Fantasy Provides Aid for Life’s Storms

William Holman Hunt, "Eve of St. Agnes"

William Holman Hunt, “Eve of St. Agnes”

As a child who grew up immersed in fantasy fiction, I knew, as deeply as I knew anything, that these books put me in touch with something that was deep and true. As I grew up, of course, I learned that I had to move beyond fantasy just as I had to move beyond childhood. In my particular reading framework, this meant transitioning from Lord of the Rings to Catcher in the Rye, and my intense teenage dislike for Salinger’s novel—assigned in sophomore English and now a work I admire—stemmed from my fear that I was losing something precious that I could never get back.

I came to realize, however, that we never lose the truths bound up in our childhood love of fantasy. In “The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming,” Freud writes that we don’t give up childhood pleasures but instead find adult versions of them. I learned to find deep pleasure in non-fantasy literature, in Jane Austen and John Steinbeck and even Salinger, and I left Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other such authors behind. Yet I continued to find a special pleasure in those works with fantasy elements, such as the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, and Haruki Murakami.

(For that matter, fantasy hovers around even realistic fiction: Pride and Prejudice is a version of the Cinderella story while Steinbeck bases a number of his novels on the Arthurian legends. Freud, meanwhile, talks about fiction as a more complex way of playing with dolls and toy soldiers.)

As I was teaching The Tempest and The Eve of St. Agnes these past two weeks, I sensed I was witnessing my own transition from children’s fantasies to adult versions. Prospero once thought that he could live forever immersed in his magic books, and in his island fantasy he conjures up storms and marvelous pageants. Then, however, he decides to grow up, breaking his staff and drowning his books. Rather than surrendering his magic, however, he has evolved to a deeper magic, one that involves love and forgiveness. To borrow from Wordsworth, he may have relinquished one delight but he continues to live beneath fantasy’s habitual sway, which is all the more powerful for having found a way to persist in the mature world of adulthood.

Or think of what happens to Madeline in Keats’ poem. She goes to bed on the eve of St. Agnes in order to dream of her true love. The dream that she has is a girl’s dream of Prince Charming. Unbeknownst to her, however, the real life subject of her dream has crept into her bedroom so that, upon awaking, Madeline finds herself caught between two images.

Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d
The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
At which fair Madeline began to weep,
And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.

“Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:
How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
For if thy diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”

My class had a spirited debate about the bedroom scene since some of them found Prophyro’s stalking to be “creepy,” and others all but accused him of taking advantage of Madeline’s befuddled state to commit rape (or as Keats exquisitely puts it, “Into her dream he melted, as the rose/Blendeth its odour with the violet”).

Part of me was heartened that my students were attuned to good relationship practice so I didn’t disagree. What caught my eye, however, was how Madeline adjusts to discovering that the world isn’t childhood fantasy. To be sure, she starts off with initial disappointment that Prophryo isn’t Prince Charming (“How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!”) and then moves on to the horrified realization that she has just been ruined (“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!/Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine./ Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?) Then, however, she decides she will not fight this new reality but accept it (“I curse not”), even if it brings disgrace. Note how the action is set against a raging winter storm (such as the one that blows against my own windows as I write this), a symbol of the cruel world that is set against her fantasy illusions:

‘Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
“This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!”
‘Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.—
Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine,
Though thou forsakest a deceived thing;—
 A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.”

Porphyro likewise steps up to the occasion. He, like she, may have been drawn by a fantasy vision, but what he offers her now is a partnership that involves the two of them venturing out together into the storm:

Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest
Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think’st well
To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.

Hark! ’tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise—arise! the morning is at hand;—
The bloated wassaillers will never heed:—
Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see,—
Drown’d all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be,
For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.

It must be acknowledged that Keats ends his poem on a down note, concluding not with images of the lovers but of bitter cold and death. I think to do otherwise would be to retreat into empty illusion while ignoring the harshness of the world. Madeline and Porphyro may well die in the storm and even if they survive and grow old together, Angela’s and the Beadsman’s infirmities invariably await them:

And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.

So yes, palsy and bitter cold threaten to blast our fantasies. But what the lovers have, and what those of us enamored with the poem’s romance have, is Keats’ “once upon a time/ages long ago” fantasy vision of their love. Although it is true that they/we will be confronted by bleak midwinter, their fantasy love story keeps us warm and guides us.

In a discussion with one of the students in the class who will be getting married this summer (Meg Gruen), I noted that St. Agnes can work as a powerful description of marriage: as initial fantasy images are pounded (as they inevitably will be) by iced gusts of reality, young couples can remember the dream that brought them together. If it had substance then, it will have substance when the weather turns.

It’s instructive to compare the ending of St. Agnes to that of another Keats fantasy vision, which also returns to reality with a thud. Enchanted by the song of a nightingale, the suffering poet finds himself wafted into “Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam,/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” Then, however, he finds himself abruptly brought back to his current state:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self! 
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well 
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Lest this lead us to decide that fantasy is no more than a deceiving elf, however, Keats concludes with an open-ended question: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?” So were the speaker and Madeline asleep before, only to be awakened into reality? Or were they awake before, only to have fallen into “the dream of life” (to borrow a phrase from Shelley’s elegy on Keats).

In other words—and I made this point last week in my Tempest post—maybe fantasy serves us as a guide when the world seems too much with us. If we cling too tightly to fantasy, then we will not grow but will remain forever Peter Pan. If we accept our adult responsibilities, however, we may rest assured that fantasy will never abandons us. It will be a precious resource as we venture out into the storm.

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  • sue

    A phrase that’s been running through my mind lately is “the chastened romantic.” I think what I mean by this, is someone who remains at heart an “idealist”, believes in man’s inherent goodness and an ultimate happy ending and yet has become compassionate faced with the reality of the suffering of the world and patient in understanding the role of time.

    Clinging too tightly to fantasy, as you mentioned, keeps us from growing up – we remain always an innocent (something Pullman rails against). But choosing only “reality,” identifying as a materialist, denies the reality of those deep desires which yearn for something more – reconciliation, restoration, transcendence- the deeper magic you mention above. It also seems to give a blind eye to the subconscious (our dream world) and experiences of the spirit world intersecting with ours.

    But moving between the two worlds – the material and the spiritual, the world we see and the world we imagine – this dialogue keeps us moving forward. And I’ll give a nod to Miranda when I say the brave new world that lies ahead of us is the best of both.

  • sue

    As a quick follow up to the above post. I’m thinking that part of the post-modern critique has to do with a chastening of the idealism of science/knowledge/education. In the enlightenment there was the idea that knowledge would lead to a brave new world. Now we know that knowledge does indeed bring power, but that without wisdom (knowing how to appropriately use that knowledge) we are no further along than before. True, we have better tools – but they can be used for good or evil.

    It’s like those articles that you’ve mentioned that say reading literature alone cannot make someone a better person. It’s only when engaging with one’s heart and sounding the deeps of our own collective sense of good, our own collective desires, that the insights from literature can help us make the world a better place.

  • http://www.johnproblem.com john problem

    In the recent NYRB, there is a review of a book which points out that although ‘The ‘Thousand and One Nights’ had an enormous influence on European fantasy, it was not so in the US. But it didn’t really say why…. Is there a quick and easy answer – like it wasn’t published in translation enough?


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