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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote The Arthurian Legend


Few

things can be more different than the story-means used in these two legends; yet it must be personal taste rather than strict critical evaluation which pronounces one more important to the development of the novel than the other. There is a little love interest in the Alexander poems--the heroine of this part being Queen Candace--but it is slight, episodic, and rudimentary beside the complex and all-absorbing passions which, when genius took the matter in hand, were wrought out of the truth of Troilus and the faithlessness of Cressid. The joys of fighting or roaming, of adventure and quest, and above all those of marvel, are the attractions which the Alexander legend offers, and who shall say that they are insufficient? At any rate no one can deny that they have been made the seasoning, if not the stuff and substance, of an enormous slice of the romance interest, and of a very large part of that of the novel.

[Sidenote: The Arthurian Legend.]

It is scarcely necessary to speak of other classical romances, and it is of course very desirable to keep in mind that the Alexander story, in no form in which we have it, attempts any _strictly_ novel interest; while though that interest is rife in some forms of "Troilus," those forms are not exactly of the period, and are in no case of the language, with which we are dealing. It was an Italian, an Englishman, and a Scot who each in his own speech--one in the admirable

vulgar tongue, of which at that time and as a finished thing, Italian was alone in Europe as possessor; the others in the very best of Middle English, and, as some think, almost the best of Middle Scots verse--displayed the full possibilities of Benoit's story. But the third "matter," the matter of Britain or (in words better understanded of most people) the Arthurian Legend, after starting in Latin, was, as far as language went, for some time almost wholly French, though it is exceedingly possible that at least one, if not more, of its main authors was no Frenchman. And in this "matter" the exhibition of the powers of fiction--prose as well as verse--was carried to a point almost out of sight of that reached by the _Chansons_, and very far ahead of any contemporary treatment even of the Troilus story.

[Sidenote: Chrestien de Troyes and the theories about him.]

Before, however, dealing with this great Arthurian story as a stage in the history of the Novel-Romance in and by itself, we must come to a figure which, though we have very little substantial knowledge of it, there is some reason for admitting as one of the first named and "coted" figures in French literature, at least as regards fiction in verse. It is well known that the action of modern criticism is in some respects strikingly like that of the sea in one of the most famous and vivid passages[20] of Spenser's unequalled scene-painting in words with


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