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An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 4: Tolkien’s Template

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: A Halloween Setting All-Year Round -- The Mysterious Forests of Chivalric Romance (pic by David Vogt, Shutterstock, used w/permission for #127964312)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: A Halloween Setting All-Year Round — The Mysterious Forests of Chivalric Romance (pic by David Vogt, Shutterstock, used w/permission for #127964312)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 4: Tolkien’s Template

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: Romance Tropes in "The Mabinogion" ("Pwyll, Price of Dyfed," by Alan Lee

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: Romance Tropes in “The Mabinogion” (“Pwyll, Price of Dyfed,” by Alan Lee

Good Morning, Everyone!

Halloween’s approaching here in the United States, and while the kids “spook-ify” the house, thought it a good time to resume discussion of “romance and chivalry” in medieval literature.

The developments during this stage of history most directly influence today’s epic fantasy genre, with romantic ideas and expressions so prevalent in the form that they often become clichéd tropes.  Indeed, as we’ve seen in the last couple of blogs, the most common theme for the writers of courtly romance was a casting back to some remote, almost utopian and idealized past (Alexander the Great &/or Trojans vs. Greeks, the “Matter of Rome” that featured early Britons vs. the Romans, “Arthurian cycles,”etc.).  Writers such as Chrétien de Troyes transformed these pasts into a romantic present, with romantic love, chivalric quests, wondrous creatures, magical talismans, and dutiful religious sensibilities as the central themes (e.g., Christian purity, loyalty to one’s lord, etc.).

Chivalric Romance: A Knight Armed by Lady (from Codex Manesse, 14th c.)

Chivalric Romance: A Knight Armed by Lady (from Codex Manesse, 14th c.)

Romantic literature itself can be traced to the 12th century, but its precedents actually stretch back to poetry in Latin Antiquity (1st century works of  Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’s Thebaïs).

If epic fantasists of the 21st century want to make original works, they’d be well-served to make the same effort J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis did and become familiar with some of these sources.

Inspiration of Medieval Romance in Post-Apocalyptic Setting: Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" (art by Michael Whelan)

Inspiration of Medieval Romance in Post-Apocalyptic Setting: Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” (art by Michael Whelan)

As a medieval philologist, Tolkien described his works variously as aligned with “fairy stories,” “sagas,” or “romance,” and its upon the latter term that I want to focus today.  For example, one of the most appealing commonalities shared by the better epic fantasists who followed Tolkien was the keen attention that many of the next generation’s creators paid to the basics of medieval romance.

For instance, just to name a few of my favorites, check out the worlds of mid- to late-20th century fantasists such as Michael Moorcock (Melniboné & the Young Kingdoms), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Novels),Terry Brooks (Shannara Series), Fritz Leiber (Lankhmar), Stephen King (Gilead in The Dark Tower Series), and Katherine Kurtz (The Deryni Novels).

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("Eowyn & the Lord of the Nazgul," Donato Giancola, 2010)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“Eowyn & the Lord of the Nazgul,” Donato Giancola, 2010)

Whatever points-of-departure these writers took, they followed or rejected Tolkien’s framework — consciously, in the expressed cases of Moorcock and King — but all intuitively adopted the elements that both constitute a good story and which also hearken back to a literary form invented 800 years ago in the Middle Ages.  Contrarily, think about when you encounter poor or hackneyed fantasy writing —which I won’t cite; you know it when you see it! — in those cases, it’s likely that the author is attempting to imitate some of those elements without knowing how they’re supposed to be woven together.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Tolkien himself unequivocally identified his works with the medieval romance; here’s a quotation from a draft of Letter 329 (from a Letter to Peter Szabé Szentmihályi):
[Begin Tolkien excerpt]: “I have very little interest in serial literary history, and no interest at all in the history or present situation of the English ‘novel.’ My work is not a ‘novel,’ but an ‘heroic romance,’ a much older [and] quite different variety of literature.” [End Tolkien excerpt, from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (1980), #329, p. 452.]

In another letter, Tolkien made more explicit he began writing with the dream of bringing medieval romance into modern times; specifically, in how the LotR and The Silmarillion might one day give Great Britain a medieval romance of the kind that could contend with the more renowned French traditions:

H. Carpenter & C. Tolkien, eds., "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien"

H. Carpenter & C. Tolkien, eds., “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien”

[Begin Tolkien quotation, from Letter 144, To Naomi Mitchison]:
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English [. . .] Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story [. . .] which I could dedicate simply to England; to my country. [End quotation, from from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (1980), #144, p. 193.]

Tolkien’s Unique Approach: Reversing Expectations

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The "Carmina Burana" (collection of Goliardic love & vagabond songs, c. 11th-13th centuries)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The “Carmina Burana” (collection of Goliardic love & vagabond songs, c. 11th-13th centuries)

Now, let’s see how Tolkien’s works of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion took certain parts of medieval literature and updated them for the early 20th Century; particularly, let’s look at the three forms I’ve covered  from the 9th-12th centuries: Goliardic poetry, chansons de geste, and the chivalric romance.

Goliardic Poetry:  You’ll recall that this form of Latin literature accompanied the rise of universities in France & England (c. 1200 A.D.).  “Goliardic poetry” was one of the first forms that really got popularized among faculty and students.  (The term “Goliardic” comes from the word “Goliath” in the Old Testament, but which also was a word for the Devil/Satan in the Early Middle Ages).  This type of poetry included a variety of topics that any fantasist worth his or her weight in salt could include in their stories:  drinking songs, love songs, nature songs, songs on the joys of youth, and even “protest literature” against the Church!  Here’s an example of the style:

[from Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe, 2nd Ed., p. 319]:
My intention is to die
In a tavern drinking.
Wine will be at hand, for I
Want it when I’m sinking.
Angels who look on will cry,
Their eyes with tears a-blinking:
“Save this drunkard, God on high
— he’s absolutely stinking!”
[End Backman excerpt]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Sir Orfeo" (Trans. by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1944; publ. 1975; "Orpheus and Eurydice," art by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Sir Orfeo” (Trans. by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1944; publ. 1975; “Orpheus and Eurydice,” art by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot)

As far as Tolkien is concerned,  I see the songs and poems that occur throughout his works influenced just as much by this type of literature as by the more “elevated” poetry forms seen in BeowulfPearl, or Sir Orfeo.  A good way to remember this association with the medieval Goliardic tradition would be the following scenes: and

J.R.R. Tolkien, "An Unexpected Party," from "The Hobbit" (art by David Wenzel)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “An Unexpected Party,” from “The Hobbit” (art by David Wenzel)

(1) the “Chip the glasses and crack the plates” song that the dwarves sing in The Hobbit‘s chapter of “An Unexpected Party”:

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates —
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Splash the wine on every door!

Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl;
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you’re finished, if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So, carefully, carefully with the plates!
[End excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937), pp. 20-21]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony," from "The Fellowship of the Ring" (art by Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony,” from “The Fellowship of the Ring” (art by Alan Lee)

(2) “The Man in the Moon” song that Frodo sings while in a tavern in The Fellowship of the Ring‘s “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”

There is an inn, a merry old inn,
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill…

The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five-stringed fiddle;
And up and down he runs his bow,
Now squeaking high, now purring low,
now sawing in the middle.

