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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Aucassin et Nicolette not quite typical


[74]

These two directions obviously refer to the common mediaeval "wimple" arrangement.

CHAPTER IV

THE BEGINNINGS OF PROSE FICTION

[Sidenote: Prose novelettes of the thirteenth century. _Aucassin et Nicolette_ not quite typical.]

The title of this chapter may seem an oversight or an impertinence, considering that large parts of an earlier one have been occupied with discussions and translations of the prose Arthurian Romances. It was, however, expressly pointed out that the priority of these is a matter of opinion, not of judgment; and it may be here quite frankly admitted that one of the most serious arguments against that priority is the extreme lateness of Old French Prose in any finished literary form. The excuse, however, if excuse be needed, does not turn on any such hinge as this. It was desired to treat, in the last two chapters, romance matter proper of the larger kind, whether that matter took the form of prose or of verse. Here, on the other hand, the object is to deal with the smaller but more miscellaneous body of fictitious matter (part, no doubt, of a larger) which presents it tolerably early, and in character foretells the immense development of the kind which French was to see later.[75] A portion of this body, sufficient for us, is contained in two little volumes of the _Bibliotheque Elzevirienne_,

published rather less than sixty years ago (1856 and 1858) by MM. L. Moland and Ch. d'Hericault, the first devoted to thirteenth-, the second to fourteenth-century work. One of these, the now world-famous _Aucassin et Nicolette_, has been so much written about and so often translated already that it cannot be necessary to say a great deal about it here. It is, moreover, of a mixed kind, a _cante-fable_ or blend of prose and verse, with a considerable touch of the dramatic in it. Its extraordinary charm is a thing long ago settled; but it is, on the whole, more of a dramatic and lyrical romance--to recouple or releash kinds which Mr. Browning had perhaps best never have put asunder--than of a pure prose tale.

[Sidenote: _L'Empereur Constant_ more so.]

Its companions in the thirteenth-century volume are four in number, and if none of them has the peculiar charm, so none has the technical disqualification (if that be not too strong a word) of _Aucassin et Nicolette_. The first, shortest, and, save for one or two points, least remarkable, _L'Empereur Constant_, is a very much abbreviated and in more than one sense prosaic version of the story out of which Mr. William Morris made his delightful _The Man Born to be King_. Probably of Greek or Greek-Eastern origin, it begins with an astrological passage in which the Emperor, childless except for a girl, becomes informed of the imminent birth of a man-child, who shall marry his daughter and succeed him. He discovers the, as it seems, luckless baby; has it brought to him, and with his own hand attempts to disembowel it, but allows himself, most improbably,[76] to be dissuaded from finishing the operation. The benevolent knight who has prevented the completion of the crime takes the infant to a monastery, where (after a quaint scene of haggling about fees with the surgeon) the victim is patched up, grows to be a fine youth, and comes across the Emperor, to whom the abbot guilelessly, but in this case naturally enough,[77] betrays the secret. The Emperor's murderous thoughts as naturally revive, and the frustration of them by means of the Princess's falling in love with the youth, the changing of "the letters of Bellerophon," and the Emperor's resignation to the inevitable, follow the same course as in the English poem. The latter part is better than the earlier; and the writer is evidently (as how should he not be?) a novice; but his work is the kind of experiment from which better things will come.


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