Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Chivalry Romances As A Literary Genre

As a literary genre of high culture, romance or chivalry romance is a style of heroic prose and verse narrative that was popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe. They were fantastic stories about the marvelous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight errant, often of super-human ability, which often goes on a quest. Popular literature also drew on themes of romance, but with ironic, satiric or burlesque intent. Romances reworked legends, fairy tales, and history to suit tastes, but by c. 1600 they were out of fashion.

The romance genre continues to be one of the most popular fiction genres to date. Romances of all sub-genres have two aspects of the plot that are consistent throughout. First, the love story is the center point of the story, and second, the ending is emotionally satisfying.

Romance has a very long and complex history. It was once the place of knights, dragons, quests, magic, spells, wizards, heroic deeds; it dramatized serious moral and political issues through its allegorical powers, psychological and theological complexities through its symbolism, and it entertained.

Romance disappeared as a force in literature in the 17th century with the rise of empirical thought, rationalism, and a theology based on analogy to the natural world and the advent of the bourgeois mode of realism, although it retained a slim foothold through pastoral.

However, as the immediacy of the Holy threatened to disappear from the culture in the late 18th century under pressure of naturalistic explanation, and as industrialization and urbanization started taking its toll on the countryside and the people, romance arose again (the most powerful response to the loss of the Holy was the introduction of the idea of the Sublime, an idea incorporated into some aspects of romance)..

The period was marked by literary expressions of the sublime, of the mysterious, and of the strange; by a return to the imagination of the mediaeval that marked pre-romantic period, so that the mediaeval was the place of historical reference and allusion; and by an idealization of the lives of the country folk (Wordsworth's "Michael," for instance), especially the folk of times past.
The Romance took two main forms in the English novel -- this in the early part of the 19th century:

1. Gothic romance, which specialized in symbolic exploration of the unconscious through the strange, the haunting, and irrational. Like many romances the Gothic tended to be set in distant lands or on barren, threatening countryside. Gothic romance exposed and dealt with deep anxieties in persons and the culture; Heath cliff in Wuthering Heights, for instance, is a dark foreigner and hence culturally the Other, that against which we define and defend our humanity and civilized state, he a man with no parentage, a waif from the slums of Europe; and he is a figuring-forth of the force and terror of evil and of the irrational, a force of energy without civility. He is inexplicable but compelling because he sums the fears of his time and, to an extent, ours. Frankenstein's monster showed us the terrors that scientific interference in the holiness of the human held for us.

2. Historical romance, as modeled by Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels, which novels evoked the past -- the past of the people, of the Scottish nation, full of both Lords and peasants -- as a source of value and meaning, that place where life was more concrete, vivid, adventuresome and, well, 'romantic'. James Fenimore Cooper (The Deer Slayer, The Last of the Mohicans, etc.) was the "American Scott."

Romance continued to be popular in the 20th Century and shows no sign of slowing down in the 21st. Popular sub-genres of romance include historical, paranormal, contemporary, erotica, regency, category, and romantic suspense. America took Gothic romance to its bosom. Hawthorne (e.g. In The Scarlet Letter) defined the romance as opposed to the novel as, briefly, a place of more mystery, less specific description of concrete reality, a place where, if you will, both elemental and spiritual forces could be put in play in a landscape that was full of symbolism, almost allegorical, potential. He set his romances, as romances are often set, in places distant, where different rules could apply, or in the past. Today we have still both Gothic and historical romance, and romance is generally associated with the strange and mysterious, the adventurous, with the lure of foreign lands, with something slightly magical, with a story which refuses to be tied to the realist tradition and explores phenomena which are unusual, allegorical, and symbolic. Of course, we have True Romance and the localization of the long tradition of courtship stories in our culture in romance settings, whether it is haunted homes, the Wild West, or bleak, windswept shores.

Romance tends to be more allegorical than realist fiction can be, to dramatize elemental forces, psychological undercurrents, and conflicts on the battlefield of the human heart and soul. It is more subversive, more revolutionary, more bipolar (good/evil, etc.), more allegorical, more symbolic, more evocative, more open to magic, the effects of atmosphere, and the strange.

