John Enfield’s 7 of the Best: Humor In Fantasy
Written by John Enfield
When we think of high fantasy, we usually think of heroism, danger, wonder, horror, maybe even a bit of romance – but humor? When done well, humor can be the best thing about a high fantasy story. Here’re seven of the best examples of humor in high fantasy stories.
Dragons of Autumn Twilight, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
This was the first fantasy story I read that wasn’t a fairy tale or a version of the King Arthur or Robin Hood legends. The book got me hooked on Dungeons and Dragons, making me understand that there was a lot more to it than fighting monsters, buying equipment and leveling up in video games like Pool of Radiance on the Commodore 64 (my first exposure to anything D&D).
By the end, it has the classic, though rather ungainly large if you tried to roleplay them all at a table, D&D adventuring party: fighters (Caramon, Riverwind, Tika Waylan, and Flint Fireforge), paladin (Sturm Brightblade), ranger (Tanis Half-Elven), clerics (Goldmoon, Elistan), wizards (Raistlin Majere and Fizban) and rogue (Tasslehoff Burrfoot). It even has a princess (Laurana) and her princely brother (Gilthanas). And of course, the heavy (Dragon Highlord Verminaard) as well as many henchmen. It even has dragons, as every good D&D RPG should.
While every character has their humorous moment or two, especially the sarcastic and cynical Raistlin, the chief sources of humor in this book are Tasslehoff and Fizban. Tasslehoff is the epitome of the happy-go-lucky rogue since he’s nearly impossible to frighten. This kender character finds things that terrify most people to be quite fascinating instead. He’s also an incorrigible thief since he’s convinced that his light fingered appropriations are helping people avoid losing things. He’s convinced himself that they’ll appreciate his saving of items for them once people realize they are missing. Fizban takes the prototypical wizard class and turns it on its head. This wizard appears to be neither wise nor magically powerful until, that is, he is needed most direly. The antics of Tasslehoff and the bumblings of Fizban kept me in stitches throughout all of the Dragonlance books I’ve read that feature them.
Hammer and Axe, by Dan Parkinson
While many authors have shaped what we think of today when we think of the RPG race of Dwarves, Dan Parkinson has done more to set that standard for me than anyone else. His Dwarven Nations Trilogy (as well as a novel I’ve mentioned on Multiverse before, The Gully Dwarves,) paint a picture of a greatly varied race of beings with several sub-races. Each is thoroughly fleshed out with its own unique strengths and weaknesses; histories and beliefs. The funniest of them all are the gully dwarves, those bumbling, dim-witted, child-like creatures with practically the exact opposite standard of cleanliness and propriety to that of humans.
In Hammer and Axe, Dan tells one of the stories that has more profoundly influenced the way I role-play dwarves than any other. It’s both hilarious and sheer genius. In it, a group of wizards are surveying in dwarven territory to build a magical tower. A small group of dwarves catches them in the act. The wizards are astonished to find that their magic has little to no effect on the dwarves. Why did they suppose that was? It was because the dwarves stubbornly refuse to believe that it’s real. The way Dan describes this (along with other conflicts between wizards and dwarves,) is simply amazing and quite funny at times.
Once Around the Realms, by Brian Thomsen
An argument over who is the greatest traveler of the Realms of Toril results in Volothamp Geddarm (now famous for his Volo’s Guidebooks) taking up the challenge. The book is a merry romp across the length and breadth of the land that every fan of the Forgotten Realms D&D game world knows so well. This book was my introduction to that world and I was astonished at the variety and complexity of the place. Brian Thomsen makes it all seem quite real with his detailed descriptions of people, places and wonders – all touched with a hint of humor. For example, it begins with over a page-and-a-half dedicated to getting to know two guards of the gates of Suzail. Dan goes into their friendship and hints of their storied past as they are now practically retired. Dan covers their attitudes about their situation as well. All of this is done to set up the cleverly roguish way in which the protagonists (Passepout and Volo) somehow manage to get through what is supposed to be heightened security.
