Romance in Literature | Definition, Examples Characteristics

Romance in Literature | Definition, Examples Characteristics

Romance in Literature

The term ‘Romance‘ has often been used rather loosely. It is a form of narrative which was developed in twelfth century France. At first it was applied to vernacular French literature. Etymologically ‘Romance’ means any work written in French, which originated from a dialect of the Romance language, i.e. Latin. At a subsequent stage ‘Romance’ referred to any imaginative work. “Any tale of adventure, whatever the origin of its matter, could be a Romance, and the adventure could be chivalric or merely amorous.” Any book written in a vernacular was called Enromancier, romancar, and romanz. In old French romant or roman meant courtly romance in verse, written in a language understood by all.

The Romance was an important literary genre in English literature in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In course of time novels grew out of romances. Two types of romance aristocratic and the popular, have been transmitted to us. Their themes are more or less identical, although there are substantial differences in scale.

In this connection we should draw a distinction between a romance and an Epic. “The romance,” says M.H. Abrams, “is distinguished from the epic in that it represents not a heroic age of tribal wars, but a courtly and chivalric age; often one of highly developed manners and civility; its standard plot is one of quest and adventure, undertaken by a single knight; it introduces a heroine, and frequently its central interest is courtly love, together with tournaments fought and dragons and monsters slain for a damsel’s sake: it stresses the chivalric ideals of courage, honour, mercifulness to an opponent, and exquisite and elaborate manners, and it delights in wonders and marvels.”

“Supernatural events in the epic had their causes in the will and actions of the gods: romance shifts the supernatural to fairy land, and makes much of the mysterious effects of magic, spells, and enchantments.”

The term ‘medieval Romance’ covers the historical accounts of the great heroes like Charlemagne and Arthur. The period of medieval romance extends from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Even the earliest English romances in England were written during the fourteenth century, when English became the national language of the land.

The Romance is essentially subjective. The personality, the likes and dislikes of the writer are writ large in a romance. The Romance insists that the readers should be completely involved in it as a child gets completely absorbed in the story narrated to him. There is the willing suspension of disbelief which constitutes poetic faith. “Part of the delight of the romance,” says Gillian Beer, “is that we know we are not required to live full-time in its ideal world. It amplifies our experience: it does not press home upon us our immediate everyday concerns.”

There is no denying the fact that a romance is a branch of escapist literature. It removes the restraints of rationalism; it lifts us from the garish light of the day and the matter of fact world of reality: it re-creates the myths and fairy tales, which are suffused with the light that never was on sea or land, the consecration, the poet’s dream.

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It has to be noted that the elements of the ‘marvellous and the supernatural’ are the distinctive hall-marks of a romance. The elements heighten the romantic atmosphere of the work. A romance has certain other characteristics, pointed out by Gillian Beer:

“We can think rather of a cluster of properties: the themes of love and adventure, a certain withdrawal from their own societies on the part of both reader and romance hero, profuse sensuous detail, simplified characters, often with a suggestion of allegorical significance, a serene intermingling of the unexpected and everyday a complex and prolonged succession of incidents usually without a single climax, a happy ending, amplitude of proportions, a strongly enforced, code of conduct to which all the characters must conform.”

Rene Wellek in his Theory of Literature says that “the romance is poetic or epic: we should now call it mythic.” This pithy remark serves to distinguish a romance from a novel. “The Novel”, says Clara Reeve, “is a picture of real life and manners, and of the time in which it is written. The Romance, in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen.” Judged from this point of view, Mrs. Radcliffe, Walter Scott, and Hawthorne are writers of romance, while Fanny Burney Jane Austen, Antony Trollope, and George Gissing are novelists.

Medieval romance is to be distinguished from both epic and allegory although it has the qualities of both Love and adventure in the romance were both presented through a ritualized code of conduct, but although this code was preoccupied with niceties of behaviour it recognized and accepted irrational impulses and unforeseeable actions.”

It has been pointed out that allegory is one strand in the concept of romance. If allegory is not used, symbolism is laid under contribution.

A Romance is an escape from realism. Northrop Frye in The Anatomy of Criticism refers to this trait:

“The romancer does not attempt to create ‘real people so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes. It is in the romance that we find Jung’s libido, anima, and shadow reflected in the hero, heroine, and villain respectively. That is why the romance so often radiates a glow of subjective intensity that the novel lacks, and why a suggestion of allegory is constantly creeping in around its fringes.”

It is amazing that most of the writers of the medieval romances had the psychological sense while delineating the characters. Apparently myths and fairy-tales, they are studies in depth of psychology.

Courtly love figures prominently in the medieval romances, known as chivalric or Arthurian romances, about which we shall have to say much in subsequent chapters. Courtly love provided the writers, with a new imaginative theme. William of Malmesbury waxed eloquent about Arthur:

“It is of this Arthur that the Britons fondly tell so many fables, even to this present day, a man worthy to be celebrated not by ideal fictions, but by authentic history.”

Unlike Charlemagne, Arthur has always been a familiar figure to Englishmen. In early Welsh literature Arthur assumed a romantic cast. Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae played an important part in the development of the Arthurian legend. He largely drew upon Celtic traditions, while indulging freely in romancing on his own account. Geoffrey’s book was translated into Anglo Norman verse by Wace, who added details about the foundation of the Round Table.

The organization and extension of Arthurian romance during the twelfth century was due to the French and Norman writers, e.g. Marie de France and Chretien de Proves. Chretien ranks in medieval French literature as the great practitioner of the courtly epic. He has, however, no sense of passion, no mystery, and is far removed from the Celtic atmosphere. The fusion of the knightly epic with the mystic material of the Holy Grail began with Chretien. The knight in quest of Grail is represented at one stage by Perceval, at another by Gawain.

In England Layamon in his Brut based his Arthurian romance on Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the alliterative romance Gawain played a prominent part. The most noteworthy romances of this school are William of Parlerne, Joseph of Arimathie, Chevalere Assigne, Morte Arthure, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Awitwyrs of Arthure at the Terne Wathelyrs, and Galagros and Gawain.

In the Chivalric romances the feudal values were thrown overboard. Love without bargains added importance. Women became dominant figures. Realism and idealism were happily blended. As Rosamund Tuve says:

“To be sure, romances were a genre that portrayed life idealistically, but on the assumption that it was a realistic portrayal of life.”

The romances were transformed into a polyphony of magic and politics, realism and idealism, the fairy tales and courtliness. The sentiment of courtly love, of course, says C.S. Lewis, “is love, but love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love. The lover is always abject.”

Obedience to his lady’s lightest wish, however whimsical, and silent acquiescence in her rebukes, however unjust, are the only virtues he dares to claim. There is a service of love closely modelled on the service which a feudal vassal owes to his lord. The lover is the lady’s man. He addresses her as midons, which etymologically represents not my lady’ but my lord’. The whole attitude has been rightly described as ‘a feudalisation of love’.

The sexual love, if any, is but the rarefied expression of courtly love.

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