Monday, June 3, 2013

Whatever Happened to Romance?

Of Heroes & Heroines.

Whatever happened to the genre of Romance? Why is it seen as long dead and buried? Why is it seen as childish and naive by our modern tastes, so that it's descendants can mainly be found in Children's Literature? Is it that the genre no longer speaks to us because we've changed as a society? Romance, in addition to being a genre is first and foremost a world view--one which people no longer seem to believe in any more. Why is this so? These are questions I hope to answer through this post. First let's try looking at what Romance actually is--because I'm sure most of you have one type of idea of what it is that isn't what it is at all.

If you made the assumption that I was going to spend the majority of this post talking about Love, you're right and wrong. While the modern term of the genre of "Romance" has evolved from the Romance I'm talking about, it's also lost its sense of origins in the process. Romance when it dealt with love did so in the manner I spoke about in the last post on Romantic Comedies, which borrowed the idea of the "love lost principle" from Romance. For you see when Romance dwells on the subject of Love, it does so in the manner that it looks at it in a more mature manner than Comedy or even Romantic Comedies will ever do. Romance looks at the subject of love AFTER marriage. Whereas Romantic Comedies and Comedies look at the infatuation of love BEFORE marriage, Romance focuses on what blossoms after. It especially looks at what the loss of a loved one does to the human psyche. If you can't guess what I mean by loss, I'll tell you straight out, usually a person's love dies in Romance. However since Romance is the genre where the Heavens are in communication with the earth, this Death never really is a "true death" but a "perceived death" and the two figures will meet again when our hero joins their love in the heavens. Sometimes the bonds of love are so strong that the dead partner will be allowed the chance to return from the afterlife (The Winter's Tale, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Alcestis). In either case, death is only but a perceived separation which will reunite our lovers again at a later point. This is not to say that the notion of true love and soul mates are completely absent and such, just that love is explored in a more mature manner by looking on the effects of a person once they've actually lost their love, and the happy moment when they are reunited together once more--either in this life or the next.

Having experienced loss and separation, in heaven these two soul mates are joined again.

Speaking about how death is mutable, I should mention that in Romance, death as we know it is thought of as an illusion, and not some great destroyer of worlds, but in actuality a secret friend we never knew we had in the first place. A travel companion who has been with us our entire lives and waiting to welcome us to a well deserved rest when the time comes. Death isn't something to be feared in Romance, but something to embrace (sometimes it's even called "the next big adventure")--those who fear it usually end up on the villain list. It should also be noted that the number of perceived deaths or "I thought you were dead moments" are a staple of the genre as a whole.

Death is the best friend we never knew we had.

Romance as it is most popularly known is a genre was born in what historians call the Medieval period. In fact when we think of Medieval times, we often think of it in the terms and tropes of Romance. The tales of daring knights on quests to save lands from near destruction and damsels in distress are at the core of the Chivalric Romance that came to define the literature of the period. However Romance as a genre is larger than that, and you could easily throw in the heroic myths of half-mortal heroes like Heracles, Jason, Odysseus, Orestes, Oedipus, Perseus, and Theseus of the Ancient Grecco-Roman civilization. Romance also includes the legends of the ancient Celtic world which became the King Arthur tale as well as Tristan and Isolde. In the legends of heroes in India like Shakuntala and China where they meet with Gods and do battle with Demons. You can even find Romance in the Bible in the stories of the Patriarchs of the Old Testament--the heroes of the Children of Israel. Wherever there are human heroes to do battle with monsters and rescue those damsels in distress from cliffs, there is Romance.
I wonder if this is where sex games originate.

First and foremost, Romance is a genre about heroes and not just any heroes but our forefathers so to speak. Romance can be found interwoven slightly in the stories told of King Arthur for England, of Sigmund for the Germans,  and of the American Founding Fathers and Colonial predecessors who created Thanksgiving. Given more time those stories (especially the latter) will change and alter until eventually then enter the realm of myth completely. There's one thing to be clear here, Romance is about the heroes and founders whose struggle and sacrifices led to the world we live in today. In fact our hero typically becomes the ruler at the end of the story, symbolizing a new fertility coming into the land. That fertility provided the foundations of a golden age which has lead to us. Romance thus is not only just about the guys who won, it's essentially about the leaders or rulers of the day. It's the elite's genre, and their story about how they came to power and their ideals triumphed. As Northrop Frye mentions in one essay:

"In every age the ruling social or intellectual class tends to project its ideals in some form of romance, where the virtuous heroes and beautiful heroines represent the ideals and the villains their threats to their ascendency."

