How humor works in fantasy and why it’s to be treasured

WHM considers fantasy works by Pratchett, Fforde, Parker and Balder and how they operate to provoke both laughter and deep feeling.

I recently read Dodger by Terry Pratchett and The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde and enjoyed them quite a bit. Pratchett and Fforde are two of our foremost writers of humor and fantasy and reading them so close together in time got me thinking about humor and fantasy (using fantasy in the broad sense of the term — perhaps the fantastic would be more precise, but whatever). Two other recent data points are strong in the mix as well: the very different (from Pratchett and Fforde) still very funny use of humor in Sharps by K. J. Parker and my ongoing fascination with Rob Balder and Xin Ye’s Erfworld comic/illustrated story and why I find it not only funny, but also quite affecting.

I know people who hate this kind of stuff. I can understand that. On one level, humor takes what is already fake and adds another layer of artifice. And yet I think that it doesn’t have to operate that way for all readers. And I love it not only because it makes me laugh, but also because it seems to feed my mind/soul in some way.

When humor in the fantastic works for readers, I think this is why:

If readers can let the world of the humorous story be real in their mind.

If that world exists in the readers mind amidst a backdrop of fantasy tropes, and especially amidst the high-minded tone of standard epic fantasy.

If the puns, contrasts, incongruities, violations of expectations, slapstick, etc. in the work of fantasy humorists (good ones) are well- and deftly executed and done so within strong characterization and a good plot.

Then not only is the world of the narrative at hand made absurd/punctured, but such a puncture also deflates the standard tropes.

And in so doing, the reader experiences the humanity of the situation — the reality of it — as in: the weakness, the absurdity relates to the weakness and absurdity found in the lived experience of humanity.

I may be missing some elements, but I think that’s what Pratchett, Fforde, Parker and Balder/Ye are doing. And it’s an experience to be treasured.


2 thoughts on “How humor works in fantasy and why it’s to be treasured”

  1. I know only some of the authors you reference, and so I can’t speak to the validity of these specific observations for these authors. On the whole, though, I think you’re right. The primary source of humor in comic fantasy is from poking (loving) fun at the tropes. You get this even as far back as Ariosto, if my memories of graduate school reading lists serve me right.

    There’s also another school of fantasy, though, that takes the opposite track. I don’t have the exact words with me, but Tolkien for one said something to the effect that whatever else is made fun of in fantasy, it must not be the fantasy element itself. I think Le Guin would agree, based on some of her comments on style in fantasy.

    And so what we have is at least two distinct schools of fantasy thought, both with a fairly distinguished pedigree. As someone who falls more into the Tolkien/Le Guin camp, I can say that I admire the fantasy humorists — but it’s just not my thing. My bias is to see it as a lesser thing. Probably, though, for the sake of insight rather than polemics, it’s best for all of us to resist the impulse to hierarchize, and instead attempt simply to describe what it is that we see in the literature we love.

  2. I don’t think any of the authors I mention above make fun of the fantasy element itself. That is, they all seek at times to create a sense of wonder and of setting. They play with tropes. But tropes are not the fantasy elements in and of themselves and all three create a deeper reality beneath the humor. That’s part of what makes them so effective. It took longer for me to get that from Erfworld. But once I was able to see past the puns and once the story had time to reveal character, it provided the same experience.

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