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.