The Castle of Otranto, the Gothic Novel and the Origins of Fantasy Posted by Scott Lazerus

Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. Recently, he began branching out into fantasy, and was surprised by the diversity of the genre. It’s not all wizards, elves, and dragons! Scott’s new blog series, Forays into Fantasy, is an SF fan’s exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today. FiF will examine some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building up an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.

The Castle of OtrantoAs my interest in science fiction was revived over the last couple of years, and I decided to expand my reading into fantasy as well, I went in search of context. Looking for a guide to some superior and important examples of fantasy, beyond the usual suspects, I pulled David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels off the shelf (and examples of some of these novels will continue to show up in this series of posts), but Pringle begins in 1946, and I wanted to start at the beginning. Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock, published in 1988, starts in the eighteenth century. Specifically, the first book listed is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) — no surprise there. The other three examples from the 1700s, though, I had never heard of before: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Vathek by William Beckford, and The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Upon reading Cawthorn and Moorcock’s essays, it became clear that these were all examples of early Gothic novels, which make up one of the earliest strands of the fantasy genre.

So, did fantasy as a genre really begin in the 1700s (clearly, there was fantastic literature prior to that), and what role did these Gothic novels play in those beginnings? During this eighteenth century, poets and philosophers debated the nature of imagination, and there was a new and rising view that the imagination was not merely a repository of memory and observation, but was a faculty capable of the visionary illumination of the unknown, as Samuel Coleridge and William Blake tried to do in their poetry. In literature, these ideas led to the ongoing distinction between the realistic and the fantastic. As Gary K. Wolfe writes in “Fantasy from Dryden to Dunsany,” in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (2012):

“The modern fantasy novel, and to an arguable extent the modern novel itself, is in part an outgrowth of this debate. While we can reasonably argue that the fantastic in the broadest sense had been a dominant characteristic of most world literature for centuries prior to the rise of the novel, we can also begin to discern that the fantasy genre may well have had its origins in these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discussions of fancy vs. imagination, history vs. romance…”

In particular, Wolfe sees the fantasy genre as arising from three sources during the 1700s and 1800s: “private history” novels such as Robinson Crusoe, a revival of interest in old folk tales and fairy tales, and the vogue for Gothic novels, all three of which required the use of imagination to envision what we now think of as “the fantastic.”

Horace WalpoleWhere, then, did this Gothic strand of literature arise from, and what does it entail? Our story begins during the latter stages of the Roman Empire, when the Goths pillaged their way south from Scandinavia, ultimately sacking Rome in 410. After gaining control of the Italian peninsula, they eventually lost power later in the Middle Ages, after sundry violent run-ins with the Huns, the Franks, and the Moors. Due to its association with the decline of the Classical world, the term “Gothic” came into use during the 1500s as a pejorative term for a medieval style in art and architecture, from the twelfth — through the sixteenth — centuries, which was considered during the Renaissance to be ugly and barbaric when compared to the Classical art and architecture it supplanted. It is best represented by the intricate and sculpturally adorned Medieval cathedrals with their soaring pointed arches, which took advantage of advances in structural design to achieve previously unprecedented height, with correspondingly tall windows and, of course, lots of gargoyles.

As pointed out by Adam Roberts in his essay on “Gothic and Horror Fiction” also in The Cambridge Companion, by the time the term “Gothic” was first used to describe a form of literature, in the mid-eighteenth century, its “primary signification… was that of barbarous anti-enlightenment.” At the same time, a revival of interest in Gothic aesthetics would result in the term becoming more complimentary in the eyes of those who began to bring the now old-fashioned medieval styles back into fashion. Among these was Horace Walpole, who rebuilt his London mansion in what he considered to be a “Gothic” style, and wrote what is generally agreed to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto: A Story, published in 1764. (Subsequent editions would be subtitled A Gothic Story.)

Walpole originally published The Castle of Otranto under a pseudonym, claiming in the preface that it was a translation of a recently discovered manuscript printed in 1529 and most likely written between 1095 and 1243, thus pretending to establish it as an actual work of the Middle Ages. He speculates that it was written by a priest in order to “avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions” at a time when such superstitions were being challenged by the Italian intelligentsia. Although presented by the translator as a mere entertainment:

“Some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times, who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them. If this air of the miraculous is excused, the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal. Allow the possibility of the facts, and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation… Terror, the author’s principal engine, prevents the story from ever languishing; and it is so often contrasted by pity, that the mind is kept up in a constant vicissitude of interesting passions.”

