Lately I’ve been reading Alexander’s Prydain books aloud to the Spouse and re-reading Buchan’s Huntingtower as well; it got me thinking about the dearth of solitary wanderers in recent fantasy.* Prydain is a world of forests and hills, with scattered small settlements; its heroes wander alone, like Prince Gwydion, or in small bands, like Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi, and Fflewddur Fflam. Aragorn and Gandalf wander unsupported, as do Frodo and Sam. The hero of Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World trilogy, Alf/Alv/Elof, travels alone or with two or three friends; Cherryh’s Morgaine and Vanye, McKinley’s Aerin, Cooper’s Indigo, Taylor’s Hawklan, all move through their worlds largely as Romance knights on quests do, alone or with a few companions. In this, many of these fantasies, which evoke in some respects an earlier world than the High Middle Ages, have heroes who, in their mode of adventure, are more like Erec or Lancelot than Aeneas, Beowulf or Sigmund of the Nibelungenot. No comitatus, no entourage, no unnamed body of armed retainers accompanies them. Sigurd of the Volsungasaga and Beowulf both have early episodes of solitary adventure before attaining their mature status and the following that comes with it, but in both cases the story is focused on the events of the established hero, whose solitary past is behind him. His deeds have won him followers, we the listeners do hear the tales of the youthful deeds, but these lay the foundation for the present story, the main plot of the kings and the champions of kings, dead or living but either way sweeping their followers after them. (It occurs to me that this is because authors of Romance were writing fantasy, whereas composers of Epic, despite the legendary or even mythic foundations of their material and the fantastic elements so much a part of it, had to meet demands of realism different from those in Romance. Kings and warleaders behaved in an expected way. A man of proven prowess would not, in maturity, be solitary.)
In contrast, the lone wandering hero’s story in the Romance mode usually ends, for the readers or listeners, when his or her quest has been achieved. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn have all arrived at their individual conclusions; Frodo and Gandalf leave the world; Aragorn remains, but save for an appendix, his story for us is over, evil is, for a time, defeated, the kingdom is re-established and restored and for him, the time of romantic solitary wandering is past. (I suppose in Aragorn’s case it ends with the meeting with Halbarad, when he becomes a proper epic warleader and enters on that mode of heroism, with his followers about him; one could say that at this point he moves from Romance to Epic.) For the heroes of the fantasy of the sixties to the early nineties, as well, the defeat of greater-than-human evil or human tyranny and evil (great enough without supernatural aid) and the restoration of peace and order is the quest to be achieved. Once it is, the story we are being told of the hero, even if like Taran or Aerin they have assumed a position of authority in their society, ends. Some, like Morgaine and Vanye, whose quest to destroy the world gates is an ongoing one, will continue to wander. The wandering, the errant in knight-errantry, is the dominant movement of the story. There is a romance in the lone wanderer, the tiny band of comrades, the landscape of wilderness, that belongs to Romance, not to Epic or to the chronicle of politics played out through kings and battles, diplomacy and espionage. The latter has its own romance, but it is not that of the Romance world, nor that of Epic with its mythic underpinnings.
Modern fantasy has never been all about wandering heroes, but it seems to me, as a reader, that there are fewer of them these days than there used to be. When I pick up something new, odds are it will turn out to be about a protagonist who, even if an alleged loner, a thief, assassin, or outcast, will be shown as part of a complex social web that will play an on-stage role throughout the story, and most fantasies, even those with a medieval-ish society, seems to have an urban framework and setting. Has society, the Average Reader, lost interest in Romance, lost touch with the romance of wilderness and wild and the hero’s semi-solitary journey? Are people too removed from solitude for it to engage their imaginations, or to conceive of strength and salvation arising from the individual rather than the group? I hardly ever see the neighbourhood students walking down the road without either headphones on, cellphone to the ear, or a texting thumb at work. Is there ever any solitude for them, any quiet, any journey in which the mind can be still and observe and the self be alone to confront the self, and is this why the wanderer seems to have fallen out of fashion?
*Huntingtower (1922), for those unfamiliar with it, is not fantasy, but the story of a well-off retired Scottish grocer who sets off on a walking holiday and is caught up into a romantic adventure with a cynical Modern poet and an exiled Russian princess. There is much in it about the romance of adventure. It’s dedicated, by the way, to the scholar W.P. Ker, author of Epic and Romance.