This article is the first in a four part series which defines the four major types of fiction.
When most of us hear the word “romance,” it is generally linked with the love story genre. This may be one meaning of the word; it is not its only definition. Merriam-Webster’s defines “romance” as: “(1) a medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural; (2) a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous or mysterious.” Then it adds the love story definition.
The Way of the Romantic is fraught with peril, but it also carries the most important element of all: aspiration. Technically, Romanticism, as styled by most academics today, probably dates to the Middle Ages as Webster’s notes. But medieval fiction is a rather obscure branch of study, and most of us are unfamiliar with it. Yes, people may talk about King Arthur or Dante’s Inferno or Robin Hood, but the fact is that many of us only know the modern incarnations of these heroes and tales.
For example, Dante wrote a great epic entitled The Divine Comedy, of which the Inferno is merely the first part. Nearly all current college courses which study Dante stop at the Inferno, leaving his Purgatorio and Paradisio untouched. This creates a sad state of affairs wherein the student is left languishing in Hell, thus deprived of the cleansing of Purgatory and the subsequent ascension to Paradise. And the Robin Hood of the Middle Ages was quite different from the one we think we know today. The modern portrayals of King Arthur range from good to poor, with an excellent adaptation appearing every now and then.
Modern Romanticism began with the transcendentalist movement in the mid-1800s. It was a rejection of the doctrine of the Puritans and the socio-economic evils of that time, which, the transcendentalists believed, had reduced men to mere machines who were going nowhere fast. It may be seen thereby as a reaction to the explosive increase of industry, along with its resulting economic and cultural growing pains. The overemphasis of scientists on physical experience did not help, as it led many people to lose their awareness of the spiritual.
The early Romantics sought to bring back the spiritual with their writings. They understood, at least instinctively, that fiction’s main aim is not to teach men how to live but to make them want to live. Romanticism, because it encourages man to reach for spiritual heights, is the type of fiction most suited to doing this. Early authors of this movement like Emerson, Thoreau, Whittier, and others got that right. But they went about proving their point in the worst way possible.
Their Romanticism praised the ideal situation over the real one to such a degree that now, generations later, we still suffer from their excesses. Ever think that life on a farm is romantic, beautiful, and stress free? It is pastoral, and it is definitely beautiful, but even today it can be backbreaking work which will “bend and twist [men] until it buries them in the ground!” (Bernardo O’Reilly from The Magnificent Seven.)
Examples of overwrought Romanticism abound even today. For instance, many people picture the life of an author as easy-peasy. Write the “Great American Novel,” win fame and fortune, buy a loft in New York City, and you get three ex-wives and a perfect daughter. You may even get a Ferrari and a crime-solving gig in the bargain. (You will find these applied to the hero of Castle.)
Cute dream – but it is only a dream. First come the years of learning your craft, finding your voice, and then writing something coherent, which will likely need to be edited several times before you can send it to a publishing company. Said company may reject your work despite all the effort you put into it, too. Then you may go on to be rejected more times than you want to count, until someone pays attention to you. Once that is done, you will have to deal with deadlines, the dark side of fame, and other headaches.
Writing is not as easy as the finished product makes it look. Due to the idealistic picture some have drawn of it, most people think being an author is an idyllic profession which removes all worries from life. These false notions we have about writing, farming, and other institutions/classes/peoples are the result of a Romanticism that overindulges in a belief in the powers of man. Famous pioneers in the Romantic Movement of the 1800s such as Emerson praised the individual human being until they practically considered themselves and every man around them a deity. Others glorified a certain class or race, be they stoic farmers, starving “artists”/writers, or “noble savages” until their ideal became most people’s picture of reality.
“So what?” you may say, “Everyone should have a rosy outlook on life at some point.” True, but what happens when you insist on maintaining such childish beliefs into adulthood? You naïvely lead other people down the same road with you, to their and society’s detriment. If you should go glibly tripping down the Via Romantica (Way of the Romantic), swinging your basket full of cookies on your way to Grandma’s house, who will recognize the danger posed by the silver-tongued wolf when he greets you and asks where you are headed? No one.
Let me suggest to you a new version of this tale. Let’s call it Little Romantic Writer (just to be clear, this is not an allegory about yours truly). She is on her way to the publishing house; she has a book and a pen in her hand instead of a basket of cookies. While she is walking down the road she is also writing. She describes the path she is on, the trees, the flowers, the crisp spring air, and the brilliant sunshine around her.
By and by, Little Romantic Writer meets a large snake. The snake rears up and asks where Little Romantic Writer is off to today. Charmed by the beauty of the woods, Little Romantic Writer looks at the snake smiling politely at her, and thinks he is just as good and kind as everything else around her. She tells him not only her destination, but the book she is writing.
Mr. Snake smiles a little more, nods a bit, and agrees with Little Romantic Writer about the beauty of the day. After some time, he humbly asks to be mentioned in the tale. Upon receiving a promise that there will be a “wise serpent” in the book, he lets her go down the road.
Well, while she is trotting away, humming as she goes, the snake slithers back into the woods. There we see it is actually the head and neck of a great and terrible dragon, tall enough to pass for a mountain and hot enough to be mistaken for a volcano. This dragon watches Little Romantic Writer get to the publishing house. He sees copies of her book go out from it, and pretty soon people are coming down the path in droves to meet the “wise serpent.”
