Magical Realism

Magical realism as a genre title emerged in 1955, one hundred years after Tennyson was writing ...

Magical realism and Tennyson are two things that do not really seem to align. Magical realism as a genre title emerged in 1955, one hundred years after Tennyson was writing, and principally it is known as a female genre, covering writers from Flannery O Connor to Angela Carter, as well as being principally written outside of Britain, particularly in Latin America.

However, like much of Victorian Literature, whilst seemingly disconnected from the movements of the twentieth century, we can see within it the grains of what will go on to be a larger phenomenon. One of the principle concerns of Magical Realism is to reach back into the past, to the myths, legends and fairy-tales with which we are familiar, and to jarringly bring them into our own social context thus making the magic inhabit a world familiar to the reader. Often, these moments in magical realist texts will then go unexplained, the magical phenomenon is a part of the fabric of everyday life, such as the moment in Angela Carter’s ‘The Magic Toyshop’ when Melanie opens the kitchen draw to find a child’s severed hand covered in rings.

For Carter more specifically, the magical world which she creates is often one that is, interestingly, Victorian, particularly in her later works, ‘Nights at the Circus’ and the ‘Bloody Chambers’, she plays with our notions of the gothic, and Victoriana, when her timeless texts aesthetically land us in the mid to late Nineteenth Century.

‘My father lost me to The Beast at cards.

There's a special madness strikes travellers from the North when they reach the lovely land where the lemon trees grow. We come from countries of cold weather; at home, we are at war with nature but here, ah! you think you've come to the blessed plot where the lion lies down with the lamb. Everything flowers; no harsh wind stirs the voluptuous air. The sun spills fruit for you. And the deathly, sensual lethargy of the sweet South infects the starved brain; it gasps: 'Luxury! more luxury!' But then the snow comes, you cannot escape it, it followed us from Russia as if it ran behind our carriage, and in this dark, bitter city has caught up with us at last, flocking against the windowpanes to mock my father's expectations of perpetual pleasure as the veins in his forehead stand out and throb, his hands shake as he deals the Devil's picture books.’ – ‘The Tiger’s Bride

Why does Carter return us to this period? Perhaps it is also because in the Victorian period, the magical and the real did still coincide in a way that died out at the turn of the century. This was the era of the circus and the ‘freak show’, now made popular as a way of thinking about this period by films such as ‘The Greatest Showman’.

So how does this relate to Tennyson? It is relevant because in the literature of the period, a sense of the strange and the magical latently lurks and because the language and the images we now associate with the fairy tale emerge during the period when Tennyson was writing, rather than, as you would naturally think, earlier in history.

‘Upon the middle of the night,
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen's low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem'd to walk forlorn,
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, “The day is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”’ – ‘Mariana’ 

Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’, like ‘The Lady of Shallot’ describes a lonely woman imprisoned in a castle, who both accepts and strains against her fate, a trope easily recognised from the fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the archaisms which are used both within the poetry and within the speech of the characters, which we now normally associate with a way of representing some sort of Medieval English. 

‘A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
       To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be;
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no other care hath she,
       The Lady of Shalott. 

She lives with little joy or fear.
Over the water, running near,
The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
Before her hangs a mirror clear,
       Reflecting tower'd Camelot.
And as the mazy web she whirls,
She sees the surly village churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
       Pass onward from Shallot.’ – ‘The Lady of Shallot

 For Tennyson, the magical was always an attractive topic, and though not ‘realist’ his writing established a pattern of association between the mid-nineteenth Century, the magical and the popularity of the fairy tale.

See also the blog; 'Singing in her song she died'

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