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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote And of the fabliaux


Comic tale-telling, on the other hand, was germane to the very soul of the race, and had shown itself in _chanson_ and _roman_ episodes at a very early date. But it had been so abundantly, and in so popular a manner, associated with verse as a vehicle in those pieces, in the great beast-epic of _Renart_, and above all in the _fabliaux_ and in the earliest farces, that the connection was hard to separate. None of the stories discussed in the last chapter has, it may be noticed, the least comic touch or turn.

[Sidenote: And of the _fabliaux_.]

As we go on we must disengage ourselves more and more (though with occasional returns to it) from attention to verse; and the two great compositions in that form, the _Romance of the Rose_ and the _Story of the Fox_, especially the former, hardly require much writing about to any educated person. They are indeed most strongly contrasted examples of two modes of tale-telling, both in a manner allegoric, but in other respects utterly different. The mere story of the _Rose_, apart from the dreamy or satiric digressions and developments of its two parts and the elaborate descriptions of the first, can be told in a page or two. An abstract of the various _Renart_ books, to give any idea of their real character, would, on the other hand, have to be nearly as long as the less spun-out versions themselves. But the verse _fabliaux_ can hardly be passed over so lightly. Many of them formed the actual bases of the prose _nouvelles_ that succeeded them; not a few have found repeated presentation in literature; and, above all, they deserve the immense praise of having deliberately introduced ordinary life, and not conventionalised manners, into literary treatment. We have taken some pains to point out touches of that life which are observable in Saint's Life and Romance, in _chanson_ and early prose tale. But here the case is altered. Almost everything is real; a good deal is what is called, in one of the senses of a rather misused word, downright "realism."

Few people who have ever heard of the _fabliaux_ can need to be told that this realism in their case implies extreme freedom of treatment, extending very commonly to the undoubtedly coarse and not seldom to the merely dirty. There are some--most of them well known by modern imitations such as Leigh Hunt's "Palfrey"--which are quite guiltless in this respect; but the great majority deal with the usual comic farrago of satire on women, husbands, monks, and other stock subjects of raillery, all of which at the time invited "sculduddery." To translate some of the more amusing, one would require not merely Chaucerian licence of treatment but Chaucerian peculiarities of dialect in order to avoid mere vulgarity. Even Prior, who is our only modern English _fabliau_-writer of real literary merit--the work of people like Hanbury Williams and Hall Stevenson being mostly mere pornography--could hardly have managed such a piece as "Le Sot Chevalier"--a riotously "improper" but excessively funny example--without running the risk of losing that recommendation of being "a lady's book" with which Johnson rather capriciously tempered his more general undervaluation. Sometimes, on the other hand, the joke is trivial enough, as in the English-French word-play of _anel_ for _agnel_ (or _-neau_), which substitutes "donkey" for "lamb"; or, in the other, on the comparison of a proper name, "Estula," with its component syllables "es tu la?" But the important point on the whole is that, proper or improper, romantic or trivial, they all exhibit a constant improvement in the mere art of telling; in discarding of the stock phrases, the long-winded speeches, and the general _paraphernalia_ of verse; in sticking and leading up smartly to the point; in coining sharp, lively phrase; in the co-ordination of incident and the excision of superfluities. Often they passed without difficulty into direct dramatic presentation in short farces. But on the whole their obvious destiny was to be "unrhymed" and to make their appearance in the famous form of the _nouvelle_ or _novella_, in regard to which it is hard to say whether Italy was most indebted to France for substance, or France to Italy for form.


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