Literary Romance

The first time I learned about Romance (as in literary Romances, not as in romance novels) I was a playwriting student (the first student to major in playwriting there, in fact) at Catholic University.

The teacher was talking about canon formation, and how often what ended up making it into the canon were things people actually liked to read, which is Romance.

Shakespeare’s last four plays, Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale, Pericles, and Tempest are Romances.


Dorothy Everett, in"A Characterization of the English Medieval Romance." Essays and Studies (1929); rpt. in Essays on Middle English Literature, by Dorothy Everett (Oxford, 1959; Westport, CT, 1978): 1-22. [PR255 .E9 1978], defined Literary Romance as follows:

"Medieval romances are stories of adventure in which the chief parts are played by knights, famous kings, or distressed ladies, acting most often under the impulse of love, religious faith, or, in many, mere desire for adventure. The stories were first told in verse, but when, later, prose versions were made, they were also called romances. In length the verse romances vary from a few hundred lines to tens of thousands. . .; the prose ones are mostly very long."

Literary romance has its basis in Epic poetry and Gothic Fiction is its descendant.

Since the literary Romance I am working on is set in Spain at the beginning of the First Crusade, I was pleased to find a medieval romance about the first Crusade:

The betrayal and capture of Antioch during the First Crusade 

Capture of Antioch by Bohemond of Torentum, June 1098Capture of Antioch by Bohemond of Torentum, June 1098Robert Levine, the linguist from Boston University who translated this medieval Romance, says:. “the poem offers a broader, more complex representation if not of reality, then of imagined experience(1), than chanson de geste characteristically does.”

After many years of simply fantasizing about it, I decided to write my own Literary Romance. In order to attain the required combination of imagined experience and representation of reality, I decided to rework the fairy tale of "Hansel and Gretel" and set it in a historically accurate late eleventh-century, early twelfth-century Spain. So, the core of the plot is about a pair of fraternal twins traveling the trail to Santiago de Compostela at the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth century.

Why “Hansel and Gretel”? What intrigued me about that fairy tale is that Hansel carries the bulk of the action, he does all the strategizing, for a little more than half of the story, until he is encaged by the flesh eating witch.  Then Gretel takes over, and gets them out of the trouble that they are in through her wits.  In this sense, a fairy tale scholar has told me, the story represents how the anima and the animus work inside each person.  What is even more interesting in this story is that upon the return home Gretel takes on a more adult position in the household than she had before because she is now the only woman in the house, whereas Hansel is still just the son, since his father is still alive. In my version of the story I was also influenced by a Hansel and Gretel variant called “Brother and Sister” in which Hansel is changed into a fawn and Gretel takes care of him.  Later he is released from his spell through her supernatural intercession and the king’s (now Gretel's husband) recognition of his wife, her true inner nature and her true inner strength.

I set my story in the eleventh and twelfth century partly out of a search for reality. It was the time of El Cid, the time of the pilgrimages, the time of people being captured by Moors and held for ransom, the time of barrel vaulted churches, of alabaster church windows instead of stained glass, of miracles and visions and legends on every corner. It was the time of the First Crusade, which set in motion tensions that still dictate international policy today.

The idea for the novel really took shape when I went on a car-pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the spring of 1993. I was in the wonderful company of a varied group of Ph.D. students, led by a Spanish architect named Francisco (Paco) Zamora, who guided us through the Romanesque from Jaca to Santiago. Along the way we took turns making presentations; mine focused on the myths of the trail. Many places on the Camino, such as Santo Domingo de la Calzada,  Suso  Monastery  or the Monastery of Leire, have their own myths or legends. We had animated discussions: What are the elements of a real myth?  What is the true difference between a myth and a legend?  What is the difference between a mythical belief and a superstition?  Is it possible for modern people to be affected by myths?  Some mythical beliefs strengthen us and propel us to action.  Some mythical ideas lead us to do harm.  Is it possible that one mythical belief can have both effects?

At the end of our pilgrimage we stopped at Mount Joy, as so many pilgrims have done before us for the last thousand years.  Here we got our first glimpse of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a little anti-climactic since it is now dwarfed by modern buildings.  We then walked the last five kilometers into Santiago.  

Santiago is a city not unlike many other Spanish cities; the sidewalks are too narrow for American tastes, the automobile fumes too noxious.  But the heart of the city is still its medieval section, a part of town that reflects, like many older communities, a greater sense of the effect of architecture on people -- a more highly developed ergonomic sense.  Old Santiago is a beautiful maze of granite streets lined with porticoes that are punctured by archways and lit by wrought iron lamps.  The pavements shine slickly in the rain, almost like skin.  Moss grows on the buildings. Santiago is so famous for its rain that there is a song that compares the rain coursing down the pavements to a woman crying. The gently sloping streets open out onto odd shaped plazas with running fountains and gardens.   When I first walked through this part of the city I thought “I wouldn't be surprised to see a band of medieval troubadors in a place like this.” Like magic we turned a corner and found three students in velvet, medieval-style tuna outfits sitting in a café, playing their guitars and lutes and singing with a woman they seemed to have encountered by chance, a woman whose voice rivaled that of any pop singer on American radio.

I was sitting in such a café with Paco and the rest of our little group of pilgrims on our last day in Compostela, the feast of Corpus Christi. A Catholic procession went by, but most of our group was focused on their coffee and newspapers. As the altar boys carrying the Eucharist passed us Paco and I got to our feet, but no one else in the café took any notice. Paco said to me: the world has really changed if no one notices when the Eucharist goes by in holy procession anymore.

I knew what he meant. Both of us had grown up in Franco’s Spain. We were products of a culture that vanished almost overnight with Franco’s death in 1975 and the ensuing coronation of Juan Carlos, the implementation of a parliamentary monarchy and the ratification of a constitution in 1978 that re-instituted numerous civil rights that had been suppressed during the dictatorship. Paco and I had grown up in a tightly controlled society that younger Europeans can’t even conceptualize, in the legal grip of a fascist government (I felt this even though I was born a U.S. citizen, as while I lived in Spain I was completely Spanish-identified) and in cultural thrall to the Catholic Church. What we were paying our respects to by standing up was not necessarily a Catholic Church ritual, but an emotional engagement we had once had with that ritual and symbol. That engagement was characterized by the way we struggled with the mental bonds it imposed but also with the sense of wonder and sublime it inspired in us.

Even though neither of us had practiced our religion in years, we still felt all this, this lost world, tugging at us. That’s why Paco had organized that academic pilgrimage, and that’s why I had come, and that’s where the idea for this novel was born.

Of course, Medieval Romances went out of style a few hundred years ago; Cervantes famously skewered the form in his Don Quixote, making it impossible for anyone else to write a Romance without tongue firmly in cheek.  But as my teacher pointed out, Romance is still what people want to read, what they long for, and what they were denied. Magical Realism, especially the work of authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez showed the way for authors like Michael Chabon, Tolkien or J.K. Rowling. Literary Romance now lives with us in hybrid form, cross-bred with science fiction, fantasy, or in my case, the historical novel.

I’ll be chronicling my progress on The Road to Santiago on this blog, along with other thoughts on writing.