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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.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is one of my favorite posts, AJ!

    DEFINITELY reminded me of the subaltern, Other studies from Frontiers and Lit, in the sense that the villains in the romantic ascension cycle are always “demonic,” dark skinned, and “evil,” while the protagonist is generally light skinned, and very Western European!

    Also reminds me how almost all the plotlines of stories in the world can be broken down into a handful of repetitive story lines! It’s crazy!

    amyrorydoctorwho

    May 12, 2015
    • Hi, amyrorydoctorwho20:

      Thanks for taking the time to read this blog & hopeful that in our global society SF/F creators will continue the new trend to diversify and “universalize” storylines and multiple points-of-view!

      Best,
      A.J.

      May 18, 2015

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