This means that Romance, for lack of a better term, is the propaganda of whoever the ruling elite is at the given moment, and will express and encapsulate their views and ideals. Being so connected to ideals, it is very often a genre of dreams and wishes.

Romance is the genre of wish fulfilment, where our dreams can come true and we can enter our own dreams. In a Romance everything is ideal and perfect, and a concept of the body below the head  (and heart) does not exist. We do not concern ourselves with how a hero goes to the bathroom, eats, or drinks, because to Romance those are boring and mundane parts of our lives that do not belong in the idealized dream scape that the genre exists in. This isn't to say that all problems are solved with the wave of a magic wand (well, some are), in most cases the wish has to be fought for and the protagonist challenged many times. In fact he may have to learn the lesson that in order to acquire what you want you want you need to give up your chance to earn it. Wishes are granted to those who are brave, truthful and unselfish, after all.

Romance is very religious and often in the genre you can find our characters interacting with the gods or god of their beliefs. There is a communication between the heavens and the earth that is seen as natural and wonderful in Romance. Everyone can speak to the higher plane of existence and it has a direct interaction with life here on Earth, influencing the choices we make and the people we encounter. It should also be noted that the more connections with heaven that are associated with our hero and heroine, the more demonic and devilish our villains and antagonists will become.

Romance, one gigantic game of chess.

There is a kind of easy split in Romance between good and evil. In a lot of ways the story is like a game of chess, with Heaven playing the white pieces and Hell the black pieces. And also like a chess game, for every kind of character on one side there will be a mirroring character on the opposite side of the "chess board" that is a "shadow" or a reflection of the piece. The virtuous heroine has the slutty witch as her mirror, the brave knight the quivering coward, and so on and so forth. There is very little room between either side, often times in a Romance characters will simply treat you as if you are either for or against them, in that if you don't help them, then you must be against them.

The Green Team: Neutrality between Black & White.

The only exception to this comes when the forces of Nature come into play. The earth and its manifestations (dryads, mermaids, fairies, elves, green men, etc.) are typically the only neutral force in a Romance. When such manifestations of nature are forced to take sides in a struggle, they usually do so towards the very end, and usually only reluctantly after Evil has truly pushed the boundaries of evil. Usually though in Romance they exist as a great neutral force that give what they give indiscriminately and usually there is just as much danger that comes from them as there is reward as there is a certain mischievous or even malevolent quality to them at times. Like the Earth, these manifestations of it, are usually great observers of what is occurring and impartial to who wins or loses or if there even is a battle at all. It should also be noted that prophesy is a power of this neutral faction and all things foretold usually come in some way from the natural world.

Having given you the parts and pieces of Romance and examined the most popular stage of Romance--the hero's quest--I now think it my duty to inform you that there are other stages that aren't so popular. Romance typically covers the entire life of a Hero. And as such the different stages of Romance corresponds to how old our hero is.

Stage One Example: Superman found as a baby.


The first stage is usually thus about a woman, typically a princess, and more specifically the hero's mother. In the story she either is pregnant with the hero or has just given birth to him. She's a wronged woman typically, who is cast out of society by an angry male figure (typically a father) and done so by being locked into a chest and thrown out into the sea. Here the chest acts as a metaphor for the womb in which the hero is located, and from the chest the mother will be found on some far and distant shore and taken into a simpler and easier Arcadian society and lifestyle, in which she will gladly live and raise her child to be her champion and one day right the wrong committed against her unjustly. The father of our hero is typically some king, prince, or god of some far away kingdom that met and had one night of intense passion and love with our hero's mother before going off to live the rest of his life. In more melodramatic forms of Romance she might be chased out of the kingdom with a pack of dogs following behind her on a harsh and cruel winter landscape (typically a blizzard of some sort). In any case, our female protagonist is persecuted unfairly in some manner, lacking a hero in her life to fight to save her, unaware that the life growing within her (or the small life dependant on her) is that very same hero who not only will save her when he's grown up but the rest of the land from the tyranny and oppression that has befallen it. Sometimes, more often when the mother is not of noble birth or when the mother dies, the hero will be locked away in some kind of chest (again to represent the womb from which a hero is born), and sent down a river or out into a body of water and found by some loving childless farming couple. Important themes here include the disparity between what is seen and unseen, justice and persecution, from the chaos of death comes the promise of new life, and that the strongest of things grow from the tiniest of seeds.

Second Stage Example: Harry Potter and his cohorts in the green and golden world of Hogwarts.
Et in Arcadia ego.

