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Literature in an Apocalyptic Age; or, How to End a Romance

Literature in an Apocalyptic Age; or, How to End a Romance

By David L. Jeffrey

Dalhousie Review, Volume 61:3 (1981)

Yvain fighting Gawain. Medieval illumination from Chrétien de Troyes's romance, Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion

Introduction: No literature of the Middle Ages has so successfully captured the imagination of recent times as has the medieval romance. Indeed, as “post-moderns,” we are hardly original in this taste, for it has increasingly been the preference of latter-day readers, especially since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Part of the reason usually given for this recurrence of medieval romance in modern times is to be associated with popular connotations of the word itself: romance. Yet another, less discussed, aspect of medieval romance is in fact germinal to modern appreciations of this old form, namely, its intensive preoccupation with prophetic imagination and the whole question of meaning in history. This question becomes focussed with particular clarity when we consider the way in which romance writers bring about an ending to their entertaining compositions.

Most of us, perhaps, will have reflected on contemporary literature which, uncertain of the question of meaning in history, develops its own problematique concerning the business of ending. That an actual if subliminally realized sense of the world itself ending could have some reflection in the way books deal with the matter of endings seems reasonable enough. In fact expressions of a sense of impending or possible terminus might seem an ordinary place to begin examination of literature in an apocalyptic and prophetic age. But we are also accustomed to the idea that books – works of creative literature in particular – not only reflect the world in which they are written, but, to the degree that they are good books, interpret and criticize that world as well. Strategies for closure, and the critique and interpretation which endings provide, may offer a point of departure for some of our most delicate questions about literary consciousness itself.

At the most mundane level, we see that a psychology which despairs altogether of a form for conclusion can produce extravagant effects, but often a limited plot. Contemporary writers are often obsessed with this limitation. The novelist Margaret Atwood, for instance, suggests to us that the typical plot of the ‘modern romance’ goes as follows: Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl ‘get it together.’ Girl then gets cancer of the cervix and Boy is run over by a truck.  At the story’s end no interpretation need be offered nor surmised. Yet we see that this ‘romance,’ of course, is actually charged with a yearning for its opposite. In fact, one hardly needs to be a psychologist to perceive that the yearning for another story is what motivates creation of the story that is told. The relationship between these two attaches itself readily to the formation of endings, occasioning an illumination ofthe way in which historical narrative is defined and transformed in the presence of a prophetic impulse. The resulting quest for resolution is as venerable as that explored in the writings of the biblical prophets, as new as contemporary film fantasy, and yet it receives its most memorable and “imaginary” literary expressions in the prophetic “voice” of medieval romance.

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