There follows a set of binary oppositions related to historical romance, as suggested by George Dekker in The American Historical Romance:

Two quotes on Romance:

Many writers of romances require not only strange circumstances and abnormal psychology to portray their visions, but exotic scenery, as well. But their imaginary landscapes provide a way to reality, not an escape from it, and their faraway islands are not discoverable on any map only because, as Melville says, "true places never are."
Edwin M. Eigner in Pastoral and Romance

Curiously enough, the fascination for the bizarre, the individual peculiarity, and the monstrous [of gothic romance] seems to have led more significantly to a fictional discovery of the true depths of human nature than to a mere exploitation of the sensational and the perverse. By its insistence on singularity and exotic setting, the gothic novel seems to have freed the minds of readers from direct involvement of their superego's and allowed them to pursue daydreams and wish fulfillment in regions where inhibitions and guilt could be suspended. Those regions became thereby available to great writers who eventually demonstrated that sadism, indefinite guiltiness, mingled pleasure and pain (Maturin's "delicious agony"), and love-hate, were also deeply rooted in the minds of the supposedly normal....With Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ....For the first time in gothic fiction characters take on the full symbolic resonance of inner psychological reality..... The gothic hero easily shades into what is commonly called the romantic hero....Both share an essential loneliness and the feeling of incommunicability; both are generally scapegoats or guilt-haunted wanderers... [Heath cliff as a gothic character].

Lowry Nelson, Jr., ibid. One aspect of romance, especially gothic, is the idea of the monstrous -- as it happens I have a binary set for monstrosity, which I borrowed from Prof. Sue Spearey.

Among the existing romances Sir Gawain is outstanding other romances that came later were Sir Thomas Malory’s prose work Le Morte D’Arthur, Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queene, Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia and numerous other works. The Elizabethan had a penchant for stories of all kinds, especially the folk tale sort, and the many different rather debased varieties of Romance. The story is a romance based on an ancient legend of a Green Knight who challenges Arthur’s Knights, and who having had his head cut off, picks it up, rides away, and reminds his opponent of his promise to face him in return at the Green Chapel in a year’s time. Sir Gawain is the most subtle verse romance in English medieval literature. The romances, the stories of Arthur, of Charlemagne, and the Trojan Wars, and the more native stories of King Horn and Havelok the Dane, are among the most typical products of medieval literature.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance outlining an adventure of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. In the tale, Sir Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious warrior who is completely green, from his clothes and hair to his beard and skin. The "Green Knight" offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts, and beheads him in one blow, only to have the Green Knight stand up, pick up his head, and remind Gawain to meet him at the appointed time. The story of Gawain's struggle to meet the appointment and his adventures along the way demonstrate the spirit of chivalry and loyalty.

The Faerie Queene is its age’s greatest poetic monument, and one can get lost in its musical, pictorial and intellectual delights. From 1580 Spencer was a colonist, writing The Faerie Queene. He published three books in 1590 (and got a pension), adding three more in 1596. He dedicated his heroic romance to Queen. It is now the chief literary monument of her cult. Spencer was loved by John Milton and the Romantics.

The Arcadia, Sydney’s romance tells the story of two princesses shipwrecked on the shore of Arcadia, the home of pastoral poetry. They disguise themselves and fall in love with the daughters of Basileus (Greek king), who has withdrawn to live with shepherds in order to avoid the oracle’s prophecy: that his elder daughter Pamela shall be seduced; his younger succumb to an unnatural love; he commit adultery with his own wife; and his sons-in-law be accused of his murder. After fantastic adventures, some tragic, and denouements like those of Shakespeare’s romances, the oracle is technically fulfilled; yet ends well. Arcadia is high-spirited play. Its fortunes fell as the nobility fell, and romance gave way to the novel, the more plausible diversion of plainer folk. The Arcadia is an entertainment for family and friends, offering positive and negative moral and public ideals to the governing class to which they belonged.

The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia, both printed in 1590, are the first major works in English Literature since Le Morte D’Arthur. Hugely ambitious, their scale and accomplishment give them an importance which posterity has confirmed in different ways. Spencer’s complex long poem, imitative of early Chaucer, was drawn on by Milton, Wordsworth and Keats. But the popularity of Arcadia ended with the 18th century; its prose was too artful for Hazlitt. In these two works, which have the megalomania of the Elizabethan great house, scholars have recently found rich intellectual schemes.

A History of English Literature by Michael Alexander
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J. A. Cuddon.