Richard Moll

title.none: Cooper, English Romance in Time (Richard Moll)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.029 05.09.29

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Moll, University of Western Ontario,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Cooper, Helen. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 542. 0-19-924886-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.29

Cooper, Helen. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 542. 0-19-924886-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Richard Moll
University of Western Ontario

Helen Cooper's new book, The English Romance in Time, is the mature reflection of a senior scholar. Those familiar with Cooper's earlier work will recognize some of the issues which are raised here: magic that does not work, rudderless boats, patricide, etc. But the whole of this book is greater than the sum of its parts, as Cooper constructs interpretive frameworks for those formulaic elements which are the stock in trade of English romance. The result is new and often profound insight into some of the most familiar and seemingly banal moments of medieval and renaissance romance.

After an introduction on romance generally, the book is organized around the individual meme, "an idea that behaves like a gene in its ability to replicate faithfully and abundantly, but also on occasion to adapt, mutate, and therefore survive in different forms and cultures" (3). Most topics are discussed chronologically, beginning with the earliest version produced for an English audience, and following the development of the meme through to the Renaissance, often ending with Spenser or Shakespeare. Each of the early chapters is devoted to a single motif and its variations: the quest as pilgrimage; rudderless boats; problematic magic; and fairies (with an emphasis on prophecy). The final chapters form a book within the book as they address the roles of women in romance, specifically the containment of feminine desire. Individual chapters are devoted to the desiring woman, the accused woman and the consequences of female sexuality in the motif of the lost heir. Many of the previously-discussed memes come together here as the wandering hero's true parentage is magically revealed. The book concludes by surveying each of the memes from earlier chapters and showing how audience expectations can be subverted to produce a romance with an unhