There's a lot of walking around in Fantasy, and I wonder why.
Which is to say: I'm wondering in what sense walking figures as something essential to Fantasy as a mode, after the manner of such generic conventions as systems of magic, dragons and fantastical creatures, medievalised or otherwise historically-determined social logics and so on. Must we have our characters perambulate if we want a proper Fantasy novel? Let's say: part of the joy of Fantasy is the worldbuilding (maps! varieties of landscapes and peoples and locales!) and having your main characters meander about your built-world is the best narrative strategy for showing it off. Fans tacitly acknowledge this when they talk, not entirely derisively, of a ‘Cook’s Tour’ of Fantasyland.
Plus walking is (for many people, if not all) a pleasure, and a pleasure with pre-industrial bona fides, appropriate to the valorisation of the pre-industrial that is often what Fantasy entails. So maybe walking is integral to the mode: or if not walking, then at least riding horses, or sailing sailing-ships, or something similar that puts the characters into pre-industrial motion.
Then again (there’s always a then again) I’m not so sure.
Put it this way: sometimes we walk because we need to get somewhere specific, and sometimes we walk just because we want to walk. Which of these two kinds is the Fantasy walk?
Consider Romanticism. Wordsworth and Coleridge (and others) loved walking for the sake of walking. The Prelude is an epic of walking, and the important thing is always the walk, not the destination—when Wordsworth crosses the Alps it’s the crossing that is the locus poeticus, not the destination (where even was he going? Somewhere in Italy presumably? The poem doesn’t say). As Anne Wallace argues in her Walking, Literature and English Culture (Clarendon 1994) Wordsworth's poetic was a radically pedestrian and peripatetic one; he literally composed his verse by walking it out, and if he didn't have a longer walk in mind he would walk round and round his Grasmere garden, using the rhythm of his feet on the ground to help generate the poetic lines in his head, only afterwards coming inside to write them out. When Seamus Heaney said ‘Wordsworth at his best, no less than at his worst, is a pedestrian poet’ he was only half joking.
But there’s another model of ‘the walk’: pilgrimage. This is an activity with a peculiar resonance nowadays—because if you need to get somewhere specific, someplace far off, for secular reasons nowadays you’d probably take a train, or drive, or fly, or otherwise technologically facilitate your progress. If you have to get somewhere both specific and far away and you elect to walk it will surely be because you have some more than merely secular reason. This might be the traditional pilgrim’s sense that you have travel under your own power to a holy site to be, yourself, holy: to Mecca, to Jerusalem, to Canterbury. But it might be less traditionally specific. Frodo has to go to Mount Doom: he’s not going because the mountain is holy (quite the reverse), but he has to go for magical world-saving reasons that are more than merely mundane business. And, it seems, he has to walk there—the old gag about ‘why doesn’t he hitch a ride on an eagle, then Lord of the Rings could be over by page 25!’ is funny because it so patently misses the point of Tolkien’s text.
All this has its resonance for thoughts I’ve been having about Fantasy as a mode, which thoughts are presently scattered about this blog, a few other places and disposed ungainlily in an ongoing email conversation I’m having with a friend. Some day, if I’m spared, we might find it worthwhile, he and I, pulling these scattered pieces together into something more coherent. For now, I’ll lay my finger on three things that has emerged from our ponderings, to do with the agument that the roots of the late 20th-century boom in commercial Fantasy go back before Tolkien (and Howard, and Fritz Lieber) into the nineteenth-century, and three linked cultural phenomena in particular: (a) the huge resurgence in Victorian/Edwardian interest in medievalism, and Arthurianism in particular; (b) the vast popular culture reach of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and (c) Wagner.
Setting that third aside for a moment (is there much walking around in Wagner’s Ring? I’m not sure there is, actually) I'll pull something out of the Bunyan post linked there by way of moving my argument in this post onward a little. So: Pilgrim's Progress is, as we would now say, a Fantasy: a world full of danger, magic and monsters, through which an ordinary middling protagonist must pass. But because the book is an allegory (a word Tolkien pointedly denied had any applicability to Lord of the Rings) it is necessarily a doubled novel: its fantastical surface story is one text, and its implicit buried real-life story a second. The man called in the novel Christian in this spiritual realm is presumably called something quite different in our material realm: John, say. Paul. George. Adam who knows. It looks odd in the novel that Christian simply abandons his wife and four children to go on his pilgrimage, never to return (scripturally, of course, Christ enjoins his faithful to abandon their earthly duties and follow him, to “let the dead bury their dead” as he puts it). But we have to presume that this abandonment only happens, as it were, in the spiritual realm; that in the material realm he continues living with his family and materially-supporting them as was his duty. The point is, Bunyan's story is not focused on that material life. It is allegorising the spiritual separation that must grow between a husband who has been born again and a wife who hasn't, even if they're still living in the same house.
