Romanticism and Fantasy: A Prelude

Romanticism and Fantasy: A Prelude

Caspar Friedrich: Wanderer Above the Sea of FogI’ve been thinking over the past few days about last week’s post on William Blake and fantasy. I’ve come to realise that post is actually just the start of a much larger project.

I mentioned last week that I agreed with John Clute’s argument that the mid-eighteenth century was the era when fantastika — sf, fantasy, and horror — came into being. I’ll go further. I think the era that followed, the Romantic era of English literature, represented the dawn of fantasy as we know it; and that the major writers of that time pioneered approaches to fantasy, and elements of fantasy fiction, that are still in use today. I’ve realised now that I want to write about this general subject: Romanticism as the start of modern fantasy. But the more I thought about it, the more different connections I found between fantasy and Romanticism. So many, in fact, that I’ve also realised that there’s no way I can cover them all in one post.

I therefore intend to explore those connections in a series of upcoming essays. It’ll be an irregular series, I expect, interspersed with posts about more contemporary elements of fantasy as well. I anticipate it being wide-ranging. There are a lot of different aspects to Romanticism, and it’s a topic and a time that’s endlessly fascinating to me.

The NightmareI want to write posts about each of the other five major English poets of the time; and may yet end up revisiting Blake. I want to write a post about gothic novels. I want to write about the politics of the time, and how they played into Romantic thought and ideology, and perhaps glance at how that brew of revolution and nationalism has played out since. I want to talk about the general cultural trends of the time — music, art, and the drama. I want to write about the more minor writers of the era, about magazines and essayists and the development of popular culture. I want to write about storm and stress; about folklore, fairy tales, fraudulent epics, and Faustus; about magic, and Mont Blanc, and myth. I want to write about some of the most powerful writing in the English language; about a time, as it was said, when great spirits on Earth were sojourning.

I also want to be clear that I’m writing about today’s fantasy, or about something indivisible from it. That is specifically the point I want to make, or at least the intuition that I hope to prove; that Romanticism and contemporary fantasy are essentially the same thing, expressions of the same impulse. Romanticism was the first attempt to explore the subjects and themes we now find in fantasy — the first consciousness of fantasy as fantasy, of the fantastic story as bearing a special relationship to the real world.

J.M.W. Turner: The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken upWilliam Wordsworth wrote about nature — about the pre-industrial landscape, and specifically about the sublime in nature — in a way that resonates with later fantasy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in addition to writing fantasy in verse, wrote criticism which attempted to analyse the impulse to fantasy, and the way it worked on the reader’s mind; he was the first critic of fantasy fiction. George Gordon, Lord Byron, became the inspiration for the figure of the aristocratic vampire; in his life and work, villainy is consciously fantastic. Percy Shelley, his friend and in many ways opposite, wrote political fantasies influenced by the gothic, showing how to unite a radical sensibility with fantasy. And John Keats wrote of aesthetic otherworlds, drawing inspiration from myth and folktale to depict “realms of gold” clothed in sensuous language — a uniting of concrete style and unreal content that has to be considered directly relevant to fantasy writing.

It is of course true that most or all of these writers have inspired contemporary writers by their life and work. Off the top of my head, you can find Coleridge in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Shelley and Byron and Keats in Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard, Byron again in John Crowley’s Lord Byron’s Novel, Keats in Dan Simmons’ magnificent Hyperion sequence. But I’m less interested in the relevance of their work to specific modern creators than I am in the general meaning of their accomplishments. I think they, and other writers of their time, were beginning the literature of the fantastic as a conscious tradition, and interrogating fantasy as a form to see what it could do. My suspicion is that there are lessons in their work about fantasy still to be learned.

John Martin: Sadak in Search of the Waters of OblivionWhen I wrote about the development of heroic fantasy, and identified Sara Coleridge as the first heroic fantasy writer, I mentioned that to me part of the importance of this attribution was that it seemed to insist on the direct link between modern fantasy and the Romantics; seemed to definitively extend the fantasy tradition to those writers. What I want to do now is go further, and write about what that means, and how those writers are fantasists.

