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I was going to write a long response to Adam’s latest dyptych, but my ideas started spinning off tangentially, so I thought it best to just give in and put it down as a separate post.

My attention was snagged by Adam referring to fantasy as a form of Romantic literature. (No, I know that’s not exactly what he said, he was talking about fantasy using Romantic forms, but it’s how I first read it.) I was reading along, nodding my head, then some sentences later did a double take and thought: hold on, no, that’s not right. Yes fantasy does use certain Romantic tropes, but so does practically every other form of genre fiction. But it is not a defining characteristic, its not necessarily dominant (going back to that first post, is there a sense in which ‘dominant’ equates with ‘defining’?).

Let me digress. Adam Roberts is someone I quarrel with almost as much as I quarrel with John Clute, but that is partly because our views are so close together. We both, for instance, see the origins of science fiction as lying in the 16th century. He puts it at the end of the century with Giordano Bruno, which places sf within the Protestant revolution and the changing ways of regarding our world that were consequent on that. I tend to put it at the beginning of the century with Thomas More’s Utopia, which positions sf within the Renaissance and the changing ways of understanding our position vis-a-vis the world that were consequent on that. It’s a subtle difference, but telling in the ways we read the genre.

One of the consequences of Adam’s reading is that he sees science fiction as an inherently Protestant literature (so do I, but not in quite the same way he means), and in opposition to that he positions fantasy as inherently Catholic. [Roberts argues this point in his History of Science Fiction, and I have already rehearsed my critical differences in this review.]

This identity of fantasy with Catholicism is something he does not develop in his book, so I have some problems trying to work out what he means by this, but generously assuming that his views are not too far from my own I suspect that the emphasis on mystery within Catholicism and the idea that the mystery of God which is the mystery of the world must be mediated by a scholar class and cannot be directly understood are what he sees in fantasy. If we take away the overt religious aspects this representation of fantasy is still identifiably what is being written within the genre today: the world is a mystery, there are hierarchies of knowledge, there are things we were not meant to know. And it is this, I think, that is the dominant feature of fantasy, rather than the use of the Romantic mode.

The key to fantasy, I think, is not ‘Romantic’ but ‘Romance’. A romance such as Malory’s Morte Darthur is still recognisably a work of fantasy, and if the language were updated it could be published today as generic fantasy (indeed, there are any number of authors who have done just that).

This does not mean that I am trading on ideas of historical precedence. The literary modes associated with Romanticism did not spring fully formed out of the French Revolution. After all, Tristram Shandy predates postmodernism (and, indeed, Modernism) by a couple of hundred years, but it is still identifiable as a postmodern work. I don’t believe that we can identify characteristics of a literary mode only in literary works that post-date the naming of that mode. Nevertheless, fantasy continues to employ literary tropes and modes that had a distinctive and coherent form long before the admixture of Romanticism, and that distinctive and coherent form was the dominant literary form in Catholic pre-Reformation Europe, the Romance.

1 thought on “Fantasy

  1. Hi Paul,

    I think we’re actually in agreement!

    “is there a sense in which ‘dominant’ equates with ‘defining’?”

    Yes. For Jakobson, the dominant was a single prosodic (or linguistic—he was a linguist) element that organized all other aspects of the work (in a single work—he started there). It might be helpful to think of it as a constraint, or as the one thing the work needs in order to be a work. Thus, if all of your poems rhyme, then rhyme is dominant. Everything else gets subordinated to that. (“Crap! I can’t think of a word that rhymes there!…OK, I’ll revise the grammar in the second line so it ends with ‘bale,’ so I can end the fourth line with ‘hale.'”)

    But there can be more than one dominant. In a sonnet, both rhyme and meter, and a certain line count, and a certain subject matter, and a certain approach to that subject matter are all dominant. The form is what is dominant: you must submit to a lot of constraints (which is why writing a sonnet is difficult).

    Jakobson next extends this idea beyond a single work to argue that, in certain times and places, certain /forms/ (or single devices) are dominant. Thus, the Language poets all share a concern with parataxis. It’s a dominating element in their work, and common to all of their work. It defines their group identity. The New Formalists are defined in contrast with their revival of forms like the villanelle and sonnet and pantoum and sestina. And a poet in the 1980s might be either a Language poet or a New Formalist. The Language poets perceived themselves as writing *in opposition* to the New Formalists.

    Jakobson also says that certain /media/ can be dominant. Thus he argues that the Romantic Era was dominated by music; all other art forms bowed before it. I don’t know if I’d go that far myself, but there does seem to be a *certain* truth to it, which we echo today when we say things like, “Cinema was the dominant form of the 20th century, and literature is less important now than it was 100 years ago.” I think we’d agree that, for the most part, contemporary opera isn’t too dominant for most people—most people don’t even know it exists. (Although, between 1975 and 1990 or so, lots of musicians knew about it, and Philip Glass and Robert Wilson and JOhn Adams and Robert Ashley were pretty influential.)

    I’m less concerned with identifying a complete list of dominants, or the years in which they were dominant, than I am in describing the concept (for now). I do think that Jakobson’s right: in any given work, in any given scene, in any given time and place, certain components and qualities and forms (and perhaps even media) seem “more important” (and therefore more controlling, and more defining) than other ideas.