The landlord keeps a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes;
When there’s good cheer among the guests,
He cocks an ear at all the jests,
and laughs until he chokes.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (art by The Brothers Hildebrandt)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (art by The Brothers Hildebrandt)

They also keep a hornèd cow
as proud as any queen;
But music turns her head like ale,
And makes her wave her tufted tail
and dance upon the green.

And O! the rows of silver dishes
and the store of silver spoons!
For Sunday there’s a special pair,
And these they polish up with care
on Saturday afternoons.

The Man in the Moon was drinking deep,
and the cat began to wail;
A dish and a spoon on the table danced,
The cow in the garden madly pranced,
and the little dog chased his tail…
[End excerpt: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), pp. 170-171]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Knights on Quests (C.S. Lewis, "Prince Caspian," Concept Art)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Knights on Quests (C.S. Lewis, “Prince Caspian,” Concept Art)

The Chanson de Gestes & Lyric Poetry of the TroubadoursThese literary forms were prevalent in southern France of the 12th/13th century (Provence, Toulouse, and Aquitaine), and, in the case of many traveling minstrels, they sang either “heroic epics” — the “songs of [great] deeds — or tales paid for by a patronizing nobility (William IX of Aquitaine, his granddaughter, Eleanor, et al), all of whom wanted to hear stories about the following themes:  idealization of women, male gallantry & courtesy, undying devotion, agonized & unrequited love, etc.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance Tropes in "The Mabinogion" (Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance Tropes in “The Mabinogion” (Alan Lee)

Here’s an example from Duke William IX, whose patronage helped foster and sustain the new genre:

[Begin excerpt]:
I’ll write a verse now just for fun,
One not about me or anyone,
One not about a youth in love.
Or anything along that course.
I’m writing it out in the sun
While riding on my horse.

I cannot say when I was born,
I am not happy but I’m not forlorn,
Still I’m ill at ease and unsure of
What I’m going to do next.
Bewitched by an enchantress, I’m feeling torn;
In fact I’m rather perplexed.

I can’t tell real life from a dream
And must be told when they would seem
To have begun. My heart’s a-scream
With bitterness and confusion;
I care so little I might blaspheme —
Just a stab at resolution…
[End excerpt, from Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe, p. 321]

Beatriz de Dia (from Bibliothèque Nationale, MS cod fr. 12473, 13th c.)

Beatriz de Dia (from Bibliothèque Nationale, MS cod fr. 12473, 13th c.)

Thankfully, the romance genre also offers some of the first true female troubadour lyrics of the Middle Ages, as seen in the work of the “Countess of Dia,” whose four poems remain to us from c. 1140:

[Begin, Countess of Dia poem]:
I have been of late in fretful mood
Over a knight who once was mine.
I want it always understood
That I loved him with a love sublime.
But now I see I’ve been betrayed
Because I wouldn’t make love with him.
In my naked nights and in day, full arrayed,
I dwell on this mistake so grim.
[End excerpt, from Backman, Worlds, p. 322]

Such poems represent the first inroads into what moderns call the “psychology” of a protagonist, where we see attention shift from simply recounting actions to a narrative’s conveyance of feelings and emotions from the main character’s point of view, or, what we’ve come to know as the “romance” form of the High Middle Ages.

Medieval Language & Literature: "The Wanderer" ("The Sea," John Howe)

Medieval Language & Literature: “The Wanderer” (“The Sea,” John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Parting at the Grey Havens" (from "The Return of the King")

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Parting at the Grey Havens” (from “The Return of the King”)

In Tolkien’s works, his stories might be seen as blending both the “narrative” aspects of the chansons (singular characters, spectacular battles, end-0f-world stakes, etc.) and the themes of lyric poetry with the kind of “elegiac laments” seen in the early medieval poems of “The Seafarer” or “The Wanderer.”   It’s in the moments of loss and regret in The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (the Dwarves eviction from the Lonely Mountain, the Elves’ yearning for the West, the End of the Third Age, the dislocation and grief that await Bilbo and Frodo at journey’s end, etc.) that we see the “heroic” & “world lost” elements of Tolkien’s favorite medieval poem, Beowulf, mixed with elements of the part of the medieval literary tradition that’s most important for an epic fantasist, the medieval romance.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance Tropes in "The Mabinogion" ("Gereint, Son of Erbin," by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance Tropes in “The Mabinogion” (“Gereint, Son of Erbin,” by Alan Lee)

The Chivalric Romance:  The troubadour tradition that informed the Goliardic poets, wandering chanson de geste minstrels, and scholastic lyric poets began to have effects outside of France, & we see a rise in northern Fr., Germany, and England of “courtly manners.” Attention began to be paid to urbane speech, chivalric behavior, and those romantic ideals start to appear in other literatures (in England, the expansion of the King Arthur legend under Geoffrey of Monmouth; in France, the work of Chrétien de Troyes in Tristan & Iseult, and Lancelot and Guinivere; in German, the works of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal).

Tolkien’s complete immersion in the early medieval period and his mastery of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages inspired him to recreate a facsimile of the Christianity and mythologies that informed the 8th through 12th Century northern European & Scandinavian worlds.  You’ll not find explicit references to Christianity (nor pagan beliefs) in his works, but you will find the former’s attention to “universality” and an elevation of the “common human being” that confound what we know about the medieval literature of the period.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("Arwen & King Elessar," Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“Arwen & King Elessar,” Michael Kaluta)

That’s a crucial point, and, in my opinion, one of the key components that make the mythologies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so enjoyable and long-lasting.  If Tolkien had remained true to the framework of the medieval chivalric romance, the first-person in The LotR should have been Aragorn, with an attendant love story involving Arwen.  Instead, the protagonists are hobbits, the most “common” folk of all the peoples of Middle Earth!  Yes, present throughout all of Tolkien’s works are the elements of medieval romance (the Quest, knights & warriors, magical adventures, wondrous creatures, etc), but, Aragorn, the one Arthur-like figure in LotR, is not the main character in the books.

Indeed, even when the action “splits” in The Two Towers, the “noble characters” — the broken fellowship’s Aragorn (King), Gimli (Prince), Legolas (Prince), and Gandalf (Merlin-like Court Wizard) — have “quests” that are entirely in the service of the Commoners’/hobbits’s greater Quests; all strive to give Frodo and Sam a chance to destroy the Ring at Mount Doom, while the other hobbits, Merry and Pippin, become crucial in resolving huge plot points by story’s end (i.e., the recruitment of Treebeard to lead army of Ents to overthrow Saruman and “elimination” of Denethor in Minas Tirith to pave way for the “return of the King”).

