Down the Rabbit Hole

Mix-and-match fantasies are in fashion again – stories where characters from totally different books team up, or clash. Recursive fantasy, as the Encyclopedia of Fantasy likes to call it. For example, I just received the paperback of Jasper Fforde's third Thursday Next book, a metafictional series which began with characters like Jane Eyre being kidnapped from their novels, while real people got trapped in Wordsworth poems. And here's the second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (let's not discuss the film), which had me in hysterics with the casual revelation that transformed hybrid beasts from the sinister laboratory of Dr Moreau include not only characters from Beatrix Potter and The Wind in the Willows, but also Rupert Bear. Great stuff.

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time. The granddaddy of them all is probably the 1895 A House-Boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs, where distinguished ghosts mingle with characters like Hamlet and Baron Munchausen in the cosy mens'-clubhouse atmosphere of their afterlife houseboat, whose janitor is the ferryman Charon. Inevitably, Sherlock Holmes appears in the sequel. I'd be tempted to call these aged comic fantasies forgotten, but Alan Moore remembers them and wrote both Bangs and his houseboat into an episode of Promethea.

Walter de la Mare is remembered mainly for eerie short stories and children's verse, but he ventured into recursive territory with the gentle, low-key Henry Brocken (1904). Anticipating Jasper Fforde, Brocken begins by meeting Jane Rochester (née Eyre) with her badly scarred hubby, and wanders on through the landscapes of Shakespeare, Swift, Bunyan ...

The best-known attempt to give an SF rationale to this fantasy notion is Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series, in which everyone who ever lived is technomagically reincarnated on the same planet, so anyone can theoretically meet anyone. Which rules out fictional characters, though Farmer includes the Alice who was the original of Lewis Carroll's heroine. Alas, though the series started well, later books became over-long and inconsequential.

"Science-fantasy" trips to fictional universes are at the heart of the Incomplete Enchanter comedies by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, in which bumbling US academics use a lot of doubletalk about symbolic logic to shift between frames of reference – literally. In this way they enter the action of Norse myth (inconveniently close to Ragnarok), The Faery Queene, Orlando Furioso (which also figures in Theodore Sturgeon's nifty novella "To Here and the Easel"), the Finnish Kalevala, etc. Some of the comedy comes from taking a hard-science approach to fantasy, with many pratfalls as our heroes try to deduce and manipulate laws of magic which are different in each world. Thinking outside the box also helps. The Blatant Beast from Spenser's interminable poem, which accosts travellers and demands an epic verse recitation on pain of death, slinks away in embarrassment when treated to "Eskimo Nell". Gollancz reissued this entire 1940-1953 series in one Fantasy Masterworks volume, as The Compleat Enchanter.

More recently, Marvin Kaye's little-known fantasy The Incredible Umbrella (1979) wanders through the plots of various Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and ends with Sherlock Holmes and Watson pursuing their old foe Moriarty into the two-dimensional setting of Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland, with help from Boris the Frankenstein monster. An immensely silly romp. Incidentally, there's a side trip to L. Frank Baum's land of Oz in the late Robert Heinlein novel "The Number of the Beast" (1980). I threw this dreadful book at the wall, not for the first time, when Glinda the Good Witch of Oz used the word Lebensraum.

My pondering on recursive fantasies was inspired by revisiting the best example of this little subgenre, which according to me is Silverlock (1949) by John Myers Myers. His initially selfish and rather unlikeable title character (nicknamed for a white streak in his hair) is shipwrecked and put through a series of wild adventures in an imaginary continent called the Commonwealth, improving his personality no end.

The Commonwealth is in fact the world of letters, crammed with people and places from books, and weird juxtapositions. One episode sees our man drifting downriver on the raft from Huckleberry Finn, with a many-named poet and a friend unfortunately transformed into a donkey (see The Golden Ass), swapping fish stories with Piscator from The Compleat Angler, and going under a bridge being held against invading hordes by the heroic trio of "Horatius at the Bridge". Silverlock also gets mixed up with Circe (who converts him temporarily to a pig), the Green Knight, the Queen of Faerie, and the Ship of Fools, eventually getting a guided tour of Hell from that unreliable mentor Virgilio Faustopheles. All highly readable, with a smooth colloquial style and some of the most memorable songs in fantasy.

Silverlock is traditionally difficult to find, especially in Britain, but there's a new edition from NESFA Press this year. It includes much extra material, notably Fred Lerner's amazingly erudite A Silverlock Companion – tracing almost all the delirious literary allusions with which Myers teased his readers. This has been an unpaid plug.

You guessed it: David Langford has been writing about John Myers Myers for a US reference book.