    Later critics, like Brian McHale, have pointed out (rightly, I think), that to some extent the critic brings the dominant to the artwork. (He’s performing a postmodernist revision of Jakobson’s idea.) In some cases the dominant is obvious; I can tell you what a Petrarchan sonnet is. But, as Yvor Winters would argue, why do we think that Petrarchan sonnets are the defining form of the Elizabethan Era? It’s at least in part because the later Romantics adored those sonnets, and those writers, and singled them out, and made them “the best” writers of that Era. At the time, there were other writers who didn’t write Petrarchan sonnets; no one is ever doing all the same thing. But we don’t read those poets today, really. They’ve been excluded from the canon. Winters went so far as to compose an alternate canon, and argue that we should pay more attention to the “plain” writers of the time, the “anti-Petrarchans,” and less attention to the “sonneteers.”

    I mention this not because I necessarily agree with Winters, but because I agree with McHale that we shape our impressions of the past through our criticism. And the winners write history.

    There was a period that we now call Romantic literature proper (1798–1900, let’s say), when we see certain ideas and devices as being dominant in the work. (No doubt we’re ignoring a lot of artists when we do this. For instance, I’m sure people were writing rationalist, Neoclassic poetry in 1850.)

    “fantasy does use certain Romantic tropes, but so does practically every other form of genre fiction”

    Yes, I very much agree! My basic question is: what happened to those Romantic ideas and devices come fin de siècle? Where did they go when Romanticism “ended”? And one place where you can see them being “kept alive,” so to speak, is in genre fiction–including fantasy. Among other places: I mentioned country music, 60s counter-culture, rock, heavy metal…

    Sci-fi keeps them alive in many ways. But sci-fi is also concerned with other things. There’s a reason why fantasy lit “outlaws” laser guns, while sci-fi allows its characters to carry them. And there’s a reason why some readers will put down a novel the moment a laser gun appears (they’re more classically Romantic, and they don’t want to read about modern machinery). They want Morg MacKa’an battling waves of some orcs with a bloody enchanted sword (“With my eldritch blade shall I smite these ensorceled hell-spawn!”). Meanwhile, other readers want to read about Byx Bryzz’nyn and his fission-powered rocket ship. They would seem more classically Rationalist than their romantic genre fiction bedfellows. Even though Byx spends uses his rocket ship (“The Enlightenment”) to visit alien worlds with monstrous flora and youth who never age.

    I’m not speaking only about tropes, however. A trope can be dominant, yes. But many things can.

    I completely agree with you that the origins of sci-fi lie a very long time ago. Fantasy, too—of course! Obviously the Romantics resurrected certain ideas in the Romance, which is a very old form indeed. They knew they were doing it! But before them, the Romance has “gone underground,” so to speak. And it “went underground” (surrendered to other dominants) again after 1900. Or whenever. It was revived in the 1960s, then went underground again in the 70s and 80s and early 90s, and then arose again in the late 90s through the present. But different, of course, because times are different.

    An illustration from music. It’s the late 50s and early 60s, and Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley are playing relatively simple (but brilliant) Rock ‘n’ Roll. Kids are stomping their feet, clapping their hands, having sex in the back of automobiles. All Is Good.



    1963/4. The British Invasion happens. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones take over Rock ‘n’ Roll. And all is Good at first, because these musicians are playing music similar to Holly and Diddley.


    But by 1967–9, something different is happening. Rock is still dominant in music, people are still playing electric guitars, but the songs aren’t the same. They’re longer, more noodly, more improvised. Kids are smoking weed, having sex in open fields. Some like this, sure.



    Others follow suit. By the early 70s, rock has gotten very complex.


    …But some don’t. By 1973–74, some are yearning for the simplicity of the late 50s/early 60s. They miss Rock’s anarchy and sloppiness—concerns they consider more dominant that studio tricks and syncopated guitar parts.

    So they form bands like the Ramones and Talking Heads, and you get punk. A return to simplicity.



    It didn’t last long, of course. Talking Heads quickly got pretty complex. (You can see that even from the start they wanted to do something “trickier.”) Bands like Television came in and fused prog with punk.


    But some bands wanted to keep punk rock “simple.” So you get hardcore bands.



    The 80s saw this kind of music go underground, replaced by pop and New Wave and hair metal, early hip hop. But in the late 80s/early 90s, it resurfaces in things like grunge.



    Check out that Nirvana video! They knew what they were doing–that this was a “return” to a “simpler time”—and how that simple rock had been kept alive over the previous two decades. (Kurt Cobain was a tremendous music scholar.)

    Returning to your above post, yes, Romanticism has its own influences and origins (the Romantics were very upfront about this); culture is a long ongoing conversation. My point is precisely that: to treat it more as an ongoing conversation, rather than some reinvention every fifty or thirty or ten years. I think we lose too much when we look at Eras as complete revolutions with the past. (Frank Kermode calls that approach “apocalyptic thinking.”)

    Nothing ever goes away. Ideas and forms and concerns and tropes and what-have-you rise and fall (in different combinations) in importance, and popularity. As they recombine, we get different things. Rock ‘n’ Roll isn’t the same as the British Invasion, isn’t the same as punk, isn’t the same as hardcore, isn’t the same as alternative or grunge…

    Ask the fans; they’ll argue for a very long time about why, say, No Wave was better than First Wave punk, or vice versa. Music nerds *adore* inventing millions of genres, subgenres, subsubgenres… Hence you get hardcore, straight edge, grindcore, noisecore, emocore, and so on… Hillbilly punk, dance punk, art rock, riot grrl, and so on… But they’re not really the total revolutions they each claim to be. They belong to long lineages.


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