The second phase usually takes place when our hero is a child, and usually involves his parents or adopted parents as strong figures of influence. This story typically takes place in the green and golden world of Arcadia--a perfect pastoral landscape. As a child our hero is usually surrounded by similar age playmates that don't understand him and think him strange. Somehow he displays an extraordinary potential or gift of some kind which scares his playmates. It is merely a sign of the hidden and immature potential contained within our hero before he grows up to meet his destiny. Usually in this stage the importance of learning to control one's gift and the training and learning of it becomes quite important. Our hero as a child usually feels isolated and misunderstood, but there might be one playmate amongst the rest who is a loyal friend, and another playmate might be the juvenile version of either his lady love to come or one of a long line of them, and it is here that they meet and develop a relationship for the first time, but they are separated when her father sends her away or leaves the land. There is often a sense of the erotic about this Arcadian utopia, but it is usually a sweet and innocent eroticism that is tempered by its naivety--like our hero and his future love meeting for the first time and experiencing the early stages of puppy love. Mostly though this stage is about the development of our hero and his maturation. Parents are still important figures in the life of our hero, but not the most important ones. Increasingly other adult figures such as a wise old mentor figure appears in this phase, and other younger rivals present immature challenges for our hero to meet with. It should also be noted that death lives in Arcadia--as the phrase "Et in Arcadia Ego", meaning that no paradise is spared death, and it is often in Arcadia and this stage that our hero first encounters the idea of death for the very first time.

Stage Three Example: St. George slays a dragon.


The third phase is the one we are all most familiar with. Our hero has come of age and goes on a quest to prove his worth. This is probably the most episodic of the phases, where our Hero first proves his worth by solving small conflicts as he travels, or larger conflicts. Romances of this stage typically are episodic, with the hero's quest having a larger goal and getting constantly sidetracked or having to complete preliminary tasks before moving on to achieve the goal he set out to accomplish. In the simplest of stories, our hero arrives at a kingdom where the old king has taken to offering young nubile virgins up for sacrifice to some kind of reptilian monster like the kraken, a sea monster, or a dragon of some sort in order to keep it from destroying the kingdom. Only the king has just about gone through every available virgin and now is sacrificing his own daughter. It's at this moment that our hero arrives, slays the monster, and as a reward is offered the King's daughter's hand in marriage. It is a story of regeneration, of the old giving way to the young, of death and winter giving way to life and summer. The land is plagued with utter desolation as represented by the King's age and the monster's devastation of it. The land is rejuvinated by our young hero and the fertility of his match with the nubile young princess who had been so enticingly chained to the rocks.

Stage Four Example: Peter Pan reunites with his children.


The fourth phase occurs almost immediately thereafter the victory of our hero, and is a story about how the society which he has saved now has to resist change of some kind. It's frequent after the victory of our hero that they do some kind of travel or return to their native Arcadian lands to fetch their mother or something of that nature. When they return they come to find their land has been besieged in their absence by a force of evil and our hero has to reclaim the land and help the good people resist change. Often times in this stage our hero and his heroine will have given birth to a baby or have a young child and there will be a fight for who has possession of the child (who is foretold to be greater than their father) and the most influence over that child's life, as the person who does will hold the key to the future of the land. Eventually our hero rescues his child and proves or promises to be a better parent.

Pericles and his daughter Marina reunite after a long separation.

Evil's seduction.


In the fifth stage, our hero's children have grown and now have adventures of their own which reference back to their father. Often in this stage the hero fails at accomplishing his heroic task when young and it is later completed by him and his grown child. Shakespeare's Romances all exist in this stage, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. These are stories about middle aged heroes and their children making the world a better place together once reunited after a long separation. And Shakespeare, having only had daughters survive childhood, has all of the heroes have daughters in his Romances. It's also here that we find references back to that Arcadian second stage where our hero was a child, only this time our hero's children exists in a perverted Arcadia that they must reform in some manner. Arcadia's innocent sexuality that existed in the second stage has now become perverted and dark and sinister. It's here that evil really begins to take on seductive and sexual qualities to entice our heroes. In fact it's often in this stage that a good character is seduced to the side of evil. There is also a sense of reflection on the events of the story that our aged hero begins to take on, or if the story is solely about his children, then they become more self-aware of the events of their lives, and by that I mean them becoming aware that they as heroes are enacting little more than a ritual that has been performed before and will again in the future.

