Once on a Time
While most of us are familiar with A. A. Milne for his creation of Winnie-the-Pooh, die hard fans of the early 20th century author also know that he had a fiendish capacity for humour far beyond that in his children’s books. Milne was a long time contributor to Punch magazine, eventually becoming an assistant editor. There, he flexed his comic writing skills for years before he became famous for his books.
In his foreword to the second edition of his comic fantasy novel Once on a Time, Milne refers to it fondly as his best work, and it’s not hard to see why. The book is simultaneously a fantastic adventure, a coming-of-age story, and a social comedy that constantly picks at the tiny inconsistencies of day to day life. The book also inverts some typical fantasy tropes, rendering the kings of its story as largely irresponsible and spiteful men who are indulged by the people around them. Its princess, Hyacinth, is savvy enough to recognise the faults in her father’s behaviour, as well as the extent to which he’s enabled at court.
Milne described Once on a Time as an “odd” book, and it’s a fair description, but for all its strangeness it’s uproariously funny. Its characters are well drawn, and the comedy is largely derived from the interaction between realistic people and a stereotypical fantasy setting.
Milne claims to have written the book based on the historical writings of a man named “Roger Scurvilegs,” which leads us neatly to our next recommendation.
The Princess Bride
Like A. A. Milne, most people will have encountered The Princess Bride first in its movie adaptation, but William Goldman’s original novel is a fantastic reading experience. While the plot is similar to that of the movie, the novel itself is conveyed with a beautiful framing narrative, in which Goldman claims that it is an adaptation of a dry and stuffy text (this time by one S. Morgenstern), as it was read to him originally by his grandfather.
This frame is a huge part of what makes The Princess Bride work. The narrative is never allowed to slow down, and the narrator always has an excuse to skip along to more interesting ideas. It’s a small thing, but one that sits well with the Renaissance setting. It also suits Goldman’s style, which is perfect for dry asides about the content of the “original” histories.
As with the Milne, a big part of the fun comes from the inversion of our expectations of fantasy. The handsome prince is a dreadful character, the rogue and pirate has fairly good intentions. They might seem small, but they’re indicative of a broader theme of upsetting the reader’s expectation that is a huge part of what makes The Princess Bride such a joy to read.
James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice is another of that fine class of fantasy novels released just after the peak of adventure fiction. Released almost two decades before Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first published, Jurgen is set in a fantasy world that still feels surprisingly modern as a comic riff on the genre. Like so many fantasy novels, the events of the book take place in a nebulously medieval setting, and follow the adventures of a young man, Jurgen, looking for exactly the kind of romance you typically find in old romances.
Part of the fun is in Jurgen’s sense of humour when it comes to romance, and indeed the book was the subject of some controversy shortly after its release when it was suggested that its content was fundamentally indecent. Fortunately, Cabell argued successfully that the “indecent” portions of the book were double-entendres, placing the responsibility for any indecency solely on the reader.
Along the way, the middle-aged Jurgen sets his sights on a series of women from myth and legend, including the Lady of the Lake and a dryad. He is, admittedly, a bit of rake, but he’s a lovable rake all the same. If you enjoy Cabell’s style for Jurgen, you will probably also enjoy his Shakespearean book, Hamlet Had an Uncle: A Comedy of Honour.
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
While many are familiar with Diana Wynn Jones for Howl’s Moving Castle (itself a fine comic fantasy novel), her Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a spectacular example of a book written very much in a given genre, without necessarily adhering to the forms of that genre. Rather than a novel, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a guide book for anyone who might find themselves visiting a fantasy realm. If there’s any doubt as to the veracity of the text, it also boasts a stamp on the cover proclaiming it to be “Dark Lord Approved.”
The book opens with a lengthy description of the typical features of fantasy maps, before pointing out that many of these maps lack roads, amenities, or even a scale, rendering them quite useless for the average traveler. From there, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland attempts to shore up the terrible gaps in cartography by instructing its readers on the best way to navigate the genre’s landscapes, including extensive notes on all four different types of ambush, the various types of coinage, and grimoires.
This is a little different from the other books here, in that it’s less a novel than a long glossary. That said, Wynn’s humour is excellent, and the book serves as a scathing counterpoint to many of the worst offenses in the genre.
Bizarrely, Alan Dean Foster is better known for his movie novelisations than his own fiction. Indeed, he’s achieved a level of cult celebrity for his sprawling, often introspective novelisation of Alien. That said, his own work in science fiction and fantasy often plays with genre tropes and fundamentally ridiculous concepts in a way that completely outshines his licensed fiction.
Spellsinger is the story of a hard-shelled tortoise-wizard, Clothahump, who reaches out across time and space in search of anyone who could command arcane power enough to defeat “the Plated Folk.” He finds a young man named Jonathan Thomas Meriweather (or Jon-Tom), a law student, janitor, and aspiring rock legend. Jon-Tom later discovers that, by playing an instrument called the “duar,” he can use his knowledge of rock music to command powers of conjuration beyond his understanding.
If the above sounds chaotic, things only get worse when Jon-Tom’s haphazard attempts to practice magic take effect. It’s a strange and rambunctious affair, and one that occasionally shows its age, but for the most part it’s just a book that’s willing to make the silliest decision possible at every juncture.