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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIV. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: II

§ 10. Qualities and Defects

The romance has many defects, in spite of all its attractions and the immense interest it arouses both intrinsically and historically. It sins in being intolerably long-winded and in being often devoid of all proportion. A story may drag wearily on long after the last chapter has really been written, and insignificant episodes are treated with as much concern as those of pith and moment. It further makes demands upon the “painful” reader, not only by its discursiveness and love of digression, but also by the minuteness of its descriptions, relentlessly complete, which leave nothing to the imagination. “The art of the pen is to rouse the inward vision … because our flying minds cannot contain a protracted description.” This truth was far from being appreciated in the age of the schoolmen, with their encyclopaedic training. The aristocratic tone of the romance, moreover, tends to become wearisome by its very monotony. Sated with the sight of knights and ladies, giants and Saracens, one longs to meet an honest specimen of the citizen class; but such relief is never granted. To these and other shortcomings, however, the medieval eye was not always blind, though romances continued to be called for right up to the end of the fourteenth century and, indeed, after. Chaucer, with his keen insight and strong human sympathies, had shown himself aware of all these absurdities, for, in his Sir Thopas, designed as a parody on the romance in general, these are the points on which he seizes. When he rambles on for a hundred lines in Sir Thopas without saying much, he is quietly making the first point of his indictment. He is exaggerating the discursiveness and minuteness he has found so irksome. And, in the second place, he ridicules the aristocratic monotone by introducing a bourgeois note into his parodied romance. The knight swears an oath on plain “ale and bread”: while, in the romantic forest through which he is wandering, lurk the harmless “buck and hare,” as well as the homely nutmeg that flavours the ale. The lapse from romance is sufficiently evident and the work silently embodies much sound criticism. The host, with blunt remark, ends the parody, and in him may be seen a matter-of-fact intelligence declaiming against the faults of romance.

But, with all its shortcomings, the romance has a peculiar interest from the modern standpoint in that it marks the beginning of English fiction. In it is written the first chapter of the modern novel. After assuming a pastoral form in the days of Elizabeth, and after being reclaimed, with all its earlier defects, in the seventeenth century, romance slowly vanished in the dry light of the eighteenth century, but not before it had flooded the stage with astounding heroic plays. The later novels, however, continued the functions of the earlier romances when they embodied tales of adventures or tales of love whether thwarted or triumphant. Nor is Richardson’s novel of analysis without its counterpart in this earlier creation. He treated love on psychological lines. But charming love-problems had exercised the minds of medieval courtiers and had subsequently been analysed in the romances after the approved fashion of the courts of love. It is only in the case of the later realistic novel that the origins have to be sought elsewhere—in the contemporary fabliaux, which dealt, in a ready manner, with the troubles and the humours of a lower stratum of life.