A History of Wonder

I was having one of my periodic crises, the kind faced by any graduate student in the arts, where I pause and scream, “Why am I doing this to myself?” Fortunately, during my latest crisis I finally got around to reading Caroline Walker Bynum’s 1997 presidential address to the American Historical Association, simply titled “Wonder.” It’s worth posting here, too, since I see some relevance to fantasy literature tucked away in Bynum’s discussion of medieval theories of wonder and their relationship to the present task of the historian.

Bynum notes that in the twelfth century, we start seeing an increased focus in medieval literature on wonderful phenomena in the natural world—it is, in fact, the wildly imaginative aspects of many medieval texts that make them such fascinating reading. Entertainment derived from the oddities of the world, but always with a profound awe that such things might possibly exist and have some deeper significance:

If, to theologians, chroniclers, and preachers, the wonderful was indeed often the strange, the rare, and the inexplicable, it was never the merely strange or the simply inexplicable. It was the strange that mattered, that pointed beyond itself to meaning. (Bynum, 23)

Stretching the imagination, touching that beyond immediate comprehension, i.e. wonder (admiratio) is a clear mark of medieval writing meant primarily for entertainment or edification from 1180 on. Travellers tales, verse romances, legends that sprung up around saints, natural histories—take a look at Gerald of Wales’ descriptions of bearded ladies in Ireland, or the strange peoples encountered east of the Holy Land in the Alexander romances and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, or the Aberdeen Bestiary’s fantastic creatures, and you will find a concentration on the weird and wonderful, meant to elicit delight from the audience. Yet there was more to it than delight, “[m]edieval philosophers and theologians emphasized wonder as a first step toward knowledge” (25). To wonder at a thing was to recognize its singularity and significance, and to express a desire to understand it, or at least recognize that understanding was attainable.

So too today’s historian, according to Bynum, “For surely what characterizes historians above all else is the capacity to be shocked by the singularity of events in a way that stimulates the search for ‘significance’”(3). This isn’t a blanket-description, but a call for historians to recognize and make wonder, in the medieval sense, a personal function of the study of history—and in doing so, perhaps imbue scholarly writing with the same sense of playfulness, humour, and genuine surprise that characterizes the wonder-tales of the later Middle Ages:

For the flat, generalizing, presentist view of the past encapsulates it and makes it boring, whereas amazement yearns toward an understanding, a significance, that is always just a little beyond both our theories and our fears.

Every view of things that is not wonderful is false. (26)

Making the leap to connecting similar desires and drives to writing speculative fiction of all stripes is a personal one, and I can already hear stern objections from some. But, speaking subjectively, I do see a connection in what I read & write with my academic field of study: the same search for wonder, the same feelings of significance perhaps beyond reach but still worth trying to touch. The paradoxical nature of the Middle Ages is that it was, undeniably, a brutal era (and yet less brutal than certain places now), yet produced some of the most humorous and entertaining tales that I’ve encountered, ones I find more relatable than much of what has been produced in Europe and North America since the eighteenth century. I’ve been admonished for saying the medieval and Renaissance wonder tale and more recent works of speculative fiction are fundamentally related and continuous, with only the location changing now that the domain of “the known” has expanded considerably, but I still can’t shake this conviction. The same goes with my own writing of fantasy as interplaying with history, though that conviction is more ambiguous—after all, we could say any narrative form (history, myth, fiction, folk tale) is in constant interplay with the others. My own experience of reading and writing the stuff tells me that all these interests, in history, in fantasy, in literature, are inextricably bound with each other and feed off each other during my creative process. So while the above doesn’t work as a blanket, general statement, it certainly works for me.

If history gives me a means to reach out towards that which is a little beyond my theories and fears, than fiction, and specifically speculative fiction, is my way of creating my own wonders, in the hopes that others will feel admiratio on encountering them as well.

Whisper into the darkness

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