Cynthia A. Gravlee

title.none: Sweeney, Magic in Medieval Romance (Cynthia A. Gravlee)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.015 02.03.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Cynthia A. Gravlee, Univ. of Montevallo,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Sweeney, Michelle. Magic in Medieval Romance from Chretien de Troyes to Geoffrey Chaucer. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. Pp. 199. 45.00. ISBN: 1-851-82536-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.15

Sweeney, Michelle. Magic in Medieval Romance from Chretien de Troyes to Geoffrey Chaucer. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. Pp. 199. 45.00. ISBN: 1-851-82536-3.

Reviewed by:

Cynthia A. Gravlee
Univ. of Montevallo

Michelle Sweeney's Magic in Medieval Romance from Chretien de Troyes to Geoffrey Chaucer argues that magical elements are not merely conventional, but instead are crucial to the authors' purposes in romances composed from the twelfth through the fourteenth century. The texts are designed to instruct, as well as to entertain, and they deal with socio-economic, political, and religious issues as well as with the characters' searches for identity, direction, and fulfillment. The protagonists' actions illustrate conflicts of loyalties, as well as their concerns with the interaction of fate, fortune, and free-will in shaping their destinies. In order to prove her theses, which are reiterated throughout, Sweeney focuses on the following texts: the romances of Chretien de Troyes; the lais of Marie de France; the English Sir Tristrem, Ywain and Gawain, and Syr Launfal; and Chaucer's "The Franklin's Tale." She also discusses sources and analogues for these works, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.

Sweeney sets the background and the cultural context for the works, discusses critical comments on romance in general and on specific romances, and proffers her own interpretations of these texts and their authors' intentions. She provides copious references to primary and secondary sources from the classical era to the present to support her conclusions.

Although Sweeney does not use the term "magical realism," she seems to be arguing for its application throughout, as she contends that the authors are addressing "real life" concerns of their era while incorporating marvelous elements associated with fantasy. She states, "The ties of magic to the twelfth-century world of politics, religion, and various intellectual pursuits enable an author to build bridges between the imagination and contemporary debates which are pertinent to the audience" (115). The audience, however, must collaborate with the author and perceive the subtext. We can discover reality through illusion along with the characters in their encounters with magic, particularly through the tests they must pass. "Magical encounters force the characters to put to the test the strength of their sense of personal identity, their social status, and their faith in God" (87).

Sweeney posits a difference in the French romances of the twelfth century in which love is central to the characters' motivations and actions and later insular romances in which quests for truth, self-knowledge, destiny, and honor are paramount. However, magic is a major component of all romances. In her conclusion, Sweeney reminds us of its significance. "The function of magic in society and in literature is the key to understanding how a story comprised of fairy-tale heroes, martial challenges, and marvellous encounters, is transformed by the willing audience into a commentary upon the meaning of loyalty, love, faith, and honour" (169).

In Sweeney's clear and organized text, the chapters are explicitly titled and structured in a textbook format with sub-headings that ensure ease of reference and provide an outline for the reader. There is a bibliography, an index, and footnotes, although there is not a preface or foreword. The introduction is an extended discussion of romance and its magical components. This is followed by chapters that examine specific romances. Within the informative data, there is some repetition, as Sweeney restates points she has earlier established. She has done considerable research, but perhaps some of her numerous references to critical opinions could be addressed in discursive footnotes so that Sweeney's own interpretations could be fore-grounded.

Sweeney thoughtfully provides translations of Old French passages; however, she omits translations of Middle English quotations that scholars of Old French might welcome. Authors could be named in full when they are first introduced, and lists could be limited at the beginning or extended instead of appending "etc." as closure. Overall, this is a well-edited text with only a few typographical errors. For subsequent editions, a re-checking could correct such mistakes as the misspelling of Geoffrey of Monmouth's text, which appears as Historia regum Britannae on page eighteen, although it is spelled correctly elsewhere.

The thorough discussions of romance literature and the scholarly responses to it cover ground familiar to medievalists; however Sweeney's intertextual and interdisciplinary analyses and her synthesis of a wealth of information from diverse sources will prove valuable to students who are beginning research in this field. Her interpretations of the romances could provoke spirited classroom debates. Accordingly, I plan to order this text for the library and place it on my reserve list for medieval romance courses. Because of Sweeney's straightforward arguments supported by ample evidence, readers outside the field of medieval studies could also find the book accessible. In sum, Sweeney provides a strong defense for romance as a serious genre, a position that most medievalists would support and other readers will discover.