J.R.R. Tolkien's Elevation of the Medieval Everyman: Bilbo Baggins & Hobbits in "A Long Expected Party," from "The Fellowship of the Ring" (Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, 2001)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elevation of the Medieval Everyman: Bilbo Baggins & Hobbits in “A Long Expected Party,” from “The Fellowship of the Ring” (Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, 2001)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: William Langland, "Piers the Plowman" ("March," Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry," 1410; Musée Condé, MS 65, fol. 3v)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: William Langland, “Piers the Plowman” (“March,” Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry,” 1410; Musée Condé, MS 65, fol. 3v)

Meaningful Critiques of the Epic Fantasy Genre in Michael Moorcock, "Wizardry & Wild Romance"

Meaningful Critiques of the Epic Fantasy Genre in Michael Moorcock, “Wizardry & Wild Romance”

In these approaches that elevated the hobbits to heroic stature, one could argue that Tolkien flipped the 12th-13th medieval romantic tradition on its head by introducing the kind of attention to common folk not seen until the 14th century works of Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) and William Langland (Piers the Plowman).

All elements of a faux-medieval society are present in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but in ways that transform our expectations of the medieval romance. That’s the achievement of Tolkien in his creation of what we know as today’s Epic Fantasy genre.

For those who’d seek to write epic fantasy, you might take elements from Tolkien and replicate/evolve them in your own works, but his works won’t (and shouldn’t) be repeated because Tolkien’s creations were informed by a unique set of specialized interests he held as a medieval philologist and fantasist (languages, Beowulf, fairy stories, Norse & Scandinavian myths, etc).

Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Checkmate (art by Matt Stawicki)

Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Checkmate (art by Matt Stawicki)

And I say, who’d want to repeat them?  I don’t.  I deeply enjoy the trips I make to Middle Earth when I read Tolkien’s books, and want his worlds left well enough alone when I move on to other books in the epic fantasy genre.  Unfortunately, except for the Moorcocks, Le Guins, Kurtzes, Kings, and Leibers, not many authors have bothered to do their own takes on the medieval romance and make that part of the fantasy tradition uniquely their own. I’m trying to do so in my own Artifacts of Destiny series, but the pushback from publishers is often daunting; many want only the “next” Hobbit or LotR without realizing the kinds of traditions from which Tolkien himself drew inspiration.

Hopefully, in these kinds of examinations on how Tolkien’s work was but “one take” on the vast corpus of the medieval romantic tradition, those publishers and readers will realize that there is a vast, unexplored terrain in the offing, but whose expression also might have a different “feel” to its brand of fantasy than anything Tolkien wrote.  Of course, I think that my own book, The Codex Lacrimae, is one example of this type of new fantasy, but there are some others on the market that are also beginning to make a difference.  (See links below.)

Thanks for visiting!
A.J.

A.J. Carlisle’s Recommended Fantasy Reading:
Saladin Ahmed, Crescent Moon Kingdoms Series
Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara Series
Stephen R. Donaldson, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Guy Gabriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan,The Sarantine Mosaic, The Last Night of the Sun
N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Katherine Kurtz, The Chronicles of the Deryni
Stephen R. Lawhead, The Pendragon Cycle
Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser Books
Michael Moorcock, The Elric Books, or Chronicles of Last Emperor of Melniboné
Michael Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance (Literary Criticism of Epic Fantasy Genre)
Mary Stewart, The Merlin Trilogy and The Wicked Day

Next Time: Medieval Literature (4) The Visionaries

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 3: Frye’s Essential Aspects

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 3: Frye’s Essential Aspects

Inspiration of Ancient & Medieval Ideas: "The Isle of the Dead" ("Die Toteninsel," Arnold Böcklin, c. 1880-1886)

Inspiration of Ancient & Medieval Ideas: “The Isle of the Dead” (“Die Toteninsel,” Arnold Böcklin, c. 1880-1886)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

As you look at last 50+ years’ worth of offerings in the Epic (or High) Fantasy genre, do you ever wonder why many of the stories (both well-written, or not) often seem to feature

  • Inspiration of Ancient and Medieval Ideas: "Odysseus in Front of Scylla & Charybdis" (Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1794-1796)

    Inspiration of Ancient and Medieval Ideas: “Odysseus in Front of Scylla & Charybdis” (Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1794-1796)

    a young person separated from familiar environs and who embarks on a journey of self-discovery?

  • a setting that casts back to a fabled, bygone age or is so remote from our current era that it evokes nostalgia for a “simpler time?”
  • a hero embarking on some kind of quest?
  • many encounters with the “marvelous,” or supernatural creatures, landscapes, & situations?
  • a crossing over (and return) from another world, reality, “lands of death,” or interdimensional travel?
  • a love story that, even if (un)requited, ends in a somewhat “complex” happy ending? (note: be careful of the medieval stories meeting modern expectations for what constitutes a “happy ending” —that is, for the French, that ending might include both lovers “joining each other in death” à la Tristan & Iseult, and for the English, there’s might be a marriage, reunion, etc.)
  • a conflict that pits the hero against an enemy, with both protagonist and antagonist possessed of semi-divine attributes?
  • usually isn’t a ‘done-in-one’ tale, but instead unfolds across a host of ‘trilogies,’ three-part ‘sagas,’ multi-booked ‘series,’ and/or ‘chronicles?’

    Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Roman d'Enéas," c. 1150-1165, Latin poet's adaptation of Virgil's "Aeneid" (Here, 14th c. ms depicting "Mariage d'Énée et Lavinia, Amata et messager")

    Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Roman d’Enéas,” c. 1150-1165, Latin poet’s adaptation of Virgil’s “Aeneid” (Here, 14th c. ms depicting “Mariage d’Énée et Lavinia, Amata et messager”)

The answer, the reason that any/all of these aspects appear in today’s epic fantasy books is the medieval romance.  In the wrong hands, many of these features can become cliches; however, there’s a reason that many of these plot points have endured for almost a thousand years.

Let’s take a look at some reasons why the romance form strikes such a chord, using the criteria of Northrop Frye, who in his 1957 book, The Anatomy of Criticism, explained “romance” as including the following (bold-face emphases are mine):

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Roman de Troie" c. 1150-1165, Benoît de Sainte-Maure's poetic dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine; interestingly, based on 4th-5th century Latin adaptation of Homer, because Greek not common in West at time... (Here, "Jason et le dragon, Enlèvement d'Hélène, et Incendie de Troie," 14th c. ms)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Roman de Troie” c. 1150-1165, Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s poetic dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine; interestingly, based on 4th-5th century Latin adaptation of Homer, because Greek not common in West at time… (Here, “Jason et le dragon, Enlèvement d’Hélène, et Incendie de Troie,” 14th c. ms)

[Begin Frye excerpt, from The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957]:
The romance is nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream, and for that reason it has socially a curiously paradoxical role. In every age the ruling social or intellectual class tends to project its ideals in some form of romance, where the virtuous heroes and beautiful heroines represent the ideals and the villains the threats to their ascendancy. This is the general character of chivalric romance in the Middle Ages, aristocratic romance in the Renaissance, bourgeois romance since the eighteenth century, and revolutionary romance in contemporary Russia. Yet there is a genuinely “proletarian” element in romance too which is never satisfied with its various incarnations, and in fact the incarnations themselves indicate that no matter how great a change may take place in society, romance will turn up again, as hungry as ever, looking for new hopes and desires to feed on. The perennially child like quality of romance is marked by its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space. There has never to my knowledge been any period of Gothic English literature, but the list of Gothic revivalists stretches completely across its entire history, from the Beowulf poet to writers of our own day.