For years after this, the dragon gets a free meal of a dozen people a day. Oh, some escape him to warn others not to go down the path because the “wise serpent” is actually a giant dragon, certainly. But enough people keep coming that he stays satisfied.
I think you can see that, if we end the story here, it is not very satisfactory. In her blind assumption that there is no such thing as evil, Little Romantic Writer leads hundreds, if not thousands of people into the jaws of a man-eating dragon. That is what Emerson and others like him did, unintentionally or not, and it has had some bad repercussions for modern society.
However, just because the Via Romantica is perilous does not mean it is evil – or worse, clueless. There will be more on this in Part Four of this series, but let me give you a preview. We left off with this wicked dragon eating the people who come to have a pleasant discussion with the “wise serpent” out in the woods. Little Romantic Writer, who now lives in a palace with her Grandmother, refuses to believe the charismatic snake is the evil dragon that so many people say he is.
Well, those who live in the forest know the wise snake really is a dragon. Although they recognize the beauty of the woods, at the same time they know to avoid the particular path which twists by the dragon’s lair. When they hear about the beast’s daily meals, a number of these people take up arms to go out and fight the monster. Occasionally they save a bunch of hapless travelers from the Cult of the Dragon, but inevitably some of those rescued go back to talk to him and get eaten, for the simple reason that they cannot accept that his evil is real.
A few of the brave people who stand up to the dragon get eaten in the battles against him, while still other fighters are duped into believing that maybe he is not so bad after all. Some of these go off to the publishing house to write more stories like Little Romantic Writer did, while others go up to him at once and are eaten.
Then a woodsman, previously wounded by the dragon, gets an idea. He writes a novel which tells the truth about the monster and brings it to the publishing house, where it is printed and thousands of copies are sold.
Now that there is a story out there which tells the truth about the dragon, people stop coming down the path and his food supply starts to dry up. This makes it easier for the woodsmen to fight him, allowing them to drive the dragon away from the path. This makes it safe for travel again and the world goes back to normal.
The point of this exercise is to demonstrate the difference between the Blind Romantic and the Wise Romantic. The Blind Romantic paints pictures of rainbows, unicorns, and candy trees even while the dragon is eating her readers. The Wise Romantic, knowing man cannot defeat this dragon by his own power, reaches for the only weapon that can really harm him: the truth. I have used Emerson as an example of a Romanticist who overestimates man. Now I will contrast him with a Romanticist who knew you had to be careful when you spoke to dragons: J. R. R. Tolkien.
Unlike Emerson, Tolkien recognized that man is a fallen creature, prone to sin and disgrace. The “One Ring to rule them all” in his epic fantasy is irresistable to the denizens of Middle-earth. Even Gandalf the Grey, an incarnate angel or Istari, refuses to accept the Ring. “Do not tempt me!” he tells Frodo, explaining that if he held the Ring, its corrupting power would turn him into another Sauron. Much as he wishes to help Frodo and relieve him of his burden, he knows the risks to Middle-earth far outweigh the gain of aiding his friend. And so he refuses the Ring even though it is freely offered to him.
What would a Blind Romantic do here? Most likely he would have had Gandalf take the Ring, struggle with it, and overpower it before it reached Mount Doom. Or said Blind Romantic would make the Ring have no power over Gandalf because he was already perfect. And you would think, incarnate angel that he is, that the wizard would be impervious to the Ring’s power.
Yet Tolkien takes the path of the Wise Romantic. Gandalf recognizes that he is not strong enough to avoid succumbing to the Ring’s power if he holds it, so he refuses to accept it when it is offered to him. Let us, too, consider what Tolkien did to Frodo at the end of his quest. Having withstood the Ring’s temptation for nearly a year and carried it to the heart of its master’s territory, where its power is strongest, Frodo does not cast the Ring away. He claims it and puts it on, nearly undoing all his hard work. Why? Did he suddenly turn evil?
No, Frodo did not turn evil. The reason he falls to the Ring’s power is because he is weak. I do not mean he is weak in a bad sense, like a man who cannot resist a drink or a hand at cards. No, Frodo is as weak as the rest of us; we are fallen creatures in a fallen world, prone to sin and evil. Like St. Paul says we do what we don’t want to do, and what we do want to do, we don’t.
Frodo wants to toss the Ring into the fire, but he is so spiritually and physically run down he doesn’t have the will to do it anymore. Even if that was not the case, it is probable he still would not have been able to resist the Ring in that moment. Isildur couldn’t, and he was far fresher than Frodo when he was urged to throw it into the Crack of Doom.
In closing, it is important to remember that, while all can become wise, the blind may only gain wisdom when they can truly “see.” Real travelers on the Via Romantica are those who tell stories with a mood of spiritual aspiration. This Romantic Writer recognizes that “man does not live by bread alone” because he is a spiritual as well as a physical creature. This Romantic realizes that man has a destiny outside of time and space.
However, if a Romantic Writer, questing for recognition of the spiritual, exults in the finite, transitional, or impossible, he is not advocating a path to Heaven. Unintentionally or not he is promoting a path to Hell, either in this life or the next.
So don’t fear the Way of the Romantic, future writers, but tread it carefully and beware of “serpents” lying in the road. The forest is beautiful, but it is also inhabited by man-eating dragons. Make sure you do not end up on the menu.