A friend of mine asked to hear more about my creative writing and another asked me to write about how powerful medieval literature is. Here is an attempt to answer both, quoting the illustrious Helen Cooper:
‘[Romance motifs’] quality as memes, with their generous capacity to latch onto the mind and replicate, is wonderfully caught by one of the last authors to use medieval texts in an unbroken line of transmission, John Bunyan, in the later seventeenth century. He misspent his youth reading cheap prints of romances, not least the perennial favourite Bevis of Hamtoun: a work that owed much of its popularity to its density of the simplest and most colourful of such motifs, dragons and giants and grim prisons and healing balms. […] Bunyan realized that a good story composed of motifs that are already familiar is the most mind-engaging form there is, and that romances are the very best such stories. It is no coincidence that the authors who kick-started the modern equivalent of the romance, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, were two of the leading medieval scholars of the mid-twentieth century.’ (The English Romance in Time, pp. 3-4)
As I continue to read The English Romance in Time I find more and more quotes I would like to use from Cooper, but I shall refrain. The romance genre — not to be confused with the modern romance novel — was the most popular form of secular literature for at least five hundred years. Though there is family resemblance across these texts, no one definition fits all of them. But their popularity lies in their appeal to the imagination and to entertain, their relevance to current society whilst being placed ‘far far away, long long ago’, and their use of familiar motifs and ideas — and not only the faithfulness to various motifs, but their adaptation of them. The beautiful woman met beside a fountain might very well be expected to be a fairy, but in the case of Melusine, the fairy becomes all the more compelling because she loves her husband, raises many sons, and desires a mortal, Christian life instead of a life with other fairies. Romances were not only used to entertain, but also to educate, and opened themselves consciously, and sometimes not so subtly, to debate the actions, motivations, and morality of the characters. In short, medieval romance is exciting to not only read but also study because in addition to the giants, dragons, quests and adventures, they are also mirrors through which we can glimpse the preoccupations, concerns, desires, and ideals of medieval society, albeit darkly.
And so it should come as no surprise that I find myself writing ‘modern medieval romances’, fairy tale retellings in the mode of medieval romance. The Pooka novels make use of motifs found in fairy and folk tales, Classical myths, and medieval romance. The knights and princess go on quests, encounter strange creatures, and have many adventures along the way. Like my medieval predecessors, it is not only the appearance of standard fantasy and fairy tale motifs, such as dragons, a damsel in a tower, etc., that make my stories fun to read (or so I hope), but the reworking of those motifs, the blending and reinterpretation of them into something familiar, yet unique.
This is, of course, a rather poor answer for a very rich subject, and yet I hope it has proven interesting…