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Roman de Thèbes," c. 1150-65, adaptation of Latin poet Statius's "Thebaïs' (Vers 1330, BNF, Paris)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Roman de Thèbes,” c. 1150-65, adaptation of Latin poet Statius’s “Thebaïs’ (Vers 1330, BNF, Paris)

[Frye excerpt continued, from The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957]:
The essential element of plot in romance is adventure, which means that romance is naturally a sequential and processional form, hence we know it better from fiction than from drama. At its most naive it is an endless form in which a central character who never develops or ages goes through one adventure after an other until the author himself collapses. We see this form in comic strips, where the central characters persist for years in a state of refrigerated deathlessness. However, no book can rival the continuity of the newspaper, and as soon as romance achieves a literary form, it tends to limit itself to a sequence of minor adventures leading up to a major or climacteric adventure, usually announced from the beginning, the completion of which rounds off the story. We may call this major adventure, the element that gives literary form to the romance, the quest.

Medieval Courtly Romance- St. George & the Dragon (Art by John Howe)

Medieval Courtly Romance- St. George & the Dragon (Art by John Howe)

Le Morte d'Arthur — The Battle of Cad Camlan, Arthur vs. Mordred (art by Arthur Rackham)

Le Morte d’Arthur — The Battle of Cad Camlan, Arthur vs. Mordred (art by Arthur Rackham)

[Frye excerpt continued]:
The complete form of the romance is clearly the successful quest, and such a completed form has three main stages: the stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero. We may call these three stages respectively, using Greek terms, the agon or conflict, the pathos or death-struggle, and the anagnorisis or discovery, the recognition of the hero, who has clearly proved himself to be a hero even if he does not survive the conflict. Thus the romance expresses more clearly the passage from struggle through a point of ritual death to a recognition scene that we discovered in comedy. A threefold structure is repeated in many features of romance in the frequency, for instance, with which the successful hero is a third son, or the third to undertake the quest, or successful on his third attempt. It is shown more directly in the three-day rhythm of death, disappearance and revival which is found in the myth of Attis and other dying gods, and has been incorporated in our Easter.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "The Cave of Despair," (Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, 1590s; art by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1835)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “The Cave of Despair,” (Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, 1590s; art by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1835)

Inspiration of Ancient and Medieval Ideas: The Romantic Epic, Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso" (Gustave Doré

Inspiration of Ancient and Medieval Ideas: The Romantic Epic, Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” (Gustave Doré

[Frye excerpt continued]:
A quest involving conflict assumes two main characters, a protagonist or hero, and an antagonist or enemy. (No doubt I should add, for the benefit of some readers, that I have read the article “Protagonist” in Fowler’s Modern English Usage.) The enemy may be an ordinary human being, but the nearer the romance is to myth, the more attributes of divinity will cling to the hero and the more the enemy will take on demonic mythical qualities. The central form of romance is dialectical: everything is focussed on a conflict between the hero and his enemy, and all the reader’s values are bound up with the hero. Hence the hero of romance is analogous to the mythical Messiah or deliverer who comes from an upper world, and his enemy is analogous to the demonic powers of a lower world.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Celtic Myths ("Cernunnos," John Howe, 2007)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Celtic Myths (“Cernunnos,” John Howe, 2007)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Celtic Myth" (John Howe, 2002)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Celtic Myth” (John Howe, 2002)

[Frye excerpt continued]:
The conflict however takes place in, or at any rate primarily concerns, our world, which is in the middle, and which is characterized by the cyclical movement of nature. Hence the opposite poles of the cycles of nature are assimilated to the opposition of the hero and his enemy. The enemy is associated with winter, darkness, confusion, sterility, moribund life, and old age, and the hero with spring, dawn, order, fertility, vigor, and youth. As all the cyclical phenomena can be readily associated or identified, it follows that any attempt to prove that a romantic story does or does not resemble, say, a solar myth, or that its hero does or does not resemble a sun-god, is likely to be a waste of time. If it is a story within this general area, cyclical imagery is likely to be present, and solar imagery is normally prominent among cyclical images. If the hero of a romance returns from a quest disguised, flings off his beggar’s rags, and stands forth in the resplendent scarlet cloak of the prince, we do not have a theme which has necessarily descended from a solar myth; we have the literary device of displacement. The hero does something which we may or may not, as we like, associate with the myth of the sun returning at dawn. If we are reading the story as critics, with an eye to structural principles, we shall make the association, because the solar analogy explains why the hero’s act is an effective and conventional incident. If we are reading the story for fun, we need not bother: that is, some murky “subconscious” factor in our response will take care of the association.

Inspiration of Ancient and Medieval Ideas: "The Fall of Atlantis" (François de Nomé, 1593-1620)

Inspiration of Ancient and Medieval Ideas: “The Fall of Atlantis” (François de Nomé, 1593-1620)

Inspiration of Ancient & Medieval Ideas: Adam & Eve Expelled from the Garden (Gustave Doré)

Inspiration of Ancient & Medieval Ideas: Adam & Eve Expelled from the Garden (Gustave Doré)

We have distinguished myth from romance by the hero’s power of action: in the myth proper he is divine, in the romance proper he is human. This distinction is much sharper theologically than it is poetically, and myth and romance both belong in the general category of mythopoeic literature. The attributing of divinity to the chief characters of myth, however, tends to give myth a further distinction, already referred to, of occupying a central canonical position. Most cultures regard certain stories with more reverence than others, either because they are thought of as historically true or because they have come to bear a heavier weight of conceptual meaning. The story of Adam and Eve in Eden has thus a canonical position for poets in our tradition whether they believe in its historicity or not. The reason for the greater profundity of canonical myth is not solely tradition, but the result of the greater degree of metaphorical identification that is possible is myth. In literary criticism the myth is normally the metaphorical key to the displacements of romance, hence the importance of the quest-myth of the Bible in what follows. But because of the tendency to expurgate and moralize in canonical myth, the less inhibited area of legend and folk tale often contains an equally great concentration of mythical meaning.

Tristan & Isolde (Edmund Leighton, 1902)

Tristan & Isolde (Edmund Leighton, 1902)

Medieval Language & Literature: "St. George & the Dragon" (from the "Moralia of Job," ms. lat., 12thc.)

Medieval Language & Literature: “St. George & the Dragon” (from the “Moralia of Job,” ms. lat., 12thc.)

