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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

As liberated from its Graal legend swaddling clothes


Perhaps one should guard against a possible repetition of a not uncommon critical mistake--that of inferring ignorance from absence of mention. I am quite aware that no exhaustive catalogue of known French stories in prose has been given; and the failure to supplement a former glance at the late prose versions of romance is intentional. They have nothing new in romance-, still less in novel-_character_ for us. The _Bibliotheque Elzevirienne_ volumes have been dwelt upon, not as a _corpus_, but because they appear to represent, without any unfair manipulation or "window-dressing," the kind at the time with a remarkable combination of interest both individual and contrasted.



[Sidenote: The anonymity, or at least impersonality, of authorship up to this point.]

Although--as it is hoped the foregoing chapters may have shown--the amount of energy and of talent, thrown into the department of French fiction, had from almost the earliest times been remarkably great; although French, if not France, had been the mother of almost all literatures in things fictitious, it can hardly be said that any writer of undeniable genius, entitling him to the first class in the Art of Letters, had shown himself therein. A hundred _chansons de geste_ and as many romances _d'aventures_ had displayed dispersed

talent of a very high kind, and in the best of them, as the present writer has tried to point out, a very "extensive assortment" of the various attractions of the novel had from time to time made its appearance. But this again had been done "dispersedly," as the Shakespearean stage-direction has it. The story is sometimes well told, but the telling is constantly interrupted; the great art of novel-conversation is, as yet, almost unborn; the descriptions, though sometimes very striking, as in the case of those given from _Partenopeus_--the fatal revelation of Melior's charms and the galloping of the maddened palfrey along the seashore, with the dark monster-haunted wood behind and the bright moonlit sea and galley in front--are more often stock and lifeless; while, above all, the characters are rarely more than sketched, if even that. The one exception--the great Arthurian history, as liberated from its Graal-legend swaddling clothes, and its kite-and-crow battles with Saxons and rival knights, but retaining the mystical motive of the Graal-search itself and the adventures of Lancelot and other knights; combining all this into a single story, and storing it with incident for a time, and bringing it to a full and final tragic close by the loves of Lancelot himself and Guinevere--this great achievement, it has been frankly confessed, is so much muddled and distracted with episode which becomes positive digression, that some have even dismissed its pretensions to be a whole. Even those who reject this dismissal are not at one as to any single author of the conception, still less of the execution. The present writer has stated his humble, but ever more and more firm conviction that Chrestien did not do it and could not have done it; others of more note, perhaps of closer acquaintance with MS. sources, but also perhaps not uniting knowledge of the subject with more experience in general literary criticism and in special study of the Novel, will not allow Mapes to have done it.

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