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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The sameness of the chanson story


[Sidenote:

Some drawbacks.]

Yet one must draw attention to the fact that all the named sources of the attraction, and may perhaps ask the reader to take it on trust that most of the unnamed, are not essentially or exclusively attractions of fiction--that they are attractions of poetry. And, on the other hand, while the weaving of so vast a web of actual fiction remains "to credit," there are not a few things to be set on the other side of the account. The sameness of the _chanson_ story, the almost invariable recurrence of the stock motives and frameworks--of rebellion, treason, paynim invasion, petulance of a King's son, somewhat too "coming" affection of a King's daughter, tyrannical and Lear-like _impotentia_ of the King himself, etc.--may be exaggerated, but cannot be denied. In the greatest of all by general acknowledgment, the far-famed _Roland_, the economy of pure story interest is pushed to a point which in a less unsophisticated age--say the twentieth instead of the twelfth or eleventh century--might be put down to deliberate theory or crotchet. The very incidents, stirring as they are, are put as it were in skeleton argument or summary rather than amplified into full story-flesh and blood; we see such heroine as there is only to see her die; even the great moment of the horn is given as if it had been "censored" by somebody. People, I believe, have called this brevity Homeric; but that is not how I read Homer.

In

fact, so jealous are some of those who well and wisely love the _chansons_, that I have known objections taken to ranking as pure examples, despite their undoubted age and merit, such pieces as _Amis et Amiles_ (for passion and pathos and that just averted tragedy which is so difficult to manage, one of the finest of all) and the _Voyage a Constantinoble_, the single early specimen of mainly or purely comic donnee.[15] This seems to me, I confess, mere prudery or else mistaken logic, starting from the quite unjustifiable proposition that nothing that is not found in the _Chanson de Roland_ ought to be found in any _chanson_. But we may admit that the "bones"--the simplest terms of the _chanson_-formula--hardly include varied interests, though they allow such interests to be clothed upon and added to them.

[Sidenote: But a fair balance of actual story merit.]

Despite this admission, however, and despite the further one that it is to the "romances" proper--Arthurian, classical, and adventurous--rather than to the _chansons_ that one must look for the first satisfactory examples of such clothing and addition, it is not to be denied that the _chansons_ themselves provide a great deal of it--whether because of adulteration with strictly "romance" matter is a question for debate in another place and not here. But it would be a singularly ungrateful memory which should, in this place, leave the reader with the idea that the _Chanson de Geste_ as such is merely monotonous and dull. The intensity of the appeal of _Roland_ is no doubt helped by that approach to bareness--even by a certain tautology--which has been mentioned. _Aliscans_, which few could reject as faithless to the type, contains, even without the family of dependent poems which cluster round it, a vivid picture of the valiant insubordinate warrior in William of Orange, with touches of comedy or at least horse-play.


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