So, what is Romanticism, then? This is a difficult question. It’s a term that was applied after the fact to the writing and thought of an era in Western Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth; it has specific reference to art and literature, but also describes the politics and general mentality of the time. You’d expect, then, that there would be some kind of common thread among the great writers and thinkers of the era. But this is not really the case. They are, fundamentally, individuals; idiosyncratic. You can find connections between almost any two writers, maybe among three, but beyond that you’ll probably start finding more contradictions than coherencies.

It is broadly true that Romanticism was a reaction against the neoclassical culture of the earlier eighteenth century; against the Age of Reason. But that reaction took many forms. You might think of the Romantics as points along a circle drawn around the Age of Reason. All of them have their backs turned to the inside of the circle, facing away from Reason, but this also means that they’re all looking outward in different directions — if, sometimes, with overlapping fields of vision.

Francisco Goya: The Sleep of Reason Produces MonstersC.S. Lewis once identified seven different meanings ascribed to the word “romantic” — quite apart from ‘having to do with love.’ It may be worth talking about Romanticism as a collection of different, though sometimes related, characteristics. Among them, borrowing in part from Lewis, one might isolate: 1) A fascination with writing that rejected precedent and the critical precepts of the Age of Reason; especially older, medieval, writing (The word ‘Romanticism’ comes from this meaning, an interest in the medieval romances — adventure stories and Arthurian tales); 2) a fascination with the common folk of a nation, particularly the popular stories and songs of the peasants; 3) an interest in the sublime, in the shocking and overwhelming, in awe and horror; 4) an interest in the aberrant, the unusual, especially unusual states of mind; 5) an interest in the self, in the personality of the individual — especially of the individual artist; 6) an interest in revolution, in the overturning of the established order; 7) a fascination with nature and depictions of nature; 8 ) an interest in the aesthetic, and in the creative power of the artist.

I’d say in addition to the above that Romanticism and Romantic literature examined what we now call the unconscious. It was, in fact, Coleridge who introduced the word “unconscious” into English. Dreams, repressions, and the irrational part of the psyche were common themes for Romantic writers. Obviously that’s immediately important for fantasy. But one can go further, and say that the current understanding of the human mind, with reason dwarfed by the unconscious, by matter repressed and unacknowledged, was born in the Romantic era. Blake in particular seems to directly prefigure Freud.

But if Romanticism frequently seems almost disturbingly modern, it’s also notable for its contrasts with other current artistic trends. Specifically, there’s a strong interest today in reaching beyond the self, beyond one’s own awareness of the world, to find out about the different experiences of different people, particularly people of a different culture or background. Although it was in fact during the Romantic era that the idea of ‘otherness’ was first enunciated, Romanticism by and large is uninterested in this approach. Romanticism is a literature of the self; it is, one might say, the record of the exploration and discovery of the self, the uncovering of the hidden parts of one’s own psyche. The other exists in order to define the self; and so Romantic writing is filled with doubles and doppelgangers, counterparts and reflections.

Jacques-Louis David: The Death of MaratIndeed, if Romanticism is uninterested in the other, it may be because the self was only just coming into being. On a social level, many nations were taking on their contemporary forms, and, in doing so, developing Romantic myths of their pasts and their fundamental nature — Romanticism, in this sense, has to do with nationalism. But on an individual level, I think a more important level, Romanticism probed deeper into previously-unacknowledged levels of the psyche in order to find hidden truths. To redefine the human, and insist on the value of human art.

The Romantic writer or artist took on the role of an inspired creator; a prophet. The artist, before this, was a craftsman. After Romanticism, the artist was a visionary. At its best, this was a powerful statement of the role of the artist and of art, an insistence on the validity of that art and of the aesthetic experience. Romanticism established a kind of holiness in poetry, affirming the meaning of art. You could say that the sense of the divine, to some extent displaced from traditional religion by the advent of Reason, found a new home in art.

I think again there’s relevance here for fantasy. Fantasy fiction insists on its difference from everyday life, from the world as we regularly experience it. That is what it means to be fantastic: to be in opposition to reality as it’s commonly understood. The fantasy story insists on its status as a thing apart from life and mimesis of that life; insists on its existence as a fiction, as an artificial construction, as a product of language. And it insists implicitly that it has value quite aside from its immediate application to reality — apart from whatever actual information it gives us, apart from whatever obvious moral it may or may not have. The fantasy insists on the importance of a story as a story. To me, that is an insistence on the value of art. And it is an inherently Romantic stance.

