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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Half legendary emperor a la barbe florie


The

exact relation of the _Chansons de Geste_ to the subsequent history of French fiction is thus an extremely important one, and one that requires, not only a good deal of reading on which to base any opinion that shall not be worthless, but a considerable exercise of critical discretion in order to form that opinion competently. The present writer can at least plead no small acquaintance with the subject, and a full if possibly over-generous acknowledgment of his dealings with it on the part of some French authorities, living and dead, of the highest competence. But the attractions of the vast and strangely long ignored body of _chanson_ literature are curiously various in kind, and they cannot be indiscriminately drawn upon as evidence of an early mastery of tale-telling proper on the part of the French as a nation.

There is indeed one solid fact, the importance of which can hardly be exaggerated in some ways, though it may be wrongly estimated in others. Here is not merely the largest part proportionately, but a very large bulk positively, of the very earliest part of a literature, devoted to a kind of narrative which, though some of it may be historic originally, is pretty certainly worked up into its concrete and extant state by fiction. The comparison with the two literatures which on the whole bear such comparison with French best--English and Greek--is here very striking. People say that there "must have been" many _Beowulfs_: it can hardly

be said that we have so much as a positive assertion of the existence of even one other, though we have allusions and glances which have been amplified in the usual fashion. We have positive and not reasonably doubtful assertion of the existence of a very large body of more or less early Greek epic; but we have nothing existing except the _Iliad_ and the _Odyssey_.

[Sidenote: The part played by language, prosody, and manners.]

On this fact, be it repeated, if we observe the canons of sound criticism in the process, too much stress in general cannot be laid. There must have been some more than ordinary _nisus_ towards story-telling in a people and a language which produced, and for three or four centuries cherished, something like a hundred legends, sometimes of great length, on the single general[14] subject of the exploits, sufferings, and what not of the great half-historical, half-legendary emperor _a la barbe florie_, of his son, and of the more legendary than historical peers, rebels, subjects, descendants, and "those about both" generally. And though the assertion requires a little more justification and allowance, there must have been some extraordinary gifts for more or less fictitious composition when such a vast body of spirited fictitious, or even half-fictitious, narrative is turned out.

But in this justification as to the last part of the contention a good deal of care has to be observed. It will not necessarily follow, because the metal is attractive, that its attractiveness is always of the kind purely belonging to fiction; and, as a matter of fact, a large part of it is not. Much is due to the singular sonority and splendour of the language, which is much more like Spanish than modern French, and which only a few poets of exceptional power have been able to reproduce in modern French itself. Much more is imparted by the equally peculiar character of the metre--the long _tirades_ or _laisses_, assonanced or mono-rhymed paragraphs in decasyllables or alexandrines, which, to those who have once caught their harmony, have an indescribable and unparalleled charm. Yet further, these attractions come from the strange unfamiliar world of life and character described and displayed; from the brilliant stock epithets and phrases that stud the style as if with a stiff but glittering embroidery; and from other sources too many to mention here.


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