The History of Romance Novels and Fairy Tales
Written by Bruce Calhoun, author of Ardennia: The Unlikely Story of Cinderella’s Prince
Romance novels have a long lineage. They date back to the medieval age and were labeled romance novels not because they were about romance, but because they were written in the French vernacular and not Latin. Thus, they were called romances because French is a romantic language. The romances were wildly popular with the French nobility, and because no one else but the clergy could read or had access to rare and expensive books, the stories were always about kings, queens, knights, ladies and clerics. The Arthurian tales based on legends written in Latin are a prime example. Chrétien de Troyes’ was the first writer who used the French language to elaborate on these tales.
The formula for these romances was pretty basic: Everything is copasetic, some kind of problem or need comes up, the hero goes on a quest, the quest is successful, the hero finds love with his lady and the tale ends happily. The earliest romances were based not only on local legends, but on the great epics like Virgil’s Aeneid. However, as they evolved the heroes of these tales had to exhibit gallantry to the ladies as well as martial prowess. It was no longer sufficient to slay foes on the battlefield; a warrior had to win hearts in the boudoir.
From the courts of France romances conquered the rest of Europe with the help of such patrons as Marie de Champagne and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The names of most the authors of these works have been long forgotten. One name, in particular has not: Geoffrey Chaucer. His Canterbury Tales contain several romances, though he is best known for establishing the sub-genre of the satire.
During the late Medieval age the invention of the printing press and the emergence of the middle class resulted in the inclusion of common folk in romances. Books like Sir Amadace portrayed a merchant as a hero, and women also came into their own. In Amoryus and Cleopes a lady defeats a dragon with her wiles much to the delight of its readers – who were mostly women. Taking it one step further, authors began to write about peasants. They often featured peasant children in “fairy tales”like Jack and the Beanstalk or Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
In the sixteenth century the intellectuals of the humanist periodbegan disparaging romances. One such intellectual, Michel de Montaigne, called romance novels “wit-besotting trash”. Another, Juan Luis Vives, warned that romances engendered “beastly and filthy desire”. The church got into the act by prohibiting some romances. This only made romances more popular, and they remained in fashion up to the early modern era. Sadly, most of these books are lost to posterity. But they were the antecedents of fairy tales, the novel and today’s fantasy fiction. We owe much to the old romances, and many of their plots and characters live on in the works of such writers as Shakespeare, Goethe, Sir Walter Scott and Jonathan Swift.
My tribute to the old romances and the fairy tales that sprang from them is a unique retelling of the Cinderella tale; described below.
Ardennia: The Unlikely Story of Cinderella’s Prince is a Cinderella story like no other that captures the magic, brutality and earthiness of the medieval ages. It chronicles the many adventures of Cinderella’s Prince as he undergoes his baptism of fire in the Battle of Paris, is charmed by Cinderella at a masquerade ball, and sets off on a quest to find her after she flees the ball at the midnight hour. The quest takes him through strange lands supposedly inhabited by ogres, pixies, hobgoblins, man eating plants and giants, and peopled by extraordinary characters that include an epileptic bard, a bean counter who wagers his gold tooth in a dice game, a merchant who can never be too prosperous, a little girl who has a running feud with three bears, pilgrims that argue over who is the most pious and a beggar who has been cursed with leprosy for committing all the cardinal sins. Be on the look-out for a bit of Chaucer-like satire.
I am a literature-major drop out who received a Bachelor’s degree in biology and science education from the University of Wisconsin. I taught marine biology in Puerto Rico, worked as a diver for the Australian Institute of Marine Science, wrote and award winning play and founded Save the Rainforest in 1988 www.savetherainforestnow.org. In my spare time I read, bicycle, cross country ski and write plays and novels.
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Happy Reading, Bruce Calhoun