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The Circus as a Fantastic Device


I grew up devouring the works of Ray Bradbury, and I have no doubt that Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man all had an enormous influence on my love of fantasy. Add to that the fact that I grew up in New Jersey, where the dilapidated boardwalks of the Jersey Shore eerily embody the same carnival creepiness, and I suppose it is no wonder that I love stories that feature circuses, carnivals, freak shows or anything at all related to them. And now that I am a little older (and can look two out of three circus clowns in the eye without crying), and having just finished Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe, I find myself considering what makes the device so compelling.

The Many Faces of the Circus

I group a pretty broad assortment of devices into my “circus” or “carnival” category: on one end of the spectrum, we have the traditional traveling circus as brilliantly depicted in Genevieve Valentine’s recent Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti or Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao. The focus in these stories is performative: the players in the circus play certain roles which stand either in contrast to or in embodiment of their true natures. Where play ends and player begins is purposefully blurred, and the stories often explore this fuzzy gray area explicitly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the traveling carnival, such as those that Bradbury so adores or the one used in Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. In these stories, the roles that the performers play do matter but they are counter-balanced and contrasted against their lives outside of their performances, and further balanced by the devices employed in their show. The performances matter, but these stories feature an assumption that there is more to the players than their performances. Between these two extremes, lies the Vaudeville circuit that Robert Jackson Bennett explores in The Troupe.

The borders between these variants are fluid, and it is entirely possible that The Encyclopedia of Fantasy is right to call them interchangeable: they share many of the same structural and aesthetic features. What such enterprises represent for the reader is a portal into the world of fantasy. When we read a story that features this device, the circus marks the jumping off point between a representation of reality and the wild adventure of fiction.

As a device, the circus taps into a primal cultural touchstone (you can find my earlier thoughts on such touchstones and their relationship to reader trust here). By the time we are ten, most of us will have had the disorienting experience of going to an amusement park, visiting a fair, or seeing a circus. As a result, we will have already internalized the mental shift that the circus’ superficial fantasy demands of us. The process by which we accept the (clearly fictional) conceit of the real-life circus is close cousin to Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief when reading fiction. By tapping into this physiological and emotional memory, writers who employ the circus as a narrative device boost the signal of their fiction, and significantly accelerate the reader’s acceptance of the story. Everyone, after all, loves the circus.

The Real-world Circus as an Imperfect Portal

Despite its power as a cultural touchstone, the circus is not a perfect portal from reality to fantasy. And part of its strength as a narrative device stems from its very imperfection. When we go to the movies, we experience a complete immersion into the film’s fantasy. If we see the wires, if we see the camera, we scoff and complain about the film’s poor production quality. But at a real-life circus or carnival it is impossible to make such a complete break from reality. Even children will see the carnival worker smoking behind the tent, will catch the cracks in the face paint, or spot the smudges in the hall of mirrors.

This creates a certain level of cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, we want to immerse ourselves in the fiction of the circus, but on the other hand we are unable to divorce ourselves from its seedy reality. As a portal, the real-life circus is flawed. And the fictional portrayals of such circuses rely on that flawed nature by asking us to hold two conflicting thoughts in our head at the same time: that the circus is fake, a glamour, a sham. And that it is real, that the fantasy it asks us to concede is true. If that is not a perfect description of how fantasy – or fiction itself – works, I don’t know what is.

The Circus as a Means of Transition

Many stories that involve the circus device feature young characters signing onto the troupe or at least peaking behind its curtain. Whether it is Bradbury’s Will Halloway, Jim Nightshade, or Douglas Spaulding, Valentine’s Little George, or Bennett’s George Carole, it is children who are the natural window through which we can experience the circus. This extends the portal concept: we run away to join the circus, we transition from a “normal” existence into a fantastical one, and in many ways we grow from the innocence of childhood where we hew closely to the fantasy into the more cynical reality of adulthood where we sneer at the greasepaint.

Circus stories often use a child’s innocent perspective to deepen their basic cognitive dissonance. They use the circus, and their young protagonist’s gradual understanding of its nature as a concrete expression of the dissonance of adolescence. Whether it is Douglas Spaulding, Holden Caulfield, or Katniss Everdeen, every young adult must wrestle with the transition from childhood to adulthood: it is the literal foundation of every bildungsroman ever written.