Stage Six Example: Beowulf's Death


In the sixth stage we come to the extreme old age of a hero, where this stage is either about the death of our hero, or the story has faded so far into the past we are told this story in quotations by a group of characters who aren't in the story being told or even remotely related to it. This is like in The Princess Bride, when we have our grandfather reading the Romance of Buttercup and Wesley, which protests to be based on a true story but happened so distantly in the past that it has now become a story to be read to children. When we focus on the death of our hero it is usually one of the most memorable things of our hero and his death is seen as a "coming home" to the heavens for which he fought for more than a sad departure. It's here the hero's messianic qualities really come to light as its hinted that when again in trouble, the heavens will return the hero to us to save us.

Heroes are more like us, and thus less heroic.


There are other forms of Romance, such as Ironic Romance, which takes Romance and delivers it in a self-conscious manner or twists all the tropes of Romance and gives you as close to the opposite as it can without breaking the core beliefs of Romance. A brilliant example of this would be the film The Legend of 1900, which is about a baby found on the first day of the year 1900 (and thus his name) on a steam liner, who grows up to be an accomplished musician, but never leaves the boat. 1900 is clearly our hero, but unlike other heroes he stays in one place (on the boat), his talent is different and isn't innate but based on 1900 playing the "music of the soul" of a person. It's his sidekick character who pushes him to try and do something more with his life like stepping off the boat, but 1900 knows that if he does he'll loose that connection with the sea that gives him his talent and he'll just be an ordinary person if he does. The darker part of the story comes towards the end and the dark underbelly of Romance is looked at with a modern realistic examination.

This obsession with decaying corpses will never do.


And lastly there's Gothic Romance, which takes Romance's friendship with death and turns it into a fascination with the macabre. Usually contact with demons and the darker side of the spiritual realm dominates these types of Romances. The idea that death is a friend is taken to its morbid conclusion. Instead of death being seen as something natural it's built up into this all consuming power that dominates and permeates everything and as such should be worshipped. This is how ghost stories came into being. Typically Gothic Romance involves some virgin girl being pursued by some monster of some sort in a dark and stormy castle that she's been kidnapped to, and the hero rides in on a stead to rescue her. Sounds like your typical Romance, right? Well, except for the fact that this castle is littered with dead bodies, hidden torture chambers, and lots and lots of gore. Modern Horror does borrow a few things from Gothic Romance, but largely it comes from the world of Tragedy. Gothic Romance is more obsessed over images and having a death oriented world view.

And now a word from our sponsors. ;-)

Now that I've run down the parts and types of Romance, can I finally say what happened to Romance? I think it's time for me to state the obvious. Romance still does exist--most notably in the Action/Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Superheroes, "Romance", Gothic Romance, Ironic Romance, Children's Literature, and "Epic" genres of modern day, but it is no longer whole and intact, instead it was dissected as a genre and split up into the many smaller genres listed above. Some genres share aspects it took from Romance, others are sole owners of other aspects. So why did this happen to Romance? Why was it "butchered" and taken apart? The reason, I think is pretty obvious to anyone who's read Don Quixote.

Romance meets reality.

Don Quixote is a satire (not an Ironic Romance) of the Romance genre. Instead of having the young virile hero go out to save the day, we have a decrepit old man who's half-crazy. His fine lady is a whore, his castle a run-down inn, and his monsters windmills. It's that windmill image I want you to keep in your mind for the moment. Science, technology and their effects on the world radically changed our world view, making belief in such a world as that which Romance could provide us seem childish, immature, and downright silly. Science Fiction has managed to find a way over this hurdle by taking the principle that super-advanced technology is equivalent to magic, but even still, there is a sense that a certain "magic" has left the world, taking true Romance along with it.

Instead now we live in a world where Romance, if written, can only be done in a satirical manner, or set so far in the past or so far in the future, or on a distant planet of some sort that isn't here and now. Because our world isn't magical any more, God and the gods don't talk to us--in fact more people doubt their existence, the Earth isn't alive to us or respected but something to mould to suit our own needs. We've become sullen and self-aware, and thus appreciate the ironic more and more. Sure we give our children straight Romance when we can, as a way to create a "false sense of childhood" before they have to face the "harsh realities" of the "real world". In essence, we no longer live in a world amenable to seeing Romance happening here any more. So it has to be somewhere else, some other time, and concerning some other people. Even when the story is about how magic is still here, it's usually about how it must remain separate from our everyday modern world and "we mere mortals must never suspect the truth".

We traded magic in for science, and the impossible for the possible. And yet Romance lives on in its butchered forms, because no matter how realistic we say we want things to be or claim to be ourselves, there's still a small part of us that wishes we could go back to before.

Apologies on the long wait (I got sick), but I think it was well worth it, wasn't it?

Next Monday expect the What Makes Us Cry series to return. Until then, enjoy the world of Romance, I know I sure do.