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The Romance of Fantasy

Temptation by KejaBlankRomance isn’t a word that we usually think of as being inseparable from fantasy; some people enjoy love stories with their fantasy and others vehemently object to them. But romance is not simply about love as it is represented in the modern romance genre. Look up romance in the dictionary and you will find a variety of different meanings, among them:

“A quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life” – Oxford Dictionary

“A spirit of or inclination for adventure, excitement, or mystery” – Collins Dictionary

“A mysterious, exciting, sentimental, or nostalgic quality, esp one associated with a place” – Collins Dictionary

Sound familiar? Even when fantasy stories don’t involve a love story, many could still be considered romantic. And it seems that even the roots of fantasy are entwined in romance.

Medieval Chivalric Romance

Knights, dragons, quests, magic, monsters, adventure – many of fantasy’s most traditional tropes can be found in the chivalric romance of the High Medieval period. These stories incorporated myth and folklore, weaving them together with real history in much the same way that fantasy does today.

Tristan and Isolde by Ed KoMost of these romances involved tales based on one of three main themes, three cycles of stories: the ‘Matter of Rome’ (concerning Alexander the Great mixed with events of the Trojan War), the ‘Matter of France’ (concerning Charlemagne and Roland), and the ‘Matter of Britain’ (concerning King Arthur and his knights, and the quest for the Holy Grail). Interestingly, after a time, the use of magic in these tales began to change a little – an inherently magical being might now be presented as a human who has to work to learn magic – suggesting that the popularity of high/low magic settings came and went, just as it does today.

What set the romances aside from other epic tales of the time was the inclusion of fantastical elements, an emphasis on the exploits of the individual, and the importance of love and courtly manners. This focus on the love story grew in popularity in the stories, with major themes involving the rescue of a lady from a monster, love sickness and devotion, faithfulness in the face of hardship, and true and noble love. The sentiments and ideas about love found in these stories certainly do not reflect modern attitudes, but they do show that even in fantasy’s roots, the genre has been heavily associated with the love story.

Fairy Stories

The Frog Prince by Scott GustafsonEven before these medieval romances, fairy stories and folklore have associated tales of the fantastic with tales of love and courtship. Stories like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Rapunzel – in most cases oral traditions that were fixed in the 17th and 18th centuries by writers such as Perrault and the Brothers Grimm – and tales such as those found in One Thousand and One Nights combine magic, monsters, adventure and love. Even the myths and epics of the ancient world demonstrate how well romance and love stories mix with the weird and magical, and how long they have been doing so.

Authors such as Hans Christian Anderson (who also collected traditional fairy tales) and George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin) used the themes found in fairy stories to write their own original tales. The influence of fairy tales on both modern fantasy and romance is also obvious, not to mention the many fairy tale retellings and adaptations to be found on the fantasy shelves.

The Romance Movement and the Gothic Novel

In the 18th century, Gothic romance combined love and its effects with a strong sense of awe and dread; many of these stories used supernatural elements along with a focus on human psychology and emotions.

Jane Eyre by Fritz EichenbergThe Romance Movement saw a focus on these grand themes, particularly on creating feelings of awe and mystery, often in combination with the supernatural, in all forms of art. Authors that we might consider horror or fantasy writers today, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker were considered romantic authors at the time. Even H. G. Wells’ novels, some of the earliest science fiction, were known as scientific romances. More “traditional” love stories such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights also link love with a sense of the supernatural and the deep mystery of the world.

The kind of romance presented here is a very different kind from the courtly love of the medieval romances, or even the romances of the fairy stories. These are stories of awe and mystery, whether it be from the unfathomable power of the supernatural, the fearsome power of nature/science, or the all-consuming and untameable power of love. In stories like Dracula, seduction is presented as something strange and a little terrifying, linked to the paranormal. The influence of these romances can be seen today in much paranormal fantasy, weird fantasy, horror, dark fantasy and even science fiction, whether it involves an actual love story or not.

The Modern Fantasy and Romance Genres

Oath by wlopFantasy began to emerge as its own genre towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Some of fantasy’s founders, including William Morris and later Tolkien, were heavily influenced by chivalric romances and folklore, and it clearly shows in their works. Others, including pulp magazine writers and authors such as H. P. Lovecraft, show the influence of Gothic novels and the Romance movement. The romance of the strange and unknowable has long been vital to our genre, and the love story has been enriching tales of magic and adventure for as long as we have been telling them.

As for the romance genre as we know it today, this developed out of both the tradition of novelists like Jane Austen, with an emphasis on sentimental feeling, love and marriage, who were themselves partly influenced by the chivalric romances, and the tradition of Victorian romance and Gothic novels, with an emphasis on passion, danger, and overwhelming emotions. Many modern books will combine elements of both.

Romance by robhefferanBoth fantasy and romance then, can be seen as sister genres, sharing a common ancestry. It is also not unusual to see a combination of fantasy and romance today, in both the fantasy and romance genres, with paranormal romance as a subgenre of both. They even share a bond in how they are perceived; for as long as they have existed, these kinds of stories have been considered silly and fanciful, not ‘real’ literature. In the Victorian era, there was a distinction between ‘romances’ and ‘novels’, a distinction that is not dissimilar to our ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ today. Despite this, both romance and fantasy are popular, deeply loved and loyally defended by their fans.

So, whether or not you enjoy or object to love stories in your fantasy, they are far from incompatible. Fantasy, in a sense, was born out of romance, and its history has been entwined with it in its many forms. The romance between fantasy and romance has been a long one, and will most likely continue for a long time yet…perhaps even happily ever after.

Title image by wlop.

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3 Comments

  1. Erica says:

    I think romance arc hatred is overstated. I can’t think of much fantasy without some kind of love story. They don’t always end well, and with some of those old serial S&S stories (like Fafherd and the Gray Mouser), they’d have new love interests with each story (a bit like James Bond, together at the end of a story, alone again at the start of the next one), but I’m really racking my brain trying to think of stories where characters don’t have some kind of fling or infatuation, at least

    Hmm, a recent books by Carol Berg, and maybe some grimdark come to mind, but that’s about it.

    While not essential, I loves me a good love story, personally. I don’t tend to read genre romance much, but characters seem more vulnerable, human and relatable to me when they fall in love.

  2. I hate it when a romance is shoehorned into a fantasy story merely because the author obviously thinks he/she has to have a romance, either because it’s fantasy or to supposedly satisfy readers. If it fits perfectly into the story, then I’m fine with it as long as it doesn’t become the main plot. However, I’m happiest if there is no romance at all, or (like in Lord of the Rings), if the romance is one of the smallest of numerous subplots and still beautifully done. My own novel Starscape has no love story.

  3. Interesting article and I agree that romance within fantasy is often misunderstood. It’s not about stuffing the genre into a fantasy novel for the sake of it. Romance can take on many forms within fantasy.

    Although I do enjoy the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, I’m not a fan of romance. In saying that, when well written, it can bring another layer to a fantasy story. In some cases, it is the ‘romance’ itself that drives a fantasy story, i.e. Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust”. Another example already mentioned is Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, in being the classic love story wherein the gothic horror is more subplot (and brilliantly well done).

    Love and hate go hand in hand within a fantasy story. They are the emotions that drive a character. We need both to create passion. It’s getting the right balance that matters.

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