Clearly, Walpole was aware of the debate over the role of imagination in literature described above by Wolfe, and was attempting to combine the virtues of the modern novel with the fanciful content of ancient stories and myths. Ironically, while claiming to apologize to the reader for the old-fashioned fantastical elements in the story, what Walpole was really doing, by bringing these elements into a novel, was to create something entirely new. In the Middle Ages, people really were superstitious, and such stories would not have been considered “fantastic” in the modern sense. By the 1700s, by which time the Enlightenment had banished superstition from the educated mind, bringing back the fantastic required a new use of imagination for both writers and their audience.

Clearly, people were ready for it. In a popular and commercial sense, his experiment was very successful, unleashing a sea of imitators. Despite Walpole’s apology for it, it is that very “air of the miraculous” that makes the novel intriguing. The plot itself is quite ludicrous, but individual incidents, and the overall mood, keep things interesting. Manfred, lord of the Castle of Otranto, while overseeing the wedding of his sickly son Conrad to Isabella, is shocked and dismayed when a giant helmet appears and crushes Conrad to death, leaving Manfred without an heir. The enormous helmet is otherwise identical to that once worn by Alfonso the Good, who is supposed to have granted the castle to Manfred’s grandfather many years before. Clearly concerned about the implications of this strange event, and determined to maintain his family’s succession, he announces his intention to divorce his wife Hippolita, who has been incapable of providing him with another son, and marry Isabella himself. Neither woman is pleased. Isabella escapes with the help of Theodore, whom Manfred sentences to death. Chasing Theodore and Isabella into the vaults beneath the castle, Manfred encounters an apparition of his grandfather, as well as manifestations of giant armored body parts and weapons, presumably arising from the same source as the helmet. As Manfred had feared, these visions herald the fulfillment of a prophecy that foretold the end of his family’s usurpation of the castle, and the return of its rightful heir, who turns out to be Theodore. Isabella ends up Queen of the castle after all.

The genre ushered in by Walpole’s story remained very popular until about 1820, and continued to evolve thereafter (think of Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Dracula, and Rebecca). Very few of the novels from the original flowering of the Gothic are still read, but they represented an unleashing of imaginative literature that would ultimately lead to the development of the modern genres of horror (which still maintains an explicitly gothic strand), fantasy, and even science fiction, whose readers are often looking for the same “sense of wonder” as was the original audience for gothic fiction.

The characteristic feeling evoked by the Gothic story is the combination of the familiar and the foreign — the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that Freud wrote about as “the uncanny.” This characteristic of the Gothic has to do with the mood rather than the well-known trappings of the stories — the feeling of mysteriousness, that there are things happening that we can’t quite understand and that may ultimately remain obscure; that important realizations are just out of reach in the shadows and gloom. The reader wants to find out what horrors (usually evils from the past returning to haunt the present) underlie the events in the story, but at the same time is afraid to find out.

The typical elements of the settings in which these strange stories play out have become iconic. As Adam Roberts explains:

“In Otranto we find, in nascent form, many of the props and conventions that were to reappear in the scores of novels published at the height of the Gothic vogue…: moody atmospherics, picturesque and sublime scenery, darkness, buried crimes (especially murderous and incestuous crimes) revealed, and most of all a spectral supernatural focus. Many imitators tried to follow Walpole’s commercial success by littering their novels with similar props, settings and conventions — the haunted castle, the night-time graveyard, the Byronic villain and so on,”

Horace WalpoleBut the elements that make the works successful are not these outward trappings, but rather their ability to invoke the uncanny and the transgressive, and to fire the reader’s imagination.

As for Otranto in particular, it is the first, but not the very best. Fantasy readers today will have no problem with the fantastic elements, but may struggle with the improbable plot twists, many of which hinge on mistaken or hidden identity, and with the overwrought dialogue. Those willing to make allowances, however, will be carried along by the onrushing events and the feverish intensity of the characters’ emotions and actions, until the situation they are caught up in is finally resolved. These events, manifested through supernatural interventions into the real world, were precipitated by past injustice, a pattern which will play out again in subsequent Gothic novels, often within some variation on Walpole’s shadowy castle and subterranean vaults, literary images that have never ceased to haunt readers of the fantastic.





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