METRICAL ROMANCES OF THE MIDDLE AGES The very word ‘romance’ conjures up to our mind visions of battlemented castles, of fair ladies pining in the enchanters’ castles and waiting for their brave knights to come to rescue them, of knights riding forth in search of gloriously impossible adventures. The Middle English romances were each a story of adventure,fictitious and frequently marvellous or super-natural, of tender love making, of tournaments and cavalcades. While reading these romances, we see that “humanity were on parade and life itself were one tumultuous holiday in the open air. (Long). The hero of each of them is a brave knight, and its characters are fair ladies in distress, warriors in armour, giants, dragons, enchanters and various enemies of church and state. He is a type rather than an individual. Thus Lancelot, Tristan and Gawain are hardly distinguishable from one another. The medieval romances can be broadly divided into four categories-the Matter of Rome,the Matter of France, the Matter of Britain and the “Matter of England. The matter of Rome deals with classical stories-the mightly exploits of Alexander, the Great, the Trojan war, the siege of Thebes, the siege of Troy, the adventures of Aeneas etc. It represents the ancient classical culture, as seen through medieval eyes. “This is not the world of Homer or of Pericles or of Virgil, but a curiously medievalized ancient world derived from sources and traditions far removed from what we would today consider the mainstream of classical culture. ” (D. Daiches). Of the matter of Rome King Alisaunder, and The Destruction of Troy are of more than average merit.
The matter of France deals mainly with the heroic deeds of Charlemagne and his knights, and the chief of these Carlovingian cycles is the Chanson de Roland which tells the story of Roland’s courageous fight against hopeless odds, ending with the hero’s death. The ground-work of the Carlovingian Cycles is historical. The struggles depicted in them between the’feudal nobles and their overlord are based on fact. The matter of France was immensel y popular in the Middle Ages and greatly influenced European literature, especially the stories of Ariosto.
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The matter of Britain deals with the exploits of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The Arthurian romances are based rather on the French Arthurian legends. “These romances”, says David Daiches, ” are far removed in tone from the Chanson de Roland; they have lost the old heroic note completely and treat with extraordinary elaboration the practice and ideals of courtly love. “Of the Arthurian romances Arthur and Merlin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Ywain and Gawain and Morte Arthure deserve mention.
Arthur and Merlin deals with Arthur’s youth which is involved with the character of Merlin. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exemplifies the knightly virtues of courage and truth. There is no tendency to inculcate a moral lesson. The poem is quite in the spirit of French romance, told for its own sake. Admirably smooth in style and narrative technique is Ywain and Gawain, in which Gawain and the hero fight a drawn battle, each ignorant of the other’s identity. Morte Arthure deals with Arthur’s Roman campaign, Mordred’s treason, and the death of Arthur.
More important for English literature was the group of romances to which the name of “The Matter of England” has been given. Its materials are drawn fromEnglish history, and it deals with English heroes whose stories floated from mouth to mouth for ??a long time. Of these romances King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton are among the best. There are other unclassifiable Middle English romances on a great variety of themes, some dealing with the patience and constancy of an abused woman, some dealing with stock courtly situations, some combining history and folklore in one way of another.
The romances may be said to reflect the age in which they were written. The society painted in them is cosmopolitan and aristocratic ,which is testified to by the anonymous character of the writings and by the total absence of the patriotic note, in which the commonalty have no place. 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.