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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

§ 9. Traditional Plots

The plots of the romances are, like the style of them, not so monotonous as at first appears. They are not all incoherent, and incoherence is not found exclusively in the minstrels’ tales; there are faults of composition in some of Chaucer’s stories (e.g. The Man of Law’s Tale), as manifest as those which he satirised in Sir Thopas. A great many of the romances are little better than hackneyed repetitions, made by an easy kaleidoscopic shuffling of a few simple elements. Perhaps Sir Beves is the best example of the ordinary popular tale, the medieval book of chivalry with all the right things in it. It might have been produced in the same way as The Knight of the Burning Pestle, by allowing the audience to prescribe what was required. The hero’s father is murdered, like Hamlet’s; the hero is disinherited, like Horn; he is wooed by a fair Paynim princess; he carries a treacherous letter, like Hamlet again, “and beareth with him his own death”; he is separated from his wife and children, like St. Eustace or Sir Isumbras; and exiled, like Huon of Bordeaux, for causing the death of the king’s son. The horse Arundel is like Bayard in The Four Sons of Aymon, and the giant Ascapart is won over like Ferumbras. In the French original there was one conspicuous defect—no dragon. But the dragon is supplied, most liberally and with great success, in the English version. It makes one think of a good puppet-show; for example, the play of Don Gayferos, which drew Don Quixote into a passion.

“Stay, your worship, and consider that those Moors which your worship is routing and slaying are not real Moors, but pasteboard!” Saracens are cheap in the old romances; King Horn rode out one day and bagged a hundred to his own sword. Yet there are differences; in Sir Ferumbras, which is no very ambitious poem, but a story which has shared with Sir Beves and Sir Guy the favour of simple audiences for many generations, there is another kind of fighting, because it comes from the Old French epic school, which gives full particulars of every combat, on the same scale as the Iliad. So far, the work is more solid than in Sir Beves. There are worse things, however, than the puppet-show of chivalry. The story of Guy of Warwick, for instance, is something of a trial for the most reckless and most “Gothic” reader; instead of the brightly coloured figures of Sir Beves or King Horn and their adversaries, there is a doleful, stale religion in it, a most trashy mixture of asceticism (like the legend of St. Alexius), with the most hackneyed adventures. Not that commonplace adventures need be dull; sometimes even an increased acquaintance with parallels and variants and so forth may heighten the interest; as when Horn returns in disguise and sits down in the “beggars’ row.” It is natural to think of the beggars at the foot of the hall in the Odyssey; there is the same kind of scene in an Irish popular tale (Blaiman), where a recognition takes place like that of King Horn. In comparing them, one seems to get, not, indeed, any clear theory of the way in which the ideas of stories are carried about the world, but a pleasant sense of the community of stories, so to speak, and of the relation between stories and real life, in different ages and places.

Traditional plots like those of the fairy tales appear in medieval romances; not often enough, one is inclined to say, and not always with any distinct superiority of the literary to the popular oral version. One example is Sir Amadas, which is the story of the grateful ghost, the travelling companion, The Old Wives’ Tale. This story, one of the best known in all languages, has a strange power to keep its elements free of contamination. It is found in many mixed forms, it is true, but some of the latest folklore versions are distinct and coherent. There is an Irish version (Beauty of the World, given by Larminie in Gaelic and English) which, when compared with Sir Amadas, seems to prove that the authors of the metrical romances might possibly have done better if they had attended to the narrative, like the simple tellers of fairy-tales, without troubling themselves as to the rhetoric of the French school. Another example of the same sort can be obtained by comparing Sir Perceval with some of the folklore analogues. Sir Perceval is one of the simplest of the old romances: it seems at first almost like a rude burlesque of the Conte del Graal. It is now commonly thought to be taken from an earlier lost French version of the same subject. However that may be, it shows the common roughness of the English as compared with the French tales; it is full of spirit, but it is not gentle. Percival in this romance is not like the Percival of Wolfram or of Malory; he is a rollicking popular hero who blunders into great exploits. The style, even for this sort of motive, is rather too boisterous. Again, in this case, as with Sir Amadas, there may be found a traditional oral rendering of some of the same matters which, in point of style, is better than the English metrical romance. The scene of the discourteous knight breaking in and insulting the king is found in the west Highland tale of The Knight of the Red Shield, in Campbell’s collection, and it is told there with greater command of language and better effect.