The genre included stories of knights, damsels in distress, magic, and more. These stories often took their elements from prior folkloric tales and fairy stories. As time progresses, chivalric romances, which were first written in verse, changed and took on prose as their main form. These stories were filled with adventure and traditional roles of hero and villain.
A certain code of behavior, known as chivalry, guided the behavior of the heroes in these stories. They believed in honor, loyalty, and a certain approach to love.
The most famous stories from this genre feature the court of King Arthur and characters like Lancelot and Galahad.
Explore Chivalric Romance
Chivalric Romance Definition
Chivalric Romance featured characteristics like over-the-top heroes, adventurous plot lines, chivalric knights, quests, and an emphasis on love and manners.
These stories, as well as the culture they were inspired by, were popular during the Medieval and Early Modern periods in Europe. In these literary works, readers can expect to see a focus on themes like romance and the inclusion of fairy tales, legends, and folklore. Sometimes, these stories were humorous, ironic, or satirical, and they could be altered to fit the listener’s taste.
The earliest forms of chivalric romance were written in verse around the 15th century. Later, the genre utilized prose, including new versions of the same verse stories from earlier decades. The stories were based around a central quest, traditional heroes and villains, damsels in distress, and the hero’s ascendency. As he overcame the obstacles in his way, the romantic hero reached new heights.
The earliest stories dealt mostly with folkloric themes, but these faded over time in favor of other thematic subjects. Knights, mystical and magical women, such as fairy ladies, and wizards were often featured. Characters like Morgan le Fay, the enchantress from Le Morte d’Arthur is a great example.
Examples of Chivalric Romance Literature
Sir Gawain and the Green Night
Sir Gawain and the Green Night is an incredibly popular Arthurian story written in the late 14th century in Middle English. The author has remained unknown throughout the centuries, and the title was only given to the piece centuries after it was written. The story features two polar plot devices in Arthurian stories: the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. The former refers to a “game” in which two knights fight one another, exchanging blows that could decapitate their opponent.
The poem is written in alliterative verse and utilizes the bob and wheel technique. It also uses many of the traditional elements of chivalric romance, such as a focus on a hero’s quest and that hero’s moral character.
This particular story describes the knight, Gawain, and his choice to accept a challenge from the Green Knight. He tells Gawain that he can deliver a blow now but will have to face a return hit from the Green Knight in a year and a day. Here is a quote from the story:
I am the weakest, the most wanting in wisdom, I know, And my life, if lost, would be least missed, truly. Only through your being my uncle, am I to be valued; No bounty but your blood in my body do I know. And since this affair is too foolish to fall to you, And I first asked it of you, make it over to me; And if I fail to speak fittingly, let this full court judge Without blame.
These lines open the story and depict Gawain’s virtuous character traits, an incredibly important part of his character, and of the character of all heroes in chivalric romances.
Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes
This is the first example of a chivalric romance in which the character of Lancelot appears. It was written in the 12th century in verse by Chrétien de Troyes. It tells the story of the abduction of Queen Guinevere and the romance between her and Lancelot. The story also features information about Lancelot’s heritage and helps to establish central character traits that stick with him throughout the broader history of chivalric romances. Here is a quote from the verse story:
Slowly, the queen approached,
And, sighing sadly, mounted,
Then spoke in a voice so soft
No one was meant to hear her:
‘Oh, my love, if only
You knew, you’d never let me
Take a step into this man’s
Care!’ It was barely a whisper,
But Count Guinables, who stood
Close by, heard what she’d said
One of the central themes of this piece is sin, particularly sin in the Christian tradition. The quote above appears when Guinevere leaves Arthur’s court. She knows that she’s going to be imprisoned and has resigned herself to that fate. Some scholars have suggested that this passage reveals Guinevere’s known limitations as a woman. There’s only so much she can do to control her own life.
Chivalric romance is an important genre of literature because of the depth of storytelling it contains, the genre changes it represents, and how it reflects the contemporary culture it was written in. These stories are incredibly engaging to read and have lasted throughout the centuries. Many of the characters, such as King Arthur, are still popular today.
The characteristics of this genre of literature include a focus on virtue, heroism, romance, love, and one’s moral character. A hero’s quest was usually at the heart of a story. It featured villains, likely a damsel in distress, and tests for the hero to overcome.
Don Quixote is often described as a parody of a chivalric romance. This means that the author, Miguel de Cervantes, took elements from the genre and turned them on their head.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a chivalric romance because throughout, Gawain demonstrates his virtues and moral code. He is brave, honorable and proves his humanity.
Related Literary Terms
- Historical Fiction: a genre that fictionalizes real places, people, and events.
- Biography: an account or description of a person’s life, literary, fictional, historical, or popular in nature, written by a biographer.
- Romance: a narrative genre of literature. It can feature elements that include mystery, adventure, bravery, and more.
- Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
- Myth: a genre of folklore that usually includes a hero and sometimes fanatical elements.
- Narrative Poem: contain all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average.
- Watch: Sir Gawain the True
- Watch: What is Chivalry? And is it Dead?
- Listen: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight