(Before long, I expect to post my “Mythos and Non-Myth: The English Tail-Rhyme Romances and Structuralist Methodology,” a detailed study of the romance genre, not yet ready for even the informal publication of the blog.)
Medieval romances, broadly defined, were surely the popular medium of the era, rightly compared by Loomis to today’s “theatre, cinema, radio, and television.” In form, like situation comedies and police dramas, they were highly conventionalized; in theme, like most popular and oral literature, they tended to reinforce readers’ preconceptions. Nonetheless, now as in the fourteenth century, convention is far from a mechanical reproduction of one work by another. Rather, conventional expectations in the reader allow the poet to convey more concise and detailed data.
A rough notion of the breadth of variation in these texts is evident simply from a review of their opening passages. A narrative beginning “Sing, o muse!” must inspire different expectations from one beginning “Once upon a time” or “It was a dark and stormy night,” but each of these well-known phrases is associated with a separate genre. Examination of a few examples of the Middle English romance from those collected in Maldwyn Mills well-edited and accessible Everyman volume indicates a wide variation in initial orientation for the reader. Although many levels of irony or conventional intertextuality may complicate the code, these opening passages in general provide a considerable degree of self-reflective definition of a text’s identity in terms of genre, sources, traditions, and function. In this way the competent reading (or listening) community is equipped to be able to pursue productive directions with the narrative that follows, accurately adjusting expectations and interpretations to produce the most productive reading. A few examples will demonstrate that, far from stereotyped repetition, even this form utilizes a great variety of openings.
1. The Sege of Melayne opens with a definition of audience — it is meant for those who relish heroic tales, heroic nonetheless for being true, as the author is at pains to insist.
This theme allows him to articulate several critical oppositions according to which the world of the poem is organized: first of all, the ordered hierarchy of feudalism (the hero is “Charlies of Fraunce,” “the heghe kynge of alle”) and secondly, the opposition to the pagan enemy, the Muslims, in a political and religious act of self-definition. However, it is clear that the authentic heroic age is perceived as in the past, or, that is, in a “dream-time,” the realm of the imagination. In fact, the poetic text may been seen as the surrogate of the heroism missing from everyday life. Those who cannot themselves do great deeds with the style they can conceive, can at least be connoisseurs. These two axes intersect: the order of European society, from top to bottom, is matched against its evil pagan twin.
2. The first words of Octavian define a larger potential listenership: everyone. The poet speaks to a universal audience: “Lytyll and mykyll, olde and yonge.” Far from detailing their differences, the poet seeks to amalgamate them into an all-inclusive audience, the fan-base that is the target of every writer aiming for the best-seller lists and every television producer.
3. Emare, quite differently, begins with an extended religious meditation on the gap between the divine and the earthly with the implication that this poetry, like a liturgical formula or an invocation in a hymn will itself repair the distance it seeks to describe. To the poet, it is the duty of all “menstrelles” to speak first of Christ, the mediator between heaven and earth. (One is reminded of Skip James, the country blues performer who would customarily conclude his performances with a hymn, presumably clearing the conscience from the “devil’s music” that preceded the sacred.) He speaks of his Lord, not for any reason specific to his tale, but rather because, as a pious Christian, he “sholde.” This mere mention is efficacious. Again, the text is the mediator between opposite conceptual poles.
4. Sir Isumbras takes the religious theme further, in this case specifically asking for blessings for himself and his audience, transforming the entertainment of hearing a romance into an act hallowed and protected by the divine.
5. In Sir Gowther the religious opening is melodramatic, focusing on the devil’s manipulation of women. Here we have no formal nod to the divine, nor a positive prayer, but rather an involvement of the cosmic figures in the story through the actions of “a warlocke greytt.”
Each of these openings seeks to define the binary oppositions that create the world of the story as the creation itself grew from the distinctions between light and dark, high and low, earth and sea. Though all the medieval romances recognize such pairs as god/man, truth/poetry, ruler/subject, us/not-us, they appear not as simple alternatives, but as the foundation of a complex dialectic. Thus Christ mediates between the divine and human realms and the individual believer may imitate him with hopes of being lifted to the celestial realm in the end. Poetry, likewise, though differing from lived experience, is, as Aristotle suggested, even more “true.” The king and serf, though occupying opposite ends of the social spectrum, are both necessary for the smooth functioning of society, and military enemies may one day be defeated.
In spite of this shared ideology, aesthetic, religious, and political, the romances set off on differing notes, each with its own character determined by the narrative to follow and by the artist who composed the particular version of the story. As always, poetry serves to first define the painful, all but impossible, contradictions of life and then to provide an imaginative escape. This commonality, though, by no means implies that each text is a slavish repetition of its models. Rather, the shared conventions allow for a free artistic play intelligible to the audience.