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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote The Chanson de Geste


Let me repeat that I mean no despite to the "Communion of Saints" or to their records--much the reverse. But the hand of any _purpose_, Religious, Scientific, Political, what not, is apt to mummify story.



It has been said already that the Saint's Life, as it seems most probable to the present writer, started the romance in France; but of course we must allow considerable reinforcement of one kind or another from local, traditional, and literary sources. The time-honoured distribution, also given already, of the "matter" of this romance does not concern us so much here as it would in a history of French literature, but it concerns us. We shall indeed probably find that the home-grown or home-fed _Chanson de Geste_ did least for the novel in the wide sense--that the "Matter of Rome" chiefly gave it variety, change of atmosphere to some extent, and an invaluable connection with older literatures, but that the central division or "Matter of Britain," with the immense fringes of miscellaneous _romans d'aventures_--which are sometimes more or less directly connected with it, and are always moulded more or less on its patterns--gave most of all.

[Sidenote: The _Chanson de Geste_.]

Of these, however, what has been called the

family or patriotic part was undoubtedly the earliest and for a long time the most influential. There is, fortunately, not the least need here to fight out the old battle of the _cantilenae_ or supposed _ballad_-originals. I see no reason to alter the doubt with which I have always regarded their existence; but it really does not matter, _to us_, whether they existed or not, especially since we have not got them now. What we have got is a vast mass of narrative poetry, which latterly took actual prose form, and which--as early certainly as the eleventh century and perhaps earlier--turns the French faculty for narrative (whether it was actually or entirely fictitious narrative or not does not again matter) into channels of a very promising kind.

The novel-reader who has his wits and his memory about him may perhaps say, "Promising perhaps; but paying?" The answer must be that the promise may have taken some time to be fully liquidated, but that the immediate or short-dated payment was great. The fault of the _Chansons de Geste_--a fault which in some degree is to be found in French literature as a whole, and to a greater extent in all mediaeval literature--is that the class and the type are rather too prominent. The central conception of Charlemagne as a generally dignified but too frequently irascible and rather petulant monarch, surrounded by valiant and in a way faithful but exceedingly touchy or ticklish paladins, is no doubt true enough to the early stages of feudalism--in fact, to adapt the tag, there is too much human nature in it for it to be false. But it communicates a certain sameness to the chansons which stick closest to the model.

[Sidenote: The proportions of history and fiction in them.]

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