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Fairytale Characteristics in Medieval Romances



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Burton, Julie 


From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century, Middle English romance can be a problematic genre. Its fantastic events, stock characters, repetitive structures and contrived endings seem to belong with the fairytale of the nursery rather than with the serious literature of the adult world. Stylistically, so many romances do little to counter this impression with formulaic words and phrases expressing simplistic emotions and commonplace sentiments. Yet Middle English romance was an enduring genre, popular over five hundred years or more. Although Chaucer was famously disparaging about the verse romances in his burlesque ‘Sir Thopas’, many survive in the collections of, or indeed were commissioned by, worldly men, important and successful in their time.

Clearly this raises a question: why are the romances, once so popular, unpalatable to the reading public of today? Any response to this question would of course be complex, not least because the romance genre notoriously embraces a range of greatly differing works. In this thesis I intend to explore one aspect of the romances which must be considered in any comprehensive answer: namely their ‘language’, by which I mean their method of communication in its broadest sense, now generally regarded as lacking in sophistication and unrelated to real life. Because of the variety of works in the genre, I focus the study on a sub-group of the romances.

It is the contention of this thesis that the link between fairytale and romance which I previously mentioned as disparaging to romance is in fact a strength of romance. In many ways the “language” of fairytale is the “language” of romance. In fact, the closeness of fairytale and romance is such that an understanding of fairytale can contribute significantly to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the methods and effectiveness of romance.


This thesis represents the state of completion the author attained before her death in March 2010. It was her final wish that it be made available to the widest possible scholarly circulation.





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