Notes on Medieval Romances

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Notes on Medieval Romances
The medieval definition of romance is different than its meaning today. When we hear the word romance today, we think of Titanic, Nicholas Sparks, and love songs. However, during the Middle Ages, romance (romanz) referred to languages, especially French, derived from Latin (or language spoken by the Romans). Initially, the word romance was used to distinguish between real literature, which was written in Latin, and stories written in the vernacular, which were written in French. Consequently, the word romance, when applied to medieval romances, means the story contains characteristics associated with French writings.

When the word romantic is applied to a medieval narrative such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we assume that the story will include a knight who embarks on a quest or adventure. In other words, a medieval romance closely resembles an adventure story. Other elements of a medieval romance include fictitious events that are marvelous or even supernatural. The story may be written in verse, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the story may be written in prose like Marlory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Surprisingly, a medieval romance does not need to include a love interest even though many of them do.

For those who are looking for a formal definition of the genre, Dorothy Everett’s definition may be helpful:

Medieval romances are stories of adventure in which the chief parts are played by knights, famous kings, or distressed ladies, acting most often under the impulse of love, religious faith, or, in many, mere desire for adventure. The stories were first told in verse, but when, later, prose versions were made, they were also called romances. In length the verse romances vary from a few hundred lines to tens of thousands. . .” (qtd. in Glenn para. 7).

In other words, no matter the circumstances of the hero, whether he is a knight or a king, he always conforms to the codes of chivalry. As a result, most medieval romances depict an idealized life that includes heightened action and a clear delineation between the heroes and villains.

In short, a medieval romance is usually characterized by the following:

1. an idealization of chivalry

2. an idealization of the hero/knight and his noble deeds

3. a knight’s love for a lady

4. imaginary or vague settings

5. mystery and suspense / supernatural elements

6. a concealed or disguised identity

7. repetition of the mystic number 3 or multiples of 3.

The knight of a medieval romance will have the following characteristics:

1. a great hero whose birth is shrouded in mystery

2. ignorance of his real parents

3. for a time, his true identity may be unknown

4. he meets an extraordinary challenge before claiming his honor

5. his triumph benefits his nation or group

Of course, when considering these characteristics, most readers think of King Arthur, who possesses all of these characteristics. The question you will want to ask yourself when reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is whether or not Gawain fits the model of the typical hero of a medieval romance. Does Gawain uphold the knightly virtues? Is he perfect? If he has flaws, what are they?

Scholars believe that the audience for medieval romances was mostly women such as the queen, duchesses and countesses, and other ladies of the court. In fact, Eleanor of Aquitaine, first queen of France and then of England, is credited with bringing to England her interest in poetry, music, and the arts, and many of the romances composed during this time may have been for her entertainment. Naturally, women became interested in stories where women played central roles. In the past, many of the Germanic stories (epics like Beowulf) centered exclusively on men, and women were almost non-existent in their plots. Medieval romances still contain some of the characteristics associated with epics like accomplishments of brave warriors, but the medieval knight is often motivated by love for his lady. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain is still predominantly concerned with honor and loyalty to his king.

The medieval romance is still exciting to people today. New variations of the King Arthur story are written all the time. Star Wars is a perfect example of a modern medieval romance because the first trilogy (Episodes 4-6) contains all of the elements listed above. Interestingly, George Lucas claims that Marlory’s Le Morte D’Arthur was the inspiration for these films. Other superheroes also fit the model of the hero in a medieval romance: Superman, Batman, and even Indiana Jones.

Some other facts you should know about medieval romances and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are that the author of SGGK is unknown, but most scholars agree that the story was composed in the late 14th century. The form of the story is written is what has scholars have coined the “Gawain stanza.” This type of stanza contains a varying number of alliterative lines that conclude with a bob and wheel. A bob and wheel contains five short rhyming lines (ababa). The purpose of the bob and wheel is to summarize the preceding lines.

Here are some ideas or questions you should consider while reading and after reading the narrative:

1. What is the significance of the pentacle?

2. Compare the three hunts? Are they mostly the same or do they differ?

3. There are similarities between what happens in the bedroom and what

happens during the hunts. What are these parallels? Why did the author include them?

4. What does the green girdle represent?

5. What does the Green Knight symbolize?

6. What do the different animals in the hunt symbolize?

7. Why does the author include so many instances of red and green? What

do these colors symbolize?

Some of the information above is taken from the following websites, which you may also consult for more detailed explanations about specific topics:

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