Indeed, we must assume that this peripatetic narrative describes the actual life of a man called John (or whatever) who himself has most likely never travelled anywhere—who stays all his life in the same town or village where he was born, as almost everybody did in the seventeenth-century. Indeed it's really quite important that the “actual” person Bunyan is writing about doesn't travel, even though his allegorical avatar, Christian, does. That's because one of the things Bunyan is striving for is a clear separation between his story and the (as he saw it) wicked old Catholic rituals of literal pilgrimages. To distinguish between his book and all those dodgy medieval Catholic allegorical romances. As Alec Ryrie argues in his book Protestants: the Radicals who Made the Modern World (2017), Protestants like Bunyan had a complicated relationship to the idea of pilgrimage: on the one hand a Catholic and suspect notion, on the other one that expressed their sense of faith as a journey—‘Protestantism was and is a religion of progress, of restless, relentless advance towards holiness, not of stagnation’ [132-33] is how Ryrie puts it. Bunyan is not saying Christians have actually to schlep to Canterbury, or Rheims, or Jerusalem, the way a Muslim actually must travel to Mecca. He is saying that Christians must undergo spiritual pilgrimages, journeys of faith.Perhaps all the walking-around Fantasy characters engage in is less specifically pilgrimmy in terms of destination, and more the externalisation in terms of story and worldbuilding of a more fundamental, Protestant-y dynamic: progress, not stagnation.
I've had another thought, recently, that relates to this, and to Fantasy as a whole, and it comes out of my re-reading The Faerie Queene. I decided to read the whole thing right through, rather than rely on my piecemeal acquaintance, picked up here and there over the years with this or that episode. To see how it reads as Fantasy.
This time through, one thing in particular has been striking me: an as-it-were larger, plot-structuring thing. The world of the Faiery Queene is, very obviously, divided between goodies and baddies. The former tend to roam around, and the latter tend to be stuck in one place. Good walks (or rides), Evil is homebound. Even limiting ourselves to Book 1 (which is where I am, at the moment): the virtuous Redcrosse Knight, having been led astray by the wicked Duessa, is locked-up in the castle (the chateau, the house) of the wicked giant Orgoglio. Una happens to meet Prince Arthur, riding around the countryside, and he it is who attacks Orgoglio's house, defeats the giant and frees Arthur
The houses of Fairie Queene don't exclusively belong to wicked creatures like Orgoglio, of course. Indeed, even continuing to limit ourselves to Book 1, Una and Arthur bring the Redcrosse Knight to recuperate from his wounds in the House of Holiness, enjoying the hospitality of the House's ruler Caelia and her three daughters. But, on my re-read, I'm struck by how mobile virtue is, and how settled and lair-bound evil.
There's a particular reason this strikes me as odd, since Renaissance British attitudes to vagrancy were, by modern standards extraordinarily harsh. People (that is, common people, folk like thee and me) were supposed to stay where they were. The 1572 Vagabonds Act was a codification of, and by no means any kind of departure from, preceding Elizabethan Poor Laws; and by those laws beggars had to be licensed by the justice of the peace of the parishes to which they belonged (which is to say: where they were born). Unlicensed vagabonds were to be whipped and burned through the ear. Common folk who travelled from town to town could not do so as masterless men: merchants had to belong to a guild, and actors to a company sponsored by a nobleman (as Shakespeare's was: the Lord Chamberlain's Men). Lacking such patronage actors were regarded, legally, as sturdy beggars—an illegal category (those who were well-enough to work could not, legally, beg)—and whipped to the parish boundary. The other type of Renaissance wanderer, or tramp, was the outlaw, and the way to handle them was by hanging them by the neck until dead.
Virtue, in this larger discourse, was a home; a homestead, a place where you belonged and where you should stay. Robert Cleaver famously declared: ‘the household is as it were a little commonwealth’. Moving about, on the other hand, was deeply suspect, and in ideologically multivalent ways. Linda Woodbridge's Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature (University of Illinois Press, 2001) explores the various ways in which vagrants and wanderers were demonised: as shiftless, placeless rogues ‘wily, sexually promiscuous and inherently anarchic ... fomenters of widespread social rebellion’. Interestingly Woodbridge's second chapter shows how Protestant writers like Martin Luther and Simon Fish associated vagrants with the Catholicism they despised. Nor was it just the Prots: ‘For writers like Juan Luis Vives, Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas Elyot, the vagrant poor are “less than human”.’
The world of Faerie Queen presents a striking photographic negative of this world-logic, and commercial Fantasy (descended in part, if a little tortuously, from Spenser) does too. In Generic Fantasyland today, though the setting is medieval or Renaissance, you, an ordinary hobbit, or a humble pig-herd, or a simple villager, get to roam and explore, to wander and travel and see the wonders of the world. In Spenser's fairyland some of the evil the knights encounter are wild and loose beings, it is true, haunting the woods and making the roads unsafe for honest travellers (until they are slain); and some characters, like Duessa herself, are encountered out in the open. But, like Giant Despair in Bunyan, evil is as often as not holed up in fastnesses and fortresses. And although there is nothing unusual in a Renaissance nobleman, like Redcrosse or Arthur, travelling whereso'er they choose (benefits of nobility, of course) the more usual type in today's Fantasy is the nondescript, the commoner, the Scott-style ‘ordinary individual’ who can act, in the larger logic of the story, as a mediator between remarkable characters encountered on the way.
Is this noteworthy, do we think? I mean: as a reflection on the pedestrianism of commercial Fantasy? Hmm.