The Circus as the Anti-Quest

There is an (over-simplistic) interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero that has given us the “hero’s journey” as an almost write-by-the-numbers recipe for fantasy. With its nature as a portal device, its coterie of unusual characters, and its predilection for young protagonists, one might think that circus stories naturally lend themselves to the heroic quest model. It is a tempting theory, but from a thematic perspective, I find that circus stories are almost the anti-thesis of the traditional quest narrative.

Consider the object of the quest: it is an object, an achievement, a moment that is distinct in both time and space. The destruction of the ring in Mount Doom. The recovery of Henwen the Oracular Pig. Such specificity is anathema to the circus: they are traveling shows, by their very nature transient. From the perspective of the performers, there is no quest: there is simply a never-ending progression of indistinct towns. From the perspective of the towns they visit: there is merely a brief sojourn in a fantastical realm. When the circus itself is given a specific goal, as it is in Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, its thematic efficacy is sorely weakened. And when, as in most narrative fiction, our characters create for themselves a tangible goal – as in Valentine’s Mechanique, Bennett’s The Troupe, Howard’s Johannes Cabal, Philip Reeve’s A Web of Air, or Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn – they will leave the confines of the circus to ultimately achieve it. To do otherwise would elide the cognitive dissonance the device relies on.

The Troupe as the Anti-Band of Heroes

The attractions of the circus – in real life as in fiction – are invariably the characters that it invites us to meet. They are always distinct, extremely varied, and most importantly led by a charismatic, engaging, and mysterious leader. In much heroic fantasy, especially in the hero’s journey school of quest fantasies, one might think that a circus offers the perfect source for our hero’s plucky band of entertaining companions. But just as the hero’s quest structure eviscerates the circus’ effectiveness as a narrative device, its performers are the antithesis to the stereotypical band of companions.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy talks about how companions in heroic fantasy tend to either appear in “dirty dozen” configurations (where external circumstances force them together) or as “seven samurai” (where their association to achieve a shared goal is voluntary). Despite their superficial resemblance to a pariah elite, the circus performers by definition do not conform to either configuration. The defining characteristic of circus performers is their independence: both from each other, and from the broader society. This independence further heightens their fantastical disassociation from reality, and gives greater scope for the exploration of character themes. They are not brought together by some external circumstance, even if it might seem that way. Even if – as in Something Wicked This Way Comes – they serve the circus under duress, it is almost always their choices that put them there. Yet despite this, their association is rarely voluntary: they do not share goals with their fellow travelers, and their friendships are tenuous at best. Three threads bind them: the circus master, the circus itself, and the fact that they are all – in some way – broken.

And this represents the greatest departure from either the Dirty Dozen or Seven Samurai trope: in most heroic fantasy, and especially in the bildungsroman, the youthful hero’s companions represent facets of the fully mature ur-hero. From the disreputable thief companion our hero might learn tactical flexibility and cunning wit, the noble knight companion might teach honor in the face of certain death, the magus might teach wisdom, etc. Each companion plays a certain role and embodies a certain facet of the mature hero’s ultimate personality. Not so in a circus story. If anything, the youthful protagonist must build their mature self in opposition to their companions.

And this is something which Bennett nails perfectly in The Troupe. Each of the members of Silenus’ vaudeville troupe is, as all fictional circus performers are, broken. Their fracture lines are intensely private, and tie directly into the themes of the book. The unity with which Bennett structures his story is very impressive, and a significant improvement over his debut Mr. Shivers. But his young hero, George Carole, must navigate the minefields of his companion’s tragic histories. In some cases, he pours salt on their wounds. In others, he is oblivious until almost too late. But he grows to define himself not as an amalgamation of his companion’s value systems, but with a worldview distinctly his own.

And it is this, the defining of oneself, and negotiating the border between fantasy and reality, that lies at the heart of every circus story. It is the primary theme of Valentine’s Mechanique, of Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, and of just about every circus story I have ever read. And I suspect that is a greater truth that lies at the heart of every fantasy. And, for that matter, at the heart of every work of fiction.

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