Fairytale Characteristics in Medieval Romances
By Julie Burton
Doctoral thesis, University of Cambridge, 2010
Introduction: From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century, Middle English romance can be a problematic genre. Its fantastic events, stock characters, repetitive structures and contrived endings seem to belong with the fairytale of the nursery rather than with the serious literature of the adult world. Stylistically, so many romances do little to counter this impression with formulaic words and phrases expressing simplistic emotions and commonplace sentiments. Yet Middle English romance was an enduring genre, popular over five hundred years or more. Although Chaucer was famously disparaging about the verse romances in his burlesque “Sir Thopas”, many survive in the collections of, or indeed were commissioned by, worldly men, important and successful in their time.
Clearly this raises a question: why are the romances, once so popular, unpalatable to the reading public of today? Any response to this question would of course be complex, not least because the romance genre notoriously embraces a range of greatly differing works. In this thesis I intend to explore one aspect of the romances which must be considered in any comprehensive answer: namely their “language”, by which I mean their method of communication in its broadest sense, now generally regarded as lacking in sophistication and unrelated to real life. Because of the variety of works in the genre, I focus the study on a sub-group of the romances.
It is the contention of this thesis that the link between fairytale and romance which I previously mentioned as disparaging to romance is in fact a strength of romance. In many ways the “language” of fairytale is the “language” of romance. In fact, the closeness of fairytale and romance is such that an understanding of fairytale can contribute significantly to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the methods and effectiveness of romance.
Fairytale can justly lay claim to be one of the most enduring of artistic genres. The tales have achieved popularity with succeeding generations who find real satisfaction in stories where impossible adventures undergone by improbable and stereotyped characters culminate so often in the familiar happy ending. Indeed, the sheer implausibility of the tales is so central that the generic term „fairytale‟ has come to be a euphemism for the unbelievable and the fantastic. Considered nowadays to be primarily suitable for children, fairytales have been transmitted amongst adults for centuries, communicated orally if not in writing. And where they enter literature and the other arts, the fairytale element is recognisably consistent with the fairytale of the nursery, even in cynical modern renderings.