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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote The Amadis romances


The _Amadis_ romances.]

No more curious contrast (except, perhaps, the not very dissimilar one which will meet us in the next chapter) is to be found in the present _History_, or perhaps in any other, than that of the matter just discussed with the great body of _Amadis_ romance which, at this same time, was introduced into French literature by the translation or adaptation of Nicolas Herberay des Essarts and his continuators. That Herberay[121] deserves, according to the best and most catholic students of French, a place with the just-mentioned writers among the formers or reformers of the French tongue, is a point of some importance, but, for us, minor. Of the controversial part of the _Amadis_ subject it must, as in other cases, be once more unnecessary for us to say much. It may be laid down as certain, on every principle of critical logic and research, that the old idea of the Peninsular cycle being borrowed direct from any French original is hopelessly absurd. There is, notoriously, no external evidence of any such original ever having existed, and there is an immense improbability against any such original ever having existed. Further, the internal characteristics of the Spanish romances, though, undoubtedly, they might never have come into existence at all but for the French, and though there is a very slight "catch-on" of _Amadis_ itself to the universally popular Arthurian legend, are not in the least like those of French or English.

How the actual texts came into that existence; whether, as used to be thought at first, after some expert criticism was turned on them, the actual original was Portuguese, and the refashioned and prolific form Spanish, is again a question utterly beyond bounds for us. The quality of the romances themselves--their huge vogue being a matter of fact--and the influence which they exercised on the future development of the novel,--these are the things that concern us, and they are quite interesting and important enough to deserve a little attention.

[Sidenote: Their characteristics.]

What is certain is that these Spanish romances themselves--which, as some readers at any rate may be presumed to know, branch out into endless genealogies in the _Amadis_ and _Palmerin_ lines, besides the more or less outside developments which fared so hardly with the censors of Don Quixote's library--as well as the later French examples of a not dissimilar type, the capital instance of which, for literature, is Lord Berners's translation of _Arthur of Little Britain_--do show the most striking differences, not merely from the original twelfth- and thirteenth-century Charlemagne and Arthur productions, but also from intermediate variants and expansions of these. The most obvious of these discrepancies is the singular amplification of the supernatural elements. Of course these were not absent in the older romance literature, especially in the Arthurian cycle. But there they had certain characteristics which might almost deserve the adjective "critical"--little criticism proper as there was in the Middle Ages. They were very generally religious, and they almost always had what may be called a poetic restraint about them. The whole Graal-story is deliberately modelled on Scriptural suggestions; the miracle of reconciliation and restoration which concludes _Amis and Amiles_ is the work of a duly commissioned angel. There are giants, but they are introduced moderately and equipped in consonance. The Saint's Life, which, as it has been contended, exercised so large an influence on the earlier romance, carried the nature, the poetry, the charm of its supernatural elements into the romance itself.

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