and telephones. Okay, maybe not that last one, but hopefully you get the point. There’s lots of humorous fantasy out in the market right now. To be honest, the whole thing has always intrigued me. What makes snarfalicious humor and fantastic worlds of wonder such a great fit for each other?


I’ve heard it argued that it’s because the two have similar goals: satire and fantasy both take us out of our mundane reality in order to enlighten us. Some very smart people have talked about this kind of thing, and you can read a little more about it here and here if you’re interested. Really, they’re smarter than I am; I’m the sort of person who thinks comparing chicken and telephones is hilarious, so I’m not sure I’d trust my opinion about anything.


I can definitely see the point to this argument, but I can name plenty of humorous books that aren’t satire, and plenty of fantasies that don’t seem to have any sociopolitical undertones, at least not to my chaotic, chicken-and-telephones-are-hilarious type brain. I think it’s a valid explanation for the popularity of humorous fantasy but not the only one. For me, the draw is quite simple: humor and fantasy are both ridiculously fun. Putting them together creates such an insane level of amusement that the world could at any moment implode from sheer awesomeness.


This is not to say that these books have no depth or meaning; not at all! Take a look at Terry Pratchett, who is arguably the King of Humorous Fantasy, or maybe the Royal Jester. His Tiffany Aching series (The Wee Free Men, Wintersmith, and A Hat Full of Sky) is so funny that at times I couldn’t see the pages through the tears streaming down my face. I started giggling from the moment that the tiny blue men ran off with a very perplexed coo beastie, a.k.a. cow, and I didn’t stop for a couple of days.


I attracted a lot of strange looks in the grocery store, but that’s beside the point.


Despite the rampant ridiculousness, there’s a substance to well written humorous fantasy that makes it more than just brain candy. In between all the coo-stealing and clanging of monsters with skillets, Tiffany Aching learns that the true power of a witch doesn’t lie in boffo tricks or fancy jewelry, but in doing what needs to be done regardless of how difficult of distasteful it might be. In Diana Wynne Jones’ Dark Lord of Derkholm, flying pigs do indeed run rampant, but there’s also a moving story in there about a society under terrible oppression and the sacrifices they make to regain their freedom. I could go on for days…


The point is that humorous fantasy may indeed be silly and escapist at times. It might be slapstick. It may (gasp!) even engage in a little toilet humor from time to time. But at their core, good humorous fantasies have the same characteristics that drew many of us to fantasy in the first place: the ability to transport us to new and exciting places, to ponder what-if, to look at the world in a different light altogether. To be honest, the way some of these writers balance good old fashioned storytelling with a constant barrage of silliness completely awes me.


What it comes down to is that today’s humorous fantasy is much deeper than its snarf-milk-out-your-nose exterior might have you believe. That’s what I think, anyway. How about you, Inkies? What do you make of the mesh between slapstick and sorcery? What are your favorite humorous fantasy reads?

Carrie Harris
dawn_metcalfdawn_metcalf on June 11th, 2009 01:16 pm (UTC)
Tiffany Aching is definitely one of my favorite little-girl witches out there and her story is wondrous! One of my faves is the M.Y.T.H. series by Robert Aspirin -- the adventures of Aahz and Skeeve tickled me to no end, only made better in graphic novel form by the talented visual hilarity of Phil Foglio!
carrharrcarrharr on June 11th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
I couldn't agree with you more! I wanted to talk about M.Y.T.H. too, but I felt like I should rein myself in. Otherwise, I could have listed funny books all day long, which would be amusing but less than productive!
mike_jung on June 11th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC)
Terry Pratchett is godlike and powerful, of course, and like Dawn I'm also a fan of Robert Asprin's M.Y.T.H. series. I thought Piers Anthony's Xanth books were hit or miss, but when they hit they were very funny.

There's really no competition for my personal fave, though: William Goldman's THE PRINCESS BRIDE. I could read it a thousand times and still crack up on every page.
carrharrcarrharr on June 11th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah! And there's so much in the book that wasn't in the movie, so if you haven't read The Princess Bride yet, get thee to a bookstore IMMEDIATELY!
ext_192364 on June 18th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
As a middle schooler, I swore by the Xanth books (and Piers Anthony in general... I used to carry around a copy of For Love of Evil and feel really dark.) Definitely read every one up to around Isle of View over and over again, and probably nearly bankrupted my mother by making her buy me the new one that seemed to come out every other day. I don't think I'll ever read them again as an adult, though; I can't imagine all the jokes about panties holding up.
(Deleted comment)
carrharrcarrharr on June 11th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)
I couldn't agree with you more. I think it's really interesting that some of the most ludicrous situations end up saying something universal about the human condition. And they do so in a way that's both very non-threatening and completely entertaining at the same time.

The mind boggles...
ellen_ohellen_oh on June 11th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
Having had the pleasure of reading Carrie's awesome works, I know that she is the Queen of humor writing. And I think having an element of humor in fantasy, even when it is serious, is a good way to bond with your audience. I remember reading Piers Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon and laughing like crazy. But I also love the subtle uses of humor that you will find in a good book. I love humor and think it is an essential part of any story.

Great post Carrie!
carrharrcarrharr on June 11th, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)
Awwww. You're so nice to me. I would have agreed with you anyway, though. I think it's a good way to reach kids especially, and although I focused on humorous fantasy in this essay, I think it can also work to the same effect in straight fantasy as well. I don't know if anyone else would be interested in talking about that at some point, but I sure would.
thespectacleblog.wordpress.com on June 11th, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
Humorous Fantasy=double good.

