The Electronic Labyrinth


Not to be confused with the bodice-rippers at the supermarket checkout, romance developed in twelfth century France and displaced the epic as the dominant literary mode of the middle ages. Though originally written in verse, romances such as Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1593) were among the first narratives in English to embrace prose. Romance differs from the epic in its representation not of a world of heroic tribal war but of chivalry and courtly love. Its standard plot is one of a quest undertaken by a single knight in order to gain a lady's favour; it stresses the values of fidelity to the lady love, courage, honour, mercifulness to an opponent, and generally depends heavily on magic and supernatural events to produce a sense of wonder. Its characters, unlike those of the novel, are simplistic, larger than life, and clearly divided between villains and heroes.

Romances are generally open-ended; they are episodic in nature and marked by myriad digressions and incalations. They are less teleological than the novel and share little of its interest in closure. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-96), for example, remained unfinished by its author but its fragmentary status hardly leaves the text incomplete in the same way that the lack of a final chapter might leave a typical Harlequin Romance incomplete. Rather, the story of The Redcrosse Knight, the archetypal knight errant, is one which valorizes the endlessness of narrative (Spenser himself referred to his text as an "endlesse werke"). In the romance, as in Derrida's conception of writing, the narrative is free to move, to repeat, to become, like its protagonist, errant, aimless, wandering, erring in its quest for truth.

Emphasizing what Barthes would call the writerliness of the romance, reminds us that the forms of narrative associated with the novel, and particularly the realist novel, are only recent anomalies in the history of literature. In the age of the hyperbook, the romance offers a valuable antecedent for a non-linear text, for a text more interested in the travelling than in the simple fact of getting to a particular destination.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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