The title of Romantic Literature often communicates the wrong idea of what the genre truly is: tales and epics about heroic deeds, ideal adventure, and honorable men of the highest nature. For this reason, it is more appropriate to call this type of literature Chivalric or Medieval Romance. Chivalry, along with other all important virtues, is the main theme of many, if not all, works told in the Medieval Times. Stories of the genre are broken up by sections or countries of Europe. Greco and Roman history and legend is called The Matter of Rome, and it is the most popular Medieval Romance known throughout the world. There is also The Matter of France which has to do with Charlemagne and the tales of Roland and his knights. The Matter of England deals with the least likely to be known stories of men such as King Horn and Guy of Warwick. Lastly, there is The Matter of Britain, the second most prominent, following shortly behind The Matter of Rome. This category tells the legends of Camelot, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. Though each classification of the genre comes from various areas of the European Continent, they are connected through shared characteristics that created the Chivalric Romance genre.
Romantic narratives, particularly those of English and Celtic descent, are always focused on one or more knights who set out on valiant quests that are vested with high amounts of adventure and effervescent action. These knights are the pinnacles of chivalry and perfect manners, for they are noble men of the court who, more often than not, are on their way to prove themselves to their king or rescue their lovely ladies from distress. This idea brings up another main theme of Medieval Romance, which can be accurately assumed by the title: the knight undoubtedly, eternally, and passionately loves his helpless maiden. His story begins at his birth and ends with his death or the completion of the quest for his lady. The setting of the knight’s tale is often vague and imaginary, which could be credited to the fact that many of these stories were passed along verbally and not put to paper until long after they had been first told. By the times the tales were written down, they had aged significantly, had been altered by constant retellings, and were affected by anachronism. Many authors recounting the Medieval Romances are guilty of integrating things from their time period into the legends where they did not belong. The most common anachronistic theme imparted into texts is religion; the writers would often take aspects of Christianity and amalgamate them into the stories as miracles or good fortune bestowed to the knights by God. There are many supernatural elements to Chivalric Romance, but they were not acts of God until anachronistic tendencies happened upon them. Disregarding the stitched in religious themes, we find that the genre is actually fairly secular with a potent credence in the idea of Fate and Destiny. The extramundane characteristics such as magic, Fate, and the powers of foresight are very popular all throughout the quests of knights; many times the birth of the knights are preternatural.
The knight’s life is often molded from a pattern of events that occurs for many heroes of the Chivalric Romance world. Starting at the beginning, the knight’s birth, as stated before, may have dealt with magic. In general, he enters the world in an enigmatic or monumental way. The future knight is then taken from his home, if the pattern is followed, and passes a period of time under an unknown identity as he develops into a respectable and formidable man. Once he is recognized as a man that emanates all the virtues of a reputable knight, each of his triumphs is celebrated by the people of his king because the knight’s victory in achieving his end goal often results in the welfare of a larger population. However, the security of the people is not usually what the knight has set out to achieve. The quest that a particular legend focuses on, is generally episodic; there are many diverging plots that may or may not contribute to the original aim. These plots are tasks that would prove the knights worth, whether it was in question or not. He, or the audience, may take away well learned lessons from these episodes that are later used in the final test that will yield what the knight has set out to attain.
These characteristics can be found in all pieces of Chivalric Romance Literature, yet there seems to be a stronger and more specific representation of them in legends from The Matter of Britain. Arthurian legend practically congests this category of Medieval Romance; the stories of the fairness of The Round Table, the righteous leadership of King Arthur, and the gallant, extraordinary adventures of his knights have remained very popular because people love the integrity that is withheld throughout each one. They enjoy the characteristics that we say defines the whole genre, and they are even more keen on the individual stories that follow the loose guidelines as well as add in a divergent element that excites the audience. A favored example of this type of legend is Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. This story, like many in the genre, is not a retelling of a quest but one that the author has created with bits and pieces of what has been passed along through time. Spenser has taken many of the elements of the genre and integrated them into a work heavily inundated with religious allegory. He follows two knights, both from a company of twelve who represent the twelve virtues most important to Christianity. The two main knights are figures of the virtues of Holiness and Chastity, which could be argued to be the Christian ethics of the highest order. They follow the loose mold made for a knight’s life: the plot branches into smaller adventures, there is a beautiful lady waiting at the end of the quest, and they are constantly helping the general population. The twist with Spenser’s story, is that the main figurehead is a woman, The Faerie Queene. She is a very strong and powerful leader, and it can be inferred that Spenser was influenced by his country’s monarch, The Queen of England.
Another story that follows that classic mold is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This story does not have one specific author; many have written renditions of the tale and infused their own anachronistic characteristics, but the meatier part of the story is relatively the same. Sir Gawain is a knight of the Round Table under the command of his uncle, King Arthur. The Green Knight throws down a gauntlet challenging those of the Round Table and Gawain takes it up, and he sets out to do battle with this knight, represent his king, and win himself honor. This particular legend does not have anything to do with sweet maidens; instead, it is a quest for the crown and the accolade that comes with victory. In contrast with Gawain and the Green Knight, we have the story of The Tale of The Sangreal, also known as the Holy Grail quest. The tale is immensely popular, both for its religious aspects and for the nature of the knights’ adventure. In difference to the previously mentioned Arthurian legend, this story focuses on a group of King Arthur’s knight who have set out to claim something for their beloved king. Arthur has requested that his trusted men bring back the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus and his disciples drank from during the Last Supper. There is, of course, many subplots throughout their adventure: challenges to test their mettle and worth. This legend, again, has not one author, but many writers have put the story down on paper. The tale differs from others by being a quest for a religious object and focusing on religion. When we see those characteristics in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, it is because he has put them there, but with the quest for the Holy Grail there is a fixed religious aspect that every single author has kept when writing it.
Neither Arthurian Legend nor Medieval Romantic literature, in general, have an immovable set of guidelines for their works. There are just many characteristics, such as chivalry, knighthood, and magic, that flow throughout each story. Those aspects are what have kept the genre alive for so long; they have been around for hundreds of years. Passed down and reshaped by different eras, the main messages were never lost, and it is fairly easy to doubt that they ever will be.