Weasel’s Luck, by Michael Williams
This is one of those rare novels that are told in a first-person narrative. I just love the novel because it gives you a deeper insight into a character than a third-person narrative ever can. It also keeps the story more narrowly focused so that you really get into the plot. What’s so funny about Weasel’s Luck is that the protagonist we’re delving into the mind of is the ultimate anti-hero. True, plenty of novels, fantasy and otherwise, have anti-heroes. This novel however features a weak-willed, cowardly, conniving and downright self-centered boy who truly doesn’t care about anyone or anything outside of his own interests. He’s such a weasel! Not only is it his nickname, but his name, Galen, apparently means weasel in Solamnic (a culture of Ansalon you learn all about in the Dragonlance books and D&D game supplements).
He’d make a better villain than hero, but circumstances thrust him into the role anyway. On top of that, he thinks that maybe rolling a pair of red, twelve-sided Calantina dice will help him predict what may happen next or if the odds are in his favor. It’s the most meta thing I’ve ever seen in a D&D novel, since it’s so close to what we do as we play RPGs.
Michael Williams is the poet of many of the poems and songs found in Dragonlance novels. Here, the narrative is a loosely-structured free verse of The Weasel’s contempt, snide remarks and thoughts (some are downright hilarious), and his lies which are brilliantly constructed right before his unfortunate companions’ eyes. Will Galen’s machinations unintentionally wind up saving the day? You’ll have to read it to find out.
Dungeons and Dragons: The Movie, by Neal Barrett, Jr.
The movie starring Jeremy Irons, Justin Whalin and Marlon Wayans is pretty funny at times; sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The novel is even funnier because, being a novel; it doesn’t suffer from the limitations of special effects technology nor the deficiencies in acting talent that makes the movie less than stellar. Your imagination can enhance the sight gags, prat falls, bumbling and such. It makes the costumes and sets even more audacious (and the acting as overwrought as you’d like it to be.) So, read and imagine away!
Freed from the distraction of poking fun at the movie, you begin to realize that the plot is actually interesting. It’s an homage to the beloved role playing game, chock full of all the things we love about it. It has puzzles, traps, devious NPCs who seem helpful – but might not be. It has damsels in distress who turn out to be not quite so helpless after all. It has scares, wonder, silliness, magic, dragons, and a bit of the old morality tale.
It is one of those rare novels that is not only better than the movie, as per usual, but is even heightened if you’ve already seen the film. Reading it with the voices and antics of the film’s actors in mind makes it even funnier. Profion’s megalomaniacal speeches are longer and more frequent here, and yet the speeches are much better when you imagine Jeremy Irons chewing the scenery in them. Snails’ exploits are quite funny in the novel, but downright hilarious if you picture Damon Wayans’ antics from the movie whilst reading the novel.
Sir Apropos of Nothing, by Peter David
This book is straight up satire, lovingly poking fun at all the tropes and conventions of high fantasy. In it, we see a new fantasy world through the eyes of a lowly squire named Apropos. Like ‘Weasel’s Luck’, this unlikely hero tells the tale in a first-person narrative. In this book however, the humor comes not only from the rather unheroic qualities of our storyteller, but also from practically everything else too. Even the map of this land has satirical touches. Will Apropos of Nothing dare to venture into the Flaming Nether Regions? Will he have a Mont Clair moment further north? It only gets funnier from there.
[Editor’s Note: Peter David also penned 48 issues of the Aquaman title for DC Comics in the 1990s. It’s admittedly short on laughs, but it’s long on brilliant storytelling and highly recommended. -TC]
Swords Against Death, by Fritz Leiber
Fritz Leiber weaves humor into his tales of Fahrd and The Grey Mouser with quite a bit more subtlety than is seen in the aforementioned six books. For the most part, his stories are fairly straightforward swords and sorcery tales of danger and derring-do. But as I read them, I find myself unexpectedly chuckling over Fritz’s descriptions of things, events and the way people feel about them. Brief moments of Laurel and Hardy proportions occur between our heroes when things don’t go their way. They’ll quibble over whose fault it is or who the bigger idiot is for getting the pair into another fine mess. This book, and others Leiber wrote, taught me that humor needn’t be bawdy nor lampoonist to still be incredibly funny. Humor can be found simply in the way one turns a phrase in an unexpected way or sets up a pattern, then, suddenly defies the very logic of it. The counter-play between the large, vaguely Viking-like Fafhrd and the diminutive, roguish Mouser as well as that between gritty realism and astonishing pure fantasy moments, make this book a great read.
My list focused mostly on Dungeons and Dragons, but there are others out there. What are some of your favorite humorous high fantasy stories? Let us know in the Comments section below.