Jacques-Louis David: Napoleon Crossing the AlpsIs Romanticism, is the Romantic era, directly relevant to today’s world? As with most eras, in some ways yes and in some ways no. But then, if you as a writer of a given time write about any other period, you will make it relevant to your own time, because you will find in it those elements that matter to you. I’m hoping to establish that we can find in Romanticism elements that matter to fantasy, to the writing of our own era.

I will readily admit that this is a period that speaks to me, in the sense that the literature of Romanticism has seemed particularly powerful to me, particularly critical, since I first read it twenty years ago. If I as a Canadian nevertheless have some trepidation in writing about European history, and specifically English history; about trying to define the literature and experiences of a culture connected with, but different from, my own — still, I speak and write English, and to understand that heritage I must understand the language and history of England. This is part of that process. It’s a process that’s important to me because the literature of this time is important to me, in its accomplishment and its themes. And I think trying to articulate the importance I find in Romanticism means trying to articulate its importance to the genre of writing that appeals to me both as writer and reader.

My argument, my intuition, is that Romanticism is where fantasy, as such, got its start. It is an argument I look forward to articulating over the course of the posts to come.

Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His new ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nathan Long

This was very interesting, and I look forward to reading your further essays. I believe you are right that all fantasy can to some extent trace its roots back to the romantic movement, but I think there are other sources as well.

I was having a conversation the other day about early sword and sorcery, and it occurred to me that a lot of it seemed to stem from the lush Orientalism that was popular in the Victorian era. I guess this is a kind of romanticism as well, but counter to what you were saying, it IS the romanticism of the other – the romanticism of the exotic and the “uncivilized” which appealed to men who felt confined by the stuffy and overcivilized strictures of their calling card and drawing room lives. H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, all were primarily writers of Oriental adventures (sometimes with fantasy elements) but their stories greatly influenced the pulp fantasists that followed them.

Hmmm. I wonder if you could say that the followers of the Romantic poets became the founders of high fantasy, while the followers of the Orientalists became the founders of low fantasy or sword and sorcery? Probably not, and I bet a lot of people will be able to poke holes in that theory, but whatever. It’s interesting to think about anyway.

Anyhow, thanks for the insightful essay. I look forward to more!


Hmm. I think that the later chivalric romances shaded into fantasy, because they used marvels that weren’t even believed in as far off possibilities. Orlando Furioso underscored this with its hippogriff, when griffons were supposed to eat horses.

Though it did kinda go on hiatus until the Romantics revived it.

Sarah Avery

You might want to take a look at Eileen Gregory’s book H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines. She gives the best description I’ve ever seen of how concepts of literary lineage work. Charges of escapism and decadence turn out to be surprisingly important. She also offers some rare and fascinating biographical insights into why the high modernists were so eager to denigrate the Victorian and Romantic writers who are closest to the fantastika you’re looking at.

You don’t need to know or care much about Hilda Doolittle to follow her argument. If I remember correctly, nearly all her discussion on how writers fabricate their lineages is in the second chapter.

[…] in a series of posts about Romanticism and the development of fantasy. You can find prior posts here, here, here, and here. I intend in this series to focus primarily on Romanticism in British […]

[…] posts about Romanticism and the development of fantasy fiction; you can find previous installments here, here, here, and here. To recap so far: I’ve looked at the emergence of the fantastic in English […]

[…] represents a tradition (or group of traditions) that reaches back at least to William Morris — I’d argue well before him. I felt that weakened your piece in a number of […]

[…] the writers of that time pioneered approaches and techniques to fantasy still in use today. I wrote an introduction to the series, then talked about the 18th-century background that gave rise to English Romanticism. […]

[…] English Romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The series began with this introductory post, continued with an overview of the neo-classical eighteenth century the Romantics revolted against, […]

[…] English Romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The series began with this introductory post, continued with an overview of the neo-classical eighteenth century that the Romantics revolted […]

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x