The central form of quest-romance is the dragon-killing theme exemplified in the stories of St. George and Perseus, already referred to. A land ruled by a helpless old king is laid waste by a sea-monster, to whom one young person after another is offered to be devoured, until the lot falls on the king’s daughter: at that point the hero arrives, kills the dragon, marries the daughter, and succeeds to the kingdom. Again, as with comedy, we have a simple pattern with many complex elements. The ritual analogies of the myth suggest that the monster is the sterility of the land itself, and that the sterility of the land is present in the age and impotence of the king, who is sometimes suffering from an incurable malady or wound, like Amfortas in Wagner. His position is that of Adonis overcome by the boar of winter, Adonis’s traditional thigh-wound being as close to castration symbolically as it is anatomically… [End excerpt, Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, with Foreward by Howard Bloom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, c. 1957), from “The Mythos of Summer: Romance,” pp. 186-205.]

For those interested in pursuing some medieval romances, check out the following:

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Romance Tradition ("Yvain, His Lion, & the Dragon," 15th c. French ms)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Romance Tradition (“Yvain, His Lion, & the Dragon,” 15th c. French ms)

Romance Literature
c. 12th c. Alberic de Briançon, Roman d’Alexandre
c. 12th c.  Roman d’Enéas
c. 12th c.  Roman de Thèbes
c. 12th c.
  Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Roman de Troie
c. 12th c. Hue de Rotelande, Protesilaus
c. 12th c. Chrétien de Troyes (fl. 1160-1185) Erec; Cligès; Lancelot, ou de la charrette; Yvain, ou Le Chevalier au Lion; and Perceval, ou Conte du Graal (first appearance of the Holy Grail in Western literature)
c. 1185  Andreas Capellanus, De Amore (“On Love”), a.k.a., The Art of Courtly Love

Medieval Romance: The Quest for the Holy Grail ("Chretien de Troyes, "Yvain," 13th c. ms)

Medieval Romance: The Quest for the Holy Grail (“Chretien de Troyes, “Yvain,” 13th c. ms)

c. 13th c.  Raoul de Houdenc, Méraugis de Portlesguez
c. 1200-1202  Jean Renart, L’Escoufle
c. 1210  Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan und Isolde
c. 12th-13th c.  [Greco-Byzantine/Moorish origin] Floire et Blancheflor
13th c. Guillame de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s The Roman de la Rose
14th c. The Mabinogion’s Welsh romances of Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain; Geraint and Enidand Peredur, son of Efrawg
13th-14th c.  Sir Orfeo
late 14th c.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (use J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, publ.  posthumously in 1975 by Christopher Tolkien, whose edition also contains “Pearl” & “Sir Orfeo”)
1485  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
c. 1516-1532 Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso

Thanks for visiting!
A.J.

Next Time:  Putting it all together — Medieval Romance and Modern Epic Fantasy: Aligning with (& Departing from) the Tolkien Template.

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 2: The Groundwork of Latin & Vernacular Literatures

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 2: The Groundwork of Latin & Vernacular Literatures

Good Morning, Everyone!

As we delve into some of the underpinnings of modern expressions of Epic (or High) Fantasy, I’ve recently cast back 1,000 years or so to the time of the chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”), seeing in the chansons’  great battles, heroic figures, & feudal hierarchies (lords & vassals) intimations of the standard themes prevalent in today’s epic fantasy.

Fantasy Landscape (Joachim Barrum, Norway)

Fantasy Landscape (Joachim Barrum, Norway)

Influence of Medieval Language:  J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Password into Moria," art by Ted Nasmith)

Influence of Medieval Language: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Password into Moria,” art by Ted Nasmith)

Shifting into one of the next major influences on Epic Fantasy — the medieval romance — we come to the form that most influenced J.R.R. Tolkien, and a host of fantasy imitators who have succeeded his works since The Hobbit was published in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings in 1954-1955.

I’ll get more into the takeaways for Tolkien and the romantic form next blog; today, I think it’s helpful to look at the literary environment that surrounded creators (troubadours, minstrels, monks, et al) c. 1000-1200, a rough transitional period between the chansons de geste and the rise of medieval romances.

One caveat: I’m running through centuries here and taking pictures on the move, so please remember that whenever we look at any historical period, we shouldn’t forget that any apparent “snapshot” of time for us meant days, months, years, and centuries for the people who were actually living those historical moments!

The Long Reach of Medieval Latin (Macclesfield Psalter, "David & the Fool, the ploughing scene, & a portrait gallery,"; Cambridge, Fol. 77, recto; 14th century)

The Long Reach of Medieval Latin (Macclesfield Psalter, “David & the Fool, the ploughing scene, & a portrait gallery,”; Cambridge, Fol. 77, recto; 14th century)

Perhaps a commonplace observation, but as we leave the 10th through 11th century chansons de gestes and look to broader literary transformations throughout the medieval European world, we do need to keep in mind that changes in literature weren’t occurring uniformly, nor simultaneously.

Indeed, the only assertion that one could comfortably make from the evidence would be the fact that — at least among the educated literati (clerics, teachers, & functionaries who were trained in monasteries, church/monastery schools, & nascent universities) — the common bond throughout Europe in the late 11th through 12th centuries was omnis latinitas (“all Latinity”).  This meant that no matter where one went on the Continent or Britain, a Latin-speaking traveler could be confident that attempts at communication would be successful because of the universality of Latin.

That reality of omnis latinitas is the the bridge we need for understanding the literary transformations taking place throughout the Continent and into the British Isles during this period.  That is, we need to establish that there was a basic framework of Latin language before we can start seeing how Latin was transformed into “vernacular” languages (i.e., the common, everyday speech of ordinary folk).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "St. Martin Renounces Army & Chivalry" (fresco, SImone Martini, 14th c.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “St. Martin Renounces Army & Chivalry” (fresco, SImone Martini, 14th c.)

Thanks to the early 5th century works of St. Jerome’s Vulgate and St. Augustine (d. 430), the latter of whom captured neo-Platonic thought through a Christian lens, the Latin literature of the Early and High Middle Ages always had a component that directed the attention of monastic or noble audiences toward God.  The forms of Latin literature ran the gamut from chronicles, histories, and saints’ lives (Gregory of Tours’ The History of the Franks, Venantius Fortunatus, The Life of St. Martin, etc.), to reading suggestions & programs of study (Cassiodorus, Institutiones, which invented the “Trivium” & Quadrivium”), to philosophical works (Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy), to encyclopedias (Isidore of Seville). 

