Medieval romance and fantasy

“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.

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4 Responses to Medieval romance and fantasy

  1. Tintagel says:

    In a postmodern world, fantasy is not all roleplay on medieval romances. Take Terry Pratchett, for instance. In Thief of Time, when Susan tells Lobsang he is a ‘hero’, Lobsang begins to thank her and then realises she’d said it in a tone which implies she meant ‘idiot’.
    However, even looking at older works of fantasy fiction (and let’s go with Lord of The Rings here), although the tropes mentioned may be present there is still an element of psychological realism in order to give the reader something to kick back against. The hero does not stay static through his quest, but develops as a character. (see: Legolas and Gimli eventually becoming best friends)
    Pratchett’s earlier work tends to mock the static, noble (boring to read about) hero–he creates Rincewind, the wizard who runs away from danger and only knows one spell. I would argue the opposite, that good fantasy authors look at Chaucer and go ‘I like the plot, but the characters seem dull’.

  2. hallsun says:

    No, of course: I’m not even discussing all fantasy- this post relates specifically to fantasy that is based on medieval romance. And I’m not saying it is role play; I’m suggesting that our reception of it might incline that way because of some quite complex operations between the reader and the protagonist. I certainly wouldn’t include Pratchett in this category without multiple qualification; his writing is usually defined as more parodic of so-called ‘sword and sorcery’ writing (itself already a step away from the medieval), and therefore has both distance from and reaction against some of the norms of fantasy writing built in.

    I’m also not suggesting that there is no psychological realism involved; that ‘stepping in’ would not be possible if there were not characteristics of mind available as well as narrative functions for the protagonist. Development in some respect is also typical of medieval romances; consider, for example, what the knight learns in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. However, some people have found the characterisation in LoTR less detailed than they are used to in modern novels, and when we get to reading Dunsany the same issue may arise. What I’m putting forward in the post is a model to think about, of which the individual instances may vary radically.

    • Tintagel says:

      Yes–compare, say, Aragorn, the Noble Lost King, to someone like Gentleman Johnny Marcone from the Dresden Files. He’s a crime lord with a very specific moral code that the author, Jim Butcher, has really made work.
      I’d disagree that Pratchett’s writing is a parody of ‘sword and sorcery’ novels–it certainly began that way, but now that the series has multiplied it is much more about the Discworld itself with comedic episodes and more nuanced parodies that aren’t so broad. See ‘Maskerade’, which loosely parodies The Phantom of the Opera/Opera itself/High Society.

      I suppose the roleplay element of fantasy fiction comes in when the reader imagines themself in the protagonist’s place. In The Franklin’s Tale, the Franklin invites the reader/listener to decide who was most ‘fre’. The Canterbury Tales have enormous literary worth and yet the reader is invited boldly to imagine that they are in the same kind of world as Dorigen, Averagus and Aurelius. Obviously, they are not held to the same standards/’rules’ as modern fantasy literature. Tropes that were new in Chaucer’s time are cliche today. What contemporary fantasy literature would you say owes a debt to the medieval romance tradition?

      • hallsun says:

        Yes, Pratchett’s writing has certainly broadened, but it does retain, as you point out, that parodic quality which puts it at a particular angle to the texts/ideas/cultures it parodies. I particularly love what he does in The Last Hero – just brilliant!

        I think that the role play idea is not simply when there’s a conscious, deliberate identification with the protagonist, but when the text presents its content from the protagonist’s point of view; the reader sees through his/her eyes, and to some extent works through events and processes with the protagonist. Even when the narrative is more wide-ranging, the presentation of a strong but nuanced hero around whom the action centres is an invitation to the reader to figure themselves into the text. I think sometimes we find books most frustrating when we have (consciously or otherwise) identified with the protagonist and then they don’t do what we would do in those circumstances!

        To give an example that’s not on our reading list, I would say that Terry Goodkind’s first fantasy book Wizard’s First Rule owes a large debt to the medieval romance tradition: it contains the hero who has to learn and prove himself, the concealed truth of his birth and inheritance which is eventually revealed, the special/magic weapon, the journey/quest, the woman who is both powerful and in need of protection, the various challenges along the way, the wise guiding wizard (who nonetheless cannot sort everything out!) and even the ‘trick’ at the end which enables the hero to overcome the enemy. And there is an apparently medieval society and dragons thrown in! I think later books in the series move away from this paradigm, but WFR displays the motifs very clearly.

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