I also think that fantasy allows humor to be more outrageous. The dog didn't just get out of the yard and chase the chickens, it barked Jingle Bells while doing so. That sort of thing.

And I love Diana Wynne Jones. Her books are so fun.

Parker P
carrharrcarrharr on June 12th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
Maybe even triple good.

And I hate it when my dog does that. ;)
pjhooverpjhoover on June 12th, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
I'm right with you on Terry Pratchett, though Nation was much more serious. I love subtle humor and humor that makes me feel smart when I "get it".
carrharrcarrharr on June 12th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah. I think there's a place for in-your-face gags, but the ones that sneak up on you always make me laugh the hardest.

Of course, I'm a firm devotee to one of Jim Henson's rules of humor: If you tell a joke once and it only gets a weak laugh, tell it three times and it becomes hilarious.

Honestly, he used that so many times in the Muppets.
ext_158080 on June 12th, 2009 03:18 am (UTC)
One of the reasons my son and I like the Percy Jackson series so much is that Rick Riordan injects a LOT of humor into the fantasy. The very dry sense of humor and funny off-hand details lighten intense moments and help make the series great.
carrharrcarrharr on June 12th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's a good way to relieve some tension without reducing the pressure on the characters. That's a very good point.
(Anonymous) on June 12th, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
I agree with the Percy Jackson rec. I find J. Stroud's Bartimaeus to be very funny in places and of course there's Barry Hughart's Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, which is hilarious. I like high Fantasy too but the darkness of most is often refreshed by a little humor and I think it can tighten the pace while still providing a little respite.
Jo Treggiarigio_t on June 12th, 2009 12:22 pm (UTC)
oops.Didn't mean to comment anonymously.
carrharrcarrharr on June 12th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the Hughart book yet. It's definitely going on the to-read list; thanks for the rec!
Jo Treggiarigio_t on June 12th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
There's a compendium available of the 3 books in the series, or if you can find the first one, The Bridge of Birds, it's the best one although I love them all. Set in an ancient China that never was.
anesbetanesbet on June 13th, 2009 04:40 am (UTC)
I'm a relatively recent convert to Terry Pratchett, but oh, I'm enjoying him now! For some reason, I used to think (just judging from the covers, I guess) that his books must be purely silly, but it turns out I love the way he braids together blisteringly funny word-play and "deeper" sorts of thinking. He's great. (Isn't it awful, by the way, that someone so dang clever should have to face being undone by Alzheimer's? I just can't stand the unfairness of it.)

In the realm of kids' books, Edward Eager always mixed a great dollop of humor into his fantasy.

I'll have to go look for the M.Y.T.H. books now, not to mention the book version of "The Princess Bride."

carrharrcarrharr on June 15th, 2009 12:47 pm (UTC)
I think that's a fairly common misconception, and it couldn't be further from the truth, could it? Funny doesn't always equal fluff. Sometimes, I think funny gets at truths deeper than plain reality... and the same is true of fantasy.
ext_174445 on June 14th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
Just hearing/seeing Tiffany Aching's name warms the cockles of my heart! I have one entire bookshelf devoted to everything Terry Pratchett's ever written. The humor's wonderful, but then, so are the characters. I think the two go together--character-driven humor? And Diana Wynne Jones is another favorite. But bad attempts at humor--shudder!
carrharrcarrharr on June 15th, 2009 12:53 pm (UTC)
I think 'character-driven humor' is a great way to describe it. Of course I still have a love for situational humor; it's a good way to inject a little levity into really stressful scenes even if you're not writing humor. But character-driven humor requires a more deft weaving of the comedy into the basic underpinning of the story, and that's one of the things that makes my head spin when I think about Pratchett. He does it so seamlessly.
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carrharrcarrharr on June 16th, 2009 01:24 pm (UTC)
Yorick and Chicks in Chain Mail are two of my very favorite things. Not together, of course, although that would be hilariously awesome, wouldn't it? I haven't read Harlot's Ruse though, so thanks for the recommendation. I doubt I'll be able to resist the lure of the amorous dragon for long.

I stuck to MG and YA books in the essay since that's our thing at the Inkpot, but I certainly think that the humor-fantasy combo works at all ages. For picture books, I think we often see it in the form of anthropomorphism. I love that bus-driving pigeon, but my favorite in that arena is and always will be Melanie Watt's Scaredy Squirrel.
evbooraem on June 16th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
Great post. And a good point about humor being a way to bond with the reader when the fantasy otherwise might be too "out there" for comfort. Having somebody's pants fall down is always the great leveler.

I, too, am a recent convert to Pratchett. Although I think he writes the funniest sentence since PG Wodehouse, I had trouble getting through his adult novels because I couldn't identify with the characters. Nation, however, was an eye-opener. Serious message and goings-on, as mentioned, but Pratchett can't help being funny. And I found the characters fuller and more endearing and engrossing than the ones in his adult books. After reading Nation I hit Wee Free Men and, like Carrie, could not read it and stand up at the same time, but also found Tiffany a more compelling character than the ones in his other books.

To my delight, liking Pratchett's kids books is making his adult books more approachable. (Ah, the human brain.)

JK Rowling and Neil Gaiman also are expert at combining humor with dire proceedings. They're just funny in their bones, and it comes out no matter what the subject matter may be. Nothing beats "Good Omens," by Gaiman and Pratchett together.
carrharrcarrharr on June 16th, 2009 09:10 pm (UTC)
It IS the great leveler, isn't it? There's something universal about a good depantsing. And I firmly believe that Good Omens should go on the Top Ten List of Funniest Books Ever.