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Optics," from Roger Bacon's "De multiplicatone specierum" (13th c.) — here, "Optical diagram showing light being refracted by a spherical glass container full of water." - Wikipedia)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Optics,” from Roger Bacon’s “De multiplicatone specierum” (13th c.) — here, “Optical diagram showing light being refracted by a spherical glass container full of water.” – Wikipedia)

By the time of the rise of cathedral schools and universities in the 12th and 13th centuries, theologians, scientists, and philosophers all used the Latin language to reinvent the medieval intellectual landscape from the British Isles to Bologna; for example, such luminaries as Alain of Lille, John of Salisbury (Politcraticus), Duns Scotus (Commentary on Sentences of Peter Lombard), Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon (Opus Majus; optics, alchemy, & celestial bodies), Peter Abelard (Sic et Non, History of My Misfortunes), and Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) made intellectual advances that questioned everything from “proofs for the existence of God” to the origins of phenomena in the natural world.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Ars praedicandi," or, "Preaching" (Here, "St. Peter Preaching in Presence of St. Mark," Fra Angelico, ca. 1433; Predella of the Linaioli altarpiece)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Ars praedicandi,” or, “Preaching” (Here, “St. Peter Preaching in Presence of St. Mark,” Fra Angelico, ca. 1433; Predella of the Linaioli altarpiece)

All of these Latin authors were versed from an early age in rhetoric, that way of writing or speaking to persuade, and in an age where Latin grammarians ruled an ecclesiastical intelligentsia, rhetoric could be expressed in three ways:  ars dictamen (“letter-writing”), ars poetriae (“verse-writing”), and ars praedicandi (“sermon-writing,” or “preaching”). This point is critical for those trying to understand how literary writers jumped from a simple “narration” of  adventures à la what we saw in the chansons de geste — a mode of storytelling that usually jumped from action to action, with little consideration given to the whys and wherefores of a character’s deeds — to the very sophisticated emotional & motivational details that appear in the chivalric romance.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Medieval Students ("Teaching at Paris," from "Grandes Chroniques de France," 14th c.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Medieval Students (“Teaching at Paris,” from “Grandes Chroniques de France,” 14th c.)

You see, writers who were trained in rhetoric were accustomed to making arguments in a “scholastic” environment, and these ways of arguing were detailed to a degree that would probably exhaust the modern conversationalist or rhetorician.  That is, as students in cathedral schools, it was simply a given that everyone had memorized much of the Bible, and even long tracts and passages from the more popular authors of the day.  The moment of truth in spoken debates or rhetorical writing came during the dialectic argument, wherein both sides would make propositions, and then defend or attack each other by means of citing authorities before coming to a conclusion.

Medieval University Life: Professors & Students

Medieval University Life: Professors & Students

As the intellectual historian David Knowles synopsized,

David Knowles, "The Evolution of Medieval Thought," 2nd ed. 1988)

David Knowles, “The Evolution of Medieval Thought,” 2nd ed. 1988)

[Begin Knowles excerpt]: “…it [scholasticism] is essentially a term of method. If by a scholastic method we understand a method of discovering and illustrating philosophical truth by means of a dialectic based on Aristotelian logic, then ‘scholastic’ is a useful and significant term. This medieval dialectic, whether, as in an early phase, it is based on Boethian precepts, or whether, as in its mature phase, it rests upon the whole corpus of Aristotelian logic, or whether, in its phase of disintegration, it is a criticism or a supposedly new and truer interpretation of Aristotle, follows throughout a basic pattern of question (quaestio), argument (disputatio), and conclusion (sententia), and it is recognizable throughout the range of forms in which medieval thought finds expression, whether it be the dialogues of St. Anselm, the Sentences of the Lombard, or the Commentaries on the Sentences, the Summae and the Quaestiones disputatae of the thirteenth century, or the De causa Dei of Bradwardine. Thus understood as a methodical process, `scholasticism’ is almost, though not quite, coextensive with medieval thought.” [End excerpt, David Knowles,[Second Edition, edited by D.E. Luscombe and Christopher Brooke] The Evolution of Medieval Thought [New York: Longman Group, 1988], pp. 79-80.]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Latin Poem, "Ovid's Metamorphoses" (Dragon devouring companions of Cadmus)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Latin Poem, “Ovid’s Metamorphoses” (Dragon devouring companions of Cadmus)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Latin Poem, Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (here, "Pyramus & Thisbe," from William Caxton's 1480 trans., the 1st in English language)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Latin Poem, Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (here, “Pyramus & Thisbe,” from William Caxton’s 1480 trans., the 1st in English language)

Now, as regions such as France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy developed their own respective ways of speaking and writing in Latin — the “vernaculars,” or Common Tongues of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian — we start seeing secular literature that both conforms to, and departs from, classical Latin models that were being studied in the schools.  Most of the educated Christian literati had been trained extensively in Latin grammar using those ancient models — library catalogues and reading lists show us that Ovid, Cicero, and Vergil were studied alongside the satires of Horace and Juvenal.  In the 12th century many of the creative expressions weren’t reaching the masses in Latin, but, rather, in vernacular languages whose texts reflect a combination of Antique and Biblical themes being told in regional dialects that were offshoots of Latin (again, the Romance languages of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; but keep in mind that there were transformations occurring in German, too).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Mabinogion ("Cullwch and Olwen," art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Mabinogion (“Cullwch and Olwen,” art by Alan Lee)

Chivalric Romance: A Knight Armed by Lady (from Codex Manesse, 14th c.)

Chivalric Romance: A Knight Armed by Lady (from Codex Manesse, 14th c.)

The minstrels and troubadours who served as the intermediaries between schools, courts, and towns where the chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”) were sung also introduced forms of lyric poetry and chivalrous romance that began paying attention to new themes; separated lovers, unrequited love, loneliness, chivalric impulses, heroic quests, and wonder-filled adventures, all of which thematically began to transform high medieval literature from its roots in classical- or biblical-based Latin into something recognizably vernacular.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Medieval Mystery Plays (Franz Matsch, 1885)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Medieval Mystery Plays (Franz Matsch, 1885)

Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Canterbury Tales" (MS illumination of pilgrims leaving Canterbury, c. 1420.The British Library, MS. Royal 18 D II, folio 148)

Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Canterbury Tales” (MS illumination of pilgrims leaving Canterbury, c. 1420.The British Library, MS. Royal 18 D II, folio 148)

Thus, while there were still chansons being sung in the 11th century that celebrated events from Alexander the Great’s 4th century B.C. and Charlemagne’s 8th-9th century times, the 11th and 12th century also saw lingual transformations across Britain and the Continent.  For example, Old English & the Anglo-Saxon languages became supplanted by a French vernacular (after the Norman Conquest of 1066) that imposed a blend of both French and English; this new vernacular was centuries in the making, and eventually became the “Middle English” revealed by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century.

Medieval Morality Play: "The Triumph of Isabella" (Denis van Alsoot, 1615)

Medieval Morality Play: “The Triumph of Isabella” (Denis van Alsoot, 1615)

English and German touring troupes performed “mystery” plays that reenacted Bible moments, and expanded offerings eventually to include everything from comedic skits, to religious dramas, to “miracle” (or saints’-lives) plays to, finally, “morality” plays where human emotions and failings (Pride, Envy, Sloth, Lust, Anger) were played out before village audiences as incentives to goad the parishioners back into church.  Similar departures from Latin occurred among the educated culture in Italy, culminating in the vernacular Italian recorded by Dante Alighieri in his The Divine Comedy and Boccaccio in The Decameron.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Cultural Interaction: "Marco Polo sailing from Venice in 1271" (c. 15th century; Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Cultural Interaction: “Marco Polo sailing from Venice in 1271” (c. 15th century; Bodleian Library, Oxford)

The transformations that occurred within the vernacular offshoots of Latin weren’t the only changes in medieval literature for this period.  The Crusades and increasing trade exchanges throughout the Mediterranean World and the Continent brought Europeans into contact with a host of Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew influences,  and these encounters had wide-ranging and long-term effects across the spectrum of intellectual, philosophical, religious, and, yes, literary thought.

