1902 Encyclopedia > France > Romances of Antiquity

(Part 19)


Romances of Antiquity

There is yet a third class of early narrative poems, differing from the two former in subject, but agreeing sometimes with one sometimes with the other in form. These are the classical romances which are not much later than those of Charlemagne and Arthur. The chief subjects with which their authors busied themselves were the conquests of Alexander and the siege of Troy, though other classical stories come in. The most remarkable of all is the romance of Alexandre by Lambert the Short and Alexander of Bernay. It has been said that the excellence of the twelve-syllabled verse used in this romances was the origin of the term alexandrine. The Trojan romances, on the other hand, are chiefly in octosyllabic verse, and the principal poem which treats of them is the Roman de Troie of Benoit de Ste More. Both this poem and Alixandre are attributed to the last quarter of the 12th century. The authorities consulted for these poems were, as may be supposed, none of the best. Dares Phrygius, Dictyse Cretensis, the pseudo-Callisthenes supplied most of them. Butt he inexhaustible invention of the trouvéres themselves was the chief authority consulted. The adventures of Medea, the wanderings of Alexander and the Trojan horse, were quite sufficient to spur on to exertion the minds which had been accustomed to spin a chanson of some 10,000 lines our of a casual allusion in some preceding poem. It is needless to say that anachronism did not disturb them. From first to last the writers of the chansons had not in the least troubled themselves with attention to any such matters. Charlemagne himself had his life and exploits accommodated to the need of every port who treats of him, and the same is the case with the heroes of antiquity. Indeed, Alexander is made in many respects a prototype of Charlemagne. He is regularly knighted, he has twelve peers, he holds tournaments, he has relations with Arthur, and comes in contact with fairies, he takes flights in the air, and so forth. There is perhaps more avowed imagination in these classical stories than in either of the other divisions of French epic poetry. Some of their authors even confess to the practice of fiction, while the trouvéres of the chansons invariably assert the historical character of their facts and personages, and the authors of the Arthurian romances at least start from facts vouched for partly by national tradition partly by the authority of religion and the church. The classical romances, however, are important in two different ways. In the first place, they connect the early literature of France, however loosely, and with links of however dubious authenticity, with the great history and literature of the past. They show a certain amount of scholarship in their authors, and in their hearers they show a capacity of taking an interest in subjects which are not merely those directly connected with the village or the tribe. The chansons de gestes had shown the creative power and independent character of French literature. There is, at least about the earlier ones, nothing borrowed, traditional, or scholarly. They smack of the soil, and they rank France among the very few countries which, in this matter of indigenous growth, have yielded more than folk-songs and fireside tales. The Arthurian romances, less independent in origin, exhibit a wider range of view, a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more extensive command of the sources of poetical and romantic interest. The classical epics superadd the only ingredient necessary to an accomplished literature, -- that is to say, the knowledge of what has been done by other peoples and other literatures already, and the readiness to take advantage of the materials thus supplied.

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