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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

And the institutions of chivalry and knight errantry


in her preface, "that I read

either Dr. Beattie's 'Dissertation on Fable and Romance' or Mr. Warton's 'History of English Poetry.'" The former of these was an essay of somewhat more than a hundred pages by the author of "The Minstrel." It is of no great importance and follows pretty closely the lines of Hurd's "Letters on Chivalry and Romance," to which Beattie repeatedly refers in his footnotes. The author pursues the beaten track in inquiries of the kind: discusses the character of the Gothic tribes, the nature of the feudal system, and the institutions of chivalry and knight-errantry. Romance, it seems, was "one of the consequences of chivalry. The first writers in this way exhibited a species of fable different from all that had hitherto appeared. They undertook to describe the adventures of those heroes who professed knight-errantry. The world was then ignorant and credulous and passionately fond of wonderful adventures and deeds of valor. They believed in giants, dwarfs, dragons, enchanted castles, and every imaginable species of necromancy. These form the materials of the old romance. The knight-errant was described as courteous, religious, valiant, adventurous, and temperate. Some enchanters befriended and others opposed him. To do his mistress honor, and to prove himself worthy of her, he was made to encounter the warrior, hew down the giant, cut the dragon in pieces, break the spell of the necromancer, demolish the enchanted castle, fly through the air on wooden or winged horses, or,
with some magician for his guide, to descend unhurt through the opening earth and traverse the caves in the bottom of the ocean. He detected and punished the false knight, overthrew or converted the infidel, restored the exiled monarch to his dominions and the captive damsel to her parents; he fought at the tournament, feasted in the hall, and bore a part in the warlike processions."

There is nothing very startling in these conclusions. Scholars like Percy, Tyrwhitt, and Ritson, who, as collectors and editors, rescued the fragments of ancient ministrelsy and gave the public access to concrete specimens of mediaeval poetry, performed a more useful service than mild clerical essayists, such as Beattie and Hurd, who amused their leisure with general speculations about the origin of romance and whether it came in the first instance from the troubadours or the Saracens or the Norsemen. One more passage, however, may be transcribed from Beattie's "Dissertation," because it seems clearly a suggestion from "The Castle of Otranto." "The castles of the greater barons, reared in a rude but grand style of architecture, full of dark and winding passages, of secret apartments, of long uninhabited galleries, and of chambers supposed to be haunted with spirits, and undermined by subterraneous labyrinths as places of retreat in extreme danger; the howling of winds through the crevices of old walls and other dreary vacuities; the grating of heavy doors on rusty hinges of iron; the shrieking of bats and the screaming of owls and other creatures that resort to desolate or half-inhabited buildings; these and the like circumstances in the domestic life of the people I speak of, would multiply their superstitions and increase their credulity; and among warriors who set all danger at defiance, would encourage a passion for wild adventure and difficult enterprise."


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