Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 3. The literature of Antiquity: Troy, King Alisaunder, Richard Cœur de Lion

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

§ 3. The literature of Antiquity: Troy, King Alisaunder, Richard Cœur de Lion

The English medieval romance levied contributions also upon the literature of antiquity. Such levied were due neither to crusading zeal, which loved to recall Charlemagne’s great fights against Saracen hosts, nor to the impulse which clung tightly to native history and homespun stories. They were, rather, the outcome of a cherished conceit based on a piece of ingenious etymology, according to which Englishmen, as inhabitants of Britain, held themselves to be of Trojan descent in virtue of Brutus. In this way did the literature of antiquity suggest itself as, to some extent, an appropriate field for the business of romancing. The Geste Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy and King Alisaunder may be taken as typical of this class. The former of these consists of an epitome of the well-known story with, however, many modifications characteristic of medieval genius. It sets forth the antique world interpreted in terms of medievalism; Greek warfare, Greek customs and Greek religion alike appearing in the garb of the Middle Ages. And, together with these changes, were tacitly introduced fairy reminiscences and magical details. But, most interesting of all, in the Troy narrative, are those elements of the story of Troilus and Briseida taken over from Benoît de Ste. More, and subsequently moulded into one of the world’s greatest stories.

In King Alisaunder we see fashioned the historical and legendary hero, his career being supplemented with hosts of fanciful stories drawn from the east. His birth is alike mysterious and marvellous. His youth and manhood are passed in prodigious undertakings. He tames the fiery Bucephalus. He captures Tyre and burns Thebes. Darius falls before him. He advances through Persia and onwards to the Ganges, conquering, on his way, the great Porrus of India. His homeward journey is a progress through wonderland. All the magic of the east lies concentrated in his path; he passes by crowned snakes and mysterious trees, and beholds, in the distance, cliffs sparkling with diamonds. He is ultimately poisoned by a friend and honourably buried in a tomb of gold.

The ruling motive of these classical romances, as compared with others of their kind, is clearly that of depicting, on a large scale, the heroic element in humanity and of pointing out the glories of invincible knighthood. They concern themselves not with chivalrous love, but with chivalrous valour and knightly accomplishments. Their aim is to point to the more masculine elements of medieval chivalry. The joy of battle is everywhere articulate—not least so in the picturesque movements of warlike bodies, and in the varied sounds of the battlefield. The method of developing this motive is, for the most part, by bringing the west into touch with the east. The treasuries of Babylonian and antique fable are ransacked to glorify the theme of warlike magnificence. The wider mental horizon and the taste for wonders which attracted contemporaries in Mandeville’s Travels are here enlisted in the work of romance.

Closely akin to the Alexander romance is Richard Cœur de Lion, which may, therefore, be considered here, though its story is not of either eastern or classical origin. The scheme in both is much the same. Richard’s birth is mysterious as was Alexander’s. In early manhood Richard wrenches out the lion’s heart; Alexander tames Bucephalus. Both march to the east to perform great things: both are presented as types of valorous greatness. In the romance Richard appears as the son of Henry II and the beautiful enchantress Cassodorien. He is imprisoned in Germany as the result of an escapade on his way home from the Holy Land, and it is here that he tears out the heart of a lion set loose in his cell. The Proclamation of a general crusade soon afterwards appeals to Richard and he joins Philip of France on his way to the east. The French king is consistently treacherous and jealous, while Richard is no less hasty and passionate, and, in consequence, ruptures are frequent. After avenging an insult received from Cyprus, Richard hastens to Syria, where fight succeeds fight with great regularity and the Saracens under Saladin are gradually discomfited. At last a truce of three years is arranged, at which point the romancer is content to conclude. The romance is one of the most stirring of the whole group. It deals with the crusades; but its central theme, like that of the Alexander saga, is the glorification of the romance of war, the exaltation of the fighting hero. It is, moreover, fiercely patriotic. Scorn is heaped on the braggadocio of the French, and the drawing of Philip’s character is far from flattering. On the other hand, Cœur de Lion’s haughty arrogance is the glory of Englishmen; on his side fight St. George and big battalions of angels. His humour appears as grim as his blows. He feasts on Saracens and provides the same dish for Saracen ambassadors. The ideal man of action, as here depicted, is one in whom the elements are mixed. He is by no means deficient in knightly instincts and courtesy; but, mingled with these, are coarse-grained characteristics. He is rude and blunt, forceful and careless of restraint—all of which traits represent the English contribution to the heroic picture.