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Chivalric Romance

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"Of Fairy Damsels met in Forest wide
By Knights of Logres, or of Lyones,
Lancelot, or Pelleas, or Pellenore"
John Milton, "Paradise Regain'd"

Chivalric Romance is the original romance genre, back from the days when "romance" meant "work written in the vernacular". If you're looking for the sort of romance you might find in a Chivalric Romance, see Courtly Love. The association is what produced the current commonest meaning of romance.

Plentifully supplied with kings and queens, princesses, knights doing noble deeds on behalf of the beautiful Damsel in Distress, wandering the lands in search of quests, receiving orders from mysterious women with knowledge of the perils and evils of the land, meeting with ambiguous though lovely fairy ladies and enchantresses, fighting dragons, giants, wild men of the woods, bears, lions, or other knights (often in tourneys, with the prize sometimes being the hand of the princess).

Though they differ wildly in their realism, many of them include fantastical elements. The later ones start to turn into the genre Fantasy, in that they include tropes that were not believed in by the writer or audience — not even as possibilities in a far-off land.

Arthurian Legend (part of the Matter of Britain) is among the best known, but in medieval times, there were also those about Charlemagne (the Matter of France) and Alexander the Great (the Matter of Rome). The association could be rather loose, with tales from The Trojan War falling into the Matter of Rome, and despite the claim that these encompassed all romances, there were also "non-cyclical", independent romances, such as the Constance tales (all with the same basic plot as Geoffrey Chaucer used), and the tales of El Cid Campeador, the national hero of Spain. If the era was earlier, do not expect any resemblance to the actual earlier society; Alexander the Great invariably appeared as a feudal king. This is how King Arthur ended up a Knight in Shining Armor.

They obviously are Older Than Print and found only in manuscripts. This has produced a great deal of variation in the texts. Recognizably the same tale appears with great changes in locations and even the names of the characters.

Don Quixote was written as a Deconstruction of the genre and is the sole memorial of quite a number of these once-famous knights.

Many tales later collected as Fairy Tales or ballads are first found in romances, although we do not know how close they are to the Oral Tradition of their own times. This usage is also the root of the names Ruritanian Romance, and Planetary Romance, and is why the term is sometimes used for tales of magic and larger-than-life characters, such as Shakespeare's late comedies, which are sometimes called his romances. See also Wuxia for the Chinese equivalent (Romance of the Three Kingdoms in particular could be considered the "Matter of China").

Chivalric romances having their own pages

Tropes found in chivalric romances:

  • Animal Companion: Knights who help a lion often acquire it as a companion.
  • Anachronism Stew: A few — very few — authors notice that maybe customs weren't the same in The Middle Ages as in the time when the romance was set, but that never influences their writing. This is why King Arthur and his knights got to be Knights in Shining Armor, but the biggest impact may have been on the Matter of Rome. Wooing and warfare during The Trojan War featured knights and Courtly Love; Alexander the Great is a feudal king; the empress of Rome dresses like a medieval queen. In the romance Octavian, the Emperor Augustus and his wife have difficulty conceiving, so they build an abbey to the Virgin Mary.
  • Arranged Marriage: Arranging for the heroine to marry a kitchen boy can backfire if he's a rightful king in hiding.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Wishing for a child from God or the Devil is a mistake.
  • Bears Are Bad News: One monster you can meet in the woods.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: A very common trope of the time period. Not only are good characters always beautiful but beauty is taken as evidence of goodness in-universe.
  • Bifauxnen: Silence, the hero/ine of The Romance of Silence is biologically female, but is raised as a boy so s/he can inherit his/her father's land. The narrator and other characters often comment on how hot Silence is.
  • Blue Blood: Many, many, many characters. That was, after all, the target audience, since romances were written for the literate.
  • Butt-Monkey: Porters. Other officials who keep minstrels from the court and its rewards.
  • The Fair Folk: Possibly their nastiest in Sir Orfeo, but the fairies in romances are always magical, powerful, capricious, and hedged about with taboos to act as Forbidden Fruit.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job:
    • The Man Tried by Fate often loses everything and has to take a menial position, such as The Blacksmith.
    • Women driven to exile and poverty by malicious slander take to their needles for support.
  • I Gave My Word: King Orfeo wins a reward from the King of Faerie, who has to admit that if the reward is unfitting, breaking his word is still less so.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Many a spend-thrift knight has spent all he owns.
  • I Will Wait for You: Leaving one's beloved in order to win the name that will let you marry her may require this.
  • King Incognito: King Orfeo disguises himself as a minstrel.
  • Knighting: Many young heroes are knighted to start them off.
  • The Promise: Making and keeping oaths is of enormous importance in chivalry.
  • Rags to Royalty: Both heroes and heroines have a tendency to marry up — at least from their apparent station.
  • Random Events Plot: Especially in those stories known as the Man Tried By Fate. But all chivalric romances were prone to magics, perils, problems, and even heroes shifting about.
  • Religion of Evil
  • Rightful King Returns: Many young princes adventure until they have to claim the throne.
  • Royal Blood: The knight can be the king, or adventure on his behalf.
  • Secret Identity: More than one hero took advantage of the face-concealing armor to show up at the tourney or battle without revealing his identity to those who knew him as a menial servant. Ur-Example rather than Trope Maker, since the identity is only temporary.
  • Series Continuity Error: After the smash success of The Song of Roland, Roland had a lot more tales told about him and his magical sword Durendal. Durendal is completely unbreakable - in Song of Roland, Roland attempts to smash it to pieces on a mountain so the Saracens can't get it, but even that doesn't work. In a poem written later but set earlier than Song, The Sultan of Babylon, Roland breaks Durendal in the middle of a battle by accident.
  • Shapeshifting Lover: Some brides are clearly swan maidens.
  • Solitary Sorceress: Many enchantresses live in quite isolated locations, though they may have an entire court of likewise isolated attendants. This is actually a downplayed form of Doing In the Wizard — enchantresses replacing fairy women.
  • Standard Hero Reward: After the first century of them, instead of giving them a love for a married woman, the authors let them marry their beloveds.
  • Swans A-Swimming: The Swan Children, in all their variants, are turned to swans. The Swan Knight is accompanied by one.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Needlework. How else can a heroine in humble circumstances eat?
  • The Tourney: Where else would you show off in front of the ladies?
  • Trial by Combat: Often to defend the honor of innocent, accused queens.
  • What Do You Mean, It's Not Political?: Many nobles and kings claimed descent from Charlemagne and the other characters (real or fictional) in the Matter of France. This meant romances involving them came pre-loaded with political significance, especially those about disputes between him and his vassals. This is one reason why the Matter of France declined in popularity and the Matter of Britain rose, because any attempt to use King Arthur politically (like Henry VII's efforts to link the Tudors to King Arthur, including naming his eldest son Arthur) derived from the romances, and was not inherent in them.
  • Wicked Stepmother: William of Palerne's friend/sidekick was enchanted into a wolf by his.
  • Woman Scorned: Would-be lovers, both male and female, frequently accuse those who have refused them of adultery (if the accused is female) or rape (if male).
  • Wonder Child: Wishing for a child from God or the Devil will work — alas.