“For in writing romance, Chaucer writes the story of the self – himself, ourselves – the journey of the individual not necessarily to encounter elf-queens, dragons, or giants, but to experience the heights of human passion, both love and despair, to plumb the depths of human nature, to discover both its best and its worst, and to see into other, sublime, and transcendent worlds”: or so Corinne Saunders writes in ‘Chaucer’s Romances’ (2004, p.101). This shift from concerns with the national or tribal to those focused upon personal emotion and development is a fundamental one. It allows the romances to discover within themselves that concern with motivation and character which typifies the modern novel, albeit in very different ways.
The protagonists of medieval romance are not usually complex; they have ideals to live up to, and sometimes conflicts of interest to resolve, but they are not presented to the reader in detailed portraits. Despite the fact that they seem ‘more individual’, they act in ways which are conditioned by the stories in which they appear; their traits are more often driven by the requirements of the narrative than the desire to create a recognisably unique and closely observed persona.
This, however, rather than being a limitation, may be one of the reasons why medieval romance in particular has operated as a base for a significant quantity of modern fantasy writing. The hero offers a flexible subject position into which the reader can step: recognisable, but not so rigidly defined that it forces spectatorship rather than participation. The challenge, the quest, the love (requited or otherwise), the loss and the ‘happily ever after’ represent tropes that can be inhabited, adapted and rewritten by readers.
If this inclines modern fantasy writing based on romance to role play rather than psychological realism, is that a problem? In a postmodern world, is literary ‘worth’ defined by the reader’s assumed (although impossible) absence from the text, or his/her implied presence within it? These questions can be considered alongside those we have already begun to raise, concerning the objections that can be raised to fantasy writing and the possible responses to them. It is interesting that here, too, the answers may be found in precisely where – or in which contexts, networks of ideas and readers’ responses – we situate these texts.
Saunders, Corinne 2004. ‘Chaucer’s Romances’, A Companion to Romance from Classical to Contemporary Oxford: Blackwell
NB The best place to read Middle English romance online is here. This collection includes editions of Sir Orfeo, Sir Launfal, Sir Degare, Guy of Warwick, Athelstan and many others (see the primary reading document for more details). Highly recommended.