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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.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: I

§ 14. Relation of Romances to Ballads

The relation of the romances to popular ballads is not easy to understand. The romances and their plots go through many transformations; Horn and Launfal are proof of this. Horn turns into a ballad, and so do many others; the ballad of Orfeo has been mentioned. But it will not do to take the ballads in a lump as degenerate forms of earlier narrative poetry, for the ballad is essentially a lyrical form, and has its own laws, independent of all forms of narrative poetry in extant medieval English; and, again, a great number of ballads have plots which not only do not occur in any known romances (which, of itself, would prove little or nothing) but they are plainly not fitted for narrative of any length (e.g. Lord Randal, Sir Patrick Spens, The Wife of Usher’s Well). On the whole it seems best to suppose that the two forms of lyrical ballad and narrative romance were independent, though not in antagonism, through all the Middle Ages. They seem to have drawn their ideas from different sources for the most part. Though almost anything may be made the subject of a ballad, there are certain kinds of plot that seem to be specially fitted for the ballad and much less for the long story; fairy adventures, like that of Tamlane, heroic defences against odds, like that of Parcy Reed and, before all, tragic stories, like Annie of Lochryan or the Douglas tragedy. The romances, as a rule, end happily, but there is no such law in ballads. It will be found, too, that the romances which have most likeness to ballads are generally among those of the shorter and simpler kind, like Orfeo and the Lai le Freine. The question is made more complicated by the use of ballad measure for some of the later romances, like The Knight of Curtesy, a strange version of The Chevalier de Coucy. Of Robin Hood and Adam Bell and many more it is hard to say whether they are to be ranked with ballads or with romances. But all this is matter for another enquiry.