On Speculative Romance

The etymological root of the word romance is the Old French romanz, which referred mainly to the “vernacular language of France, as opposed to Latin” (OED). While this sense of the word later encompassed other “Romance” languages that derive from Latin, the contrast with Latin remains in the critical sense of the word “romantic” as a style of art or music opposed to “classical.” At some point, the word romance (or rather romanse) comes to mean story or a type of story. In their collection of Medieval Romances (1957), Roger and Laura Loomis tell us that the word roman “was applied indiscriminately to any long narrative in French verse,” but by the end of the Middle Ages it developed a narrower meaning: “a tale of Knightly prowess, usually set in remote times or places and involving elements of the fantastic or supernatural” (x).

John William Waterhouse: La Belle Dame Sans Merci – 1893

The origin of many of these stories from the oral tradition (told in the vernacular) and their less scrupulous content may also help explain the distinction between classical and romantic.

The more distilled sense of “love story,” which dominated twentieth-century pulp fiction and film, developed sometime in the seventeenth century, but of course it is already latent in the chivalric emphasis of medieval romance—one has only to think of Lancelot and Guinevere.

An acute fusion of these variant meanings for romance is found in the second generation British Romantic poet John Keats, who penned the following poem in 1819.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

–John Keats (manuscript version, 1819)

Keats balances sexual rapture and loss in an encounter with the  faery world, natural cycles of loss with intimations of supernatural predation. In this poem we hear medieval romance–a knight seduced by a faery–the macabre danger of the Gothic, and a second generation romantic poet pondering the failure of idealism and subjective desire.

Gothic romances flourish in the eighteenth century by simultaneously sustaining regressive flights into fantastic medieval ballads and insanely intense love stories. For example, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto gigantic helmets fall from the sky to wreak divine vengeance, while the passionate but forbidden love of Matilda and Theodore wreaks havoc.  Medieval revival fades to architecture and religion in Ann Radcliffe as the appearance of the supernatural is resolved into affect and trickery, and the love story emerges to structure narrative resolution. (Oddly, the love stories in Walpole and Matthew Lewis often end in substitution or doubling of the beloved, a sort of displacement that re-inscribes the dominance of the social world.)

While the supernatural dimension of medieval revival is accentuated in Matthew Lewis, it is displaced entirely by scientific hypothesis in Mary Shelley.Whereas in medieval and Gothic romance, the fantastic element is elaborated by way of supernatural incursion (or the appearance of such), the animation of Frankenstein’s daemon is predicated by scientific conjecture, albeit veiled and ambiguous.

By the time Jules Verne is being translated into English in the 1860’s, the term is Scientific Romance, and  Charles Howard Hinton and H. G. Wells thought of what they wrote as Scientific Romance. When Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories–at first this was often reprinting of nineteenth-century Scientific Romances by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells–the label was at first Scientifiction and later Science Fiction. As Science Fiction established itself in mass market paperbacks, the back spine was marked with the acronym SF. But as some writers resisted the narrow implications of Science Fiction, they identified SF with Speculative Fiction, a genre term also applied to Fantasy, a genre that also develops out of nineteenth-century medieval revival and that is increasingly confused with genre sf toward the late twentieth century.

 

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

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