n May, when every heart flourisheth and burgeoneth (for, as the season is lusty to behold and comfortable, so men and women rejoiceth and gladeth of somer coming with his fresh flowers, for winter with his rough winds and blasts causeth lusty men to cower and to sit by fires), so this season it befell in the month of May a great anger and unhappe that stinted not until the flower of chivalry of all the world was destroyed and slain.
With this beautiful and complex sentence, Sir Thomas Malory opens the final part of his Morte Darthur, the most famous and influential of English romances. As he wrote this text the knights of England were killing one another in an interminable civil war; when first published (with Sir Thomas dead, as a prisoner never released) it set fashions for the new Tudor dynasty of Henry VII (who named his first son Arthur). The mix of joy and pathos, sadness and jubilation, fantasy and realism in that sentence typifies some of the core qualities of romance, the genre to be explored in this course.
Romance, as we understand it in the western world today, originates in medieval Europe: we thus spend most of our time looking at key and representative texts from this period before, finally, moving towards our present. We begin with a tale of love and betrayal between men: The Song of Roland (c. 1100), a poem that sees the nephew of the great European founding figure, Charlemagne, fail to stop the Muslim invasion of Spain. Women figure little in this chanson de geste (tale of arms), but they make powerful appearances in the first great romances of the western tradition: the works of Chrétien de Troyes. Even now, at the very beginnings, the genre evokes ambivalent responses (can we take this seriously?) as men embark on quests for the holy grail, or on more trivial errands as directed by their all-powerful ladies. Romance seems to be all about aristocrats: but why, then as now, do ordinary folks take such pleasure in reading tales of the titled, rich, or famous? Is romance a genre professing virtues for serious emulation (courage, integrity, ingenuity) or is it primarily a mode of escapism and fantasy? And can certain intractable dilemmas be represented or solved byromancing when more rational forms of analysis fail?
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a perfect work of art, suggesting how masculine designs and calculations may be disrupted by feminine designs (passed down through the generations, not appearing in any book). Merlin, similarly, finds his mighty magic (in Malory’s Morte Darthur) thoroughly useless once he has fallen in love with his female apprentice. We will spend a good deal of time on Malory’s great text, since it brings together so many crucial romance motifs (geneaologies and mysterious origins; battles and imperial conquest; adulterous and disastrous love; exile and return; death and regeneration). We then see how romance is remembered and refigured in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and in a number of more recent texts. We might look at some modern films, such as The English Patient. And we might consider the pulp fiction aspects of the genre that have been with us since the beginning: from medieval tail-rhymes to Harlequin romance.