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The Problem of Puns in Fantasy Fiction



It’s a tough one, this. You’re reading a fabulous fantasy novel and the author rips out a zinger, a pun, a marvellous piece of word play. It’s charming. It’s funny. It’s rich with imagery. And then it hits you: “But this isn’t Earth, and these characters aren’t speaking English.” The joke wouldn’t work. The pun wouldn’t work.

We normally give writers a pass on this one. But should we? I’m not so sure.

Here. Let me make up an example of the kind of thing I mean:

As Rolluf got up from his seat at the inn table, Mullek raised his tankard of beer. With a cheeky grin, he said, “I guess ale be seein’ ya later.”

“That’s very funny,” Rolluf said . “Ale. I’ll. Hahahaa.”

Fine in English (if you like that sort of thing), but English puns don’t work in other languages! And Rolluf and Mullek are speaking a fantasy language that we’re reading in English. Words that rhyme in English probably won’t in other languages. A-horse-walked-into-a-bar jokes don’t even translate well into other cultures.

Let’s rewrite Mullek’s bad joke in his original tongue (which I’ll make up live here and now):


As Rolluf got up from his seat at the inn table, Mullek raised his tankard of beer. With a cheeky grin, he said, “Ru heff ala du turegun mee mess malagh.”
“Reh duvire?” Rolluf asked with a confused expression because nothing Mullek had said was funny, or made any sense.

But — and as the bard said, here’s the rub — that book you’re reading about Rolluf and his pun-loving sidekick Mullek needs jokes. It’s needs word play. It needs humor. I personally just think that fantasy humor shouldn’t involve any wordplay that has its basis in English language or syntax

And, while I’m at it, it sure does not need anything that references Western history/tradition/pop culture etc. That one really irritates me as a reader. (And as a writer, I ask my beta readers to beat me mercilessly if I slip into it).

A few years back, I read an Australian medieval fantasy trilogy, one I forced myself to read as punishment for buying all 3 books at once. I’ll never do that again. This trilogy was riddled with Shakespearean references, Biblical phrases and allusions, and sayings that come from Earth’s “Western” culture. God, it annoyed me! In that world, there was no Jesus Christ who talked about hiding your light beneath a bushel (so don’t use the phrase!). There was no Hamlet to make the phrase “to be or not to be” famous (so don’t reference it!).

Okay, okay. I’m breathing. I’m taking a chill pill. Another rant is done.

But what do you think about all this? Am I being too picky?


Published inOn Writing

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