The 12th Century Renaissance: Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral (12th century)

The 12th Century Renaissance: Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral (12th century)

One of the reasons that I urge would-be (and current) epic fantasists to become familiar with medieval literature is exactly because of the “synthesis” that the writers of the Middle Ages achieved first in their combination of antique Greco-Roman traditions with a Latin Christianity and, from there, beginning with the translators of the 11th and 12th century schools and universities, the assimilation (or refutation) of Arabic and Hebrew traditions. Such cultural and intellectual interchanges made the period incredibly dynamic — its justifiably called the “12th Century Renaissance” — and any writer who wants to capture some of the essence of medieval people in their epic fantasies would be well-served to read some of the texts that remain to this day.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chivalric Age ("Conversion of Duke William of Aquitaine by St. Bernard of Clairvaux," by Vicente Berdusán y Osorio, 1673)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chivalric Age (“Conversion of Duke William of Aquitaine by St. Bernard of Clairvaux,” by Vicente Berdusán y Osorio, 1673)

The historian, Jan Ziolkowski, succinctly highlights the importance of “eastern” influences upon the rise of romance literature in his review of latin culture in the High Middle Ages:

Medieval Slave Market, Yemen (13th c., Illum. ms. Biblio. Nat. France, Paris)

Medieval Slave Market, Yemen (13th c., Illum. ms. Biblio. Nat. France, Paris)

[Begin excerpt, Jan Ziolkowski, “Latin and Vernacular Literature”]: Classical models continued to loom large but they were supplemented by new outside influences that gained entrance into Europe through such gateways as the crusades, Spain, Italy, and Greece. There is an irony in the fact that the hostile spirit of The Chanson de Roland, and the self-awareness of Christian Europe that came through the crusades, marked the start of a process that strengthened the eastern imprint upon Europe; for much more than silk and spices was imported from the east. Europe had many sorts of contact with Christian Greeks and Islamic peoples, especially but not solely Arabs. Although by the twelfth century Muslims had been dislodged from Sicily, they continued to occupy substantial expanses of the Iberian peninsula. Slaves changed hands between Christians and Muslims: Duke William IX of Aquitaine, seventh count of Poitou (1071-1127), the first known poet of secular lyric in France, owned slaves whom he had acquired from Spain.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Arabic Poetry" ("Kitab al-Aghani, Book of Songs," 1216-1220; by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Arabic Poetry” (“Kitab al-Aghani, Book of Songs,” 1216-1220; by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani)

The ties between many parts of Romance-speaking Europe and the westernmost reaches of Islam are potentially very significant for the literary history of both parties. Particularly noteworthy are the Arabic and Hebrew strophic poems known as muwashshahas that were composed in eleventh- and twelfth-century Spain, since more than five dozen of them are capped by verses in a local Romance dialect. Most of these colloquial verses, designated as kharjas, appear to derive from women’s love songs… [End excerpt, Jan Ziolkowski, “Latin and Vernacular Literature,” in David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith, eds., The New Cambridge Medieval History, IV. c. 1024-1198, Part 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 665.]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" (The Avari on Shore of Cuiviénen, on Sea of Helcar; art by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (The Avari on Shore of Cuiviénen, on Sea of Helcar; art by Ted Nasmith)

So, in conclusion, what do all of these developments mean for the epic fantasist? Plenty!  I don’t know about you as a reader, but for me one of the quickest ways to eject me from a contented moment of “suspended disbelief” when reading epic fantasy is when a writer puts a story together that doesn’t tend to the basics about how people lived in a faux-medieval time.  One might argue that Tolkien tended too much to the “philology” of his creations ― i.e., writing his books as “language first, story second,” and developing a history of Middle Earth therefrom — but at least he recognized the vital importance of language for his characters who were variously speaking the invented tongues of Quendian, Sindarin, Westron, Entish, Khuzdul, Black Speech, Rohirric, Valarin, etc.

Stephen King, The Dark Tower (art by Michael Whelan)

Stephen King, The Dark Tower (art by Michael Whelan)

I understand that some epic fantasy writers have sought to imitate Tolkien by creating new languages, but I’ve not found any yet that match the constructions he invented.  What I do enjoy, however, is any work that takes time to let the characters both “breathe” and speak, with descriptions that let me know the author cares about more than just the main character — indeed, that the author truly cares about the world-building aspect of the fantasy form.  For example, I’m currently re-reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and in The Gunslinger, I’m very much enjoying the distinction King already begins to make in this first book between the Low and High Speech, and the “classes” and socio-economic differences one can glean by looking at his characters in a post-apocalyptic/post-economic landscape.

For those who want to remain within the faux-medieval Epic Fantasy mode, it is helpful to at least recognize the elements that contributed to the form that Tolkien re-introduced to the world, and which everybody seems to want to recreate (but can’t quite figure out how to put the Middle Earth “lightning” back in the bottle).

Okay.  We’ve seen the chansons de geste.  Now we’ve got a sense of the Latin and vernacular literatures — and educational environments — that informed medieval creators. Next, it’s on to the most important influence for the epic fantasist: the medieval romance.

Next time: Tolkien’s Works as One Kind of Template for Modern Medieval Romance

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 1: Defined

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Grail Quest ("Carbonek, Castle of the Fisher King," Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Grail Quest (“Carbonek, Castle of the Fisher King,” Alan Lee)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 1: Defined

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

In haste, on matters medieval & fantastical (read: serious research & writing day), but I wanted to start on next aspect of medieval literature with which would-be epic fantasists (and fans of the form) should be familiar: the romance!

So, here’s a definitional excerpt from one of the better, most recent books on the subject.

Enjoy!

A.J.

Perkins & Wiggins, "The Romance of the Middle Ages" (Oxford, 2012)

Perkins & Wiggins, “The Romance of the Middle Ages” (Oxford, 2012)

[Begin excerpt from Nicholas Perkins, “Romance and the Medieval World,” in Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins, The Romance of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2012), pp. 9-32.]
Picture the scene. A magnificent dining hall, tables laden with food. Knights and ladies flirting, dancing, and playing Christmas games. Costly eastern fabrics, fashioned into the latest styles. On the raised dais sit King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, with the cream of the Round Table, including Sir Gawain, Sir Ywayne and Sir Agravayne. Arthur, the court poet tells us, requires ‘sum aduenturus þing, an vncouþe tale / Of sum mayne meruayle þat he my3t trawe / Of alders, of arms, Of over auentures’ (‘an adventure story, a strange tale of some great marvel that he’d believe in, of princes, of combat, of other escapades), or to witness a knightly challenge before eating. As if summoned by this Arthurian yearning for adventure, into the hall rides a huge knight, exquisitely dressed, his small waist and powerful mien demanding the admiration of men and women alike.  In one hand he holds a threatening axe, in the other a festive holly branch.  The courtiers stare in amazement: the knight and his horse are totally green.

Carlisle's World: Medieval Romance ("Sir Gawain & the Green Knight," art by John Howe)

Carlisle’s World: Medieval Romance (“Sir Gawain & the Green Knight,” art by John Howe)

[Perkins excerpt continued]:  This moment of anticipation and surprise is taken from one of the greatest narrative poems in English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the late fourteenth century in a dialect from north-west England. A fantasy of the mythic British past and yet sharply contemporary in descriptive detail, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight embodies many of the elements that make romance such a rewarding genre. Arthur’s criteria for entertainment — adventure, novelty, the marvelous, feats of arms and story-telling — are all characteristic of romance, which engages its audiences by teasing or satisfying their desires in narrative form. Such desires can include a taste for the grotesque and miraculous, for love frustrated and consummated, for religious and military conflict, for acts of shocking violence and uncalculating generosity. While indulging in the pleasures of the fictive, however, romances also focus our attention on how individuals act and interact at moments of crisis or decision, and ask an implicit question of their audience: what would you do if this happened to you?

Inspiration of Medieval Lang & Lit: Romance ("Sir Gawain & the Green Knight," Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95)

Inspiration of Medieval Lang & Lit: Romance (“Sir Gawain & the Green Knight,” Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95)

Medieval Romance: The Quest for the Holy Grail ("Chretien de Troyes, "Yvain," 13th c. ms)

Medieval Romance: The Quest for the Holy Grail (“Chretien de Troyes, “Yvain,” 13th c. ms)

[Perkins excerpt continued]: …Cycles of integration-disintegration-reintegration are at the core of these traditional narratives, or ‘symbolic stories,’ which share many motifs with folktale and ballad. Often they end with marriage, wealth, and acclaim, while the disloyal or inconvenient are punished: that is, cultural norms are reinforced and celebrated. The imaginative spaces that romances open can enable dark fantasies of infanticide, incest, betrayal and exile to be explored, and this space feeds the imagination long after the text closes.  The romance stories spin off one another, with continuations, adaptations, and the reprise of favorite motifs and heroes such as Gawain …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance ("Lancelot at the Chapel of the Holy Grail," Edward Burne-Jones, 1870)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance (“Lancelot at the Chapel of the Holy Grail,” Edward Burne-Jones, 1870)

[Perkins excerpt continued]:  Every literary genre is s thing of shreds and patches, and romance is constantly overlapping , mingling with and reforming the stories that medieval writers called tale, lay, storie, fable, song, spel, geste, romance. … the surviving [texts] containing romances give us valuable evidence about how medieval readers understood and developed this variety; and allow us to speculate about reasons for copying them with other matrerial — for improving literature to a fascination with exotic lands,  Attempts have been made to categorize romances as ‘chivalric’, ‘popular’, ‘Arthurian’, ‘penitential’, or ‘burlesque’; such attempts raise good questions, but are at best partial.  Thinking about them genre, then, is more like studying the mix of colors on a palette than biological taxonomy … .

Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Wife of Bath's Tale," from "The Canterbury Tales" (Ellesmere ms, 1405-1410)

Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” from “The Canterbury Tales” (Ellesmere ms, 1405-1410)

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales equally illustrates the fluidity of romance. Several tales take romance forms, from the classically grounded Knight’s Tale of Palamon and Arcite’s rivalrous love for Emily, to the Squire’s Tale of marvels and exoticism. The Franklin tells a ‘Breton lay’ — a short form often involving enchantment and transformation — while The Wife of Bath’s Tale is an Arthurian romance whose protagonist rapes a young woman and is disciplined by the ladies of the court: his punishment is to discover what women most desire …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Alexander Romances (Jehan de Grise, 1344; MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 58r)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Alexander Romances (Jehan de Grise, 1344; MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 58r)

Part of the pleasure that romance generates is in the evocation of cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces, the splendor of tournament and battle, without the many inconveniences of medieval travel and warfare.  One magnificently illustrated collection of Alexander romances in the Bodleian Library includes dozens of pictures showing the public glory of Alexander’s conquests … The stories of Alexander and some of the other ‘Nine Worthies’ were used as gauges for those aspiring to chivalric honor, and seeking precedents for war against easter peoples. Roman narratives and ideas were cultivated in medieval courts throughout Britain as part of a political landscape, projecting images of power, courtesy, and restraint …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance: "The Nine Worthies" (from left to right: Charlemagne, King Arthur, Godfrey of Bouillon; Julius Caesar, Hector, Alexander the Great; David, Joshua, and Judas Maccabeus; 13th Cent. carving, City Hall, Cologne, Germany; "Neun Gute Helden")

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Romance: “The Nine Worthies” (from left to right: Charlemagne, King Arthur, Godfrey of Bouillon; Julius Caesar, Hector, Alexander the Great; David, Joshua, and Judas Maccabeus; 13th Cent. carving, City Hall, Cologne, Germany; “Neun Gute Helden”)

[Perkins excerpt continued]: Romances provided fertile grounds for debating and emulating honorable and shameful acts. Courts staged reenactments of romance scenes and Arthurian tournaments, and noble families fiercely guarded the rights to their heraldic emblems along with their accompanying narratives of origin …

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

[Perkins excerpt continued]: Romance’s interaction with medieval culture was not confined to the public realm, however, and romance protagonists must frequently escape a stifling or corrupt court. Lovers seek a private space to speak or make love, though in the Middle Ages being alone was a relative concept, hence the many narratives involving prying eyes and gossiping tongues….

"The Garden of Pleasure," from Roman de la Rose (late 15th-century Flemish ms)

“The Garden of Pleasure,” from Roman de la Rose (late 15th-century Flemish ms)

A romance, then, could project religious or courtly ideologies, but its very adaptability means that rarely is a story wholly controlled by them. Tellingly, Chrétien de Troyes’ influential and engaging French romances, written in the late twelfth century, imagine romance stories emerging in an interlude between Arthur’s serious military campaigns. Romance time is not always linear or consistent: it can fold back on itself, or split into fragments, allowing space for unlikely conquests both military and sexual …

In the hugely popular French poem, The Romance of the Rose, the tangled allegory of a dreamer seeking to pluck the rose he desires is wrapped around with parodic romance imagery, for example of the God of Love besieging the castle of Jealousy (fig. 10) Here romance, Ovidian irony and religion combine to spawn the bastard God Cupid, directing a military campaign to capture love’s prize. John Gower’s major English poem, Confessio amantis (A Lover’s Confession), written in the late 1380s, combines this ironic treatment of human desire familiar from The Romance of the Rose with a host of exemplary stories.  Gower’s alter ego, Amans (Lover), confesses to every deadly sin, committed in the pursuit of love. His confession is heard not by a Christian priest but by Genius, priest of Venus, whose answering stories combine romance adventure and revelation with an undertow of ethical seriousness that culminates with a book of advice on kingship that Aristotle supposedly gave Alexander…  [End of excerpt, from Nicholas Perkins, “Romance and the Medieval World,” in Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins, The Romance of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2012), pp. 9-32.]

Next time: The Transitions from Chansons de Geste to Romantic Lyric & Epic Poetry

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