Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Intentionally nonsensical fantasy is something of a UK tradition, thanks to Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear: Carroll's Alice books offer a kind of intellectual nonsense based on perverse Read-the-Small-Print interpretations of logic and idiom, while Lear exploits disconcerting whimsies, non sequiturs, and unexplained nonce-words like "runcible". G K Chesterton argued in "A Defence of Nonsense" (in The Defendant coll 1901) that this made Lear the superior fabulist, a view not universally shared. Reversing Carroll's dictum "Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves", the backbone provided by metre and rhyme makes nonsense verse more generally popular than pure nonsense prose (Lear's eccentric prose pieces, like "The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World" in Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets [1871], are often forgotten). Carroll's Jabberwocky, its offspring The Hunting of the Snark (1876), and Lear's "The Dong with a Luminous Nose" (in Laughable Lyrics coll 1877) have gained their own independent fame; Mervyn Peake also wrote some notable nonsense verse in (e.g.) A Book of Nonsense (coll 1972). But nonsense in prose fantasy tends to come in fleeting snatches. When seeming gibberish is uttered by Fools, Tom o' Bedlams or (especially) Oracles, it usually conceals bitter truth, as layers of meaning are concealed within the labyrinthine and Carrollian portmanteau-wordplay of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939). The absurd messages flung by the sinister Sunday to pursuing detectives in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) seem crudely farcical, but hint that the pursuers are asking the wrong question of the Universe (for Sunday is Nature) and thus compelling silly answers. In James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks (1950) the bad Duke's intention of slitting someone open from "guggle" to "zatch" uses nonsense words to cheerily grim effect. Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock (1985) similarly employs a wildcard nonsense phrase, the "Obah Cypt", for a kind of Plot Coupon whose nature emerges only late in the book. A seemingly meaningless quatrain imagined in the rattle of a Train's wheels in Neil Gaiman's The Kindly Ones (graph coll 1996) contains a prophecy of the story's outcome. Nonsense in modern fantasy is often a Mask hiding important information. [DRL]

see also: Absurdist Fantasy; Magic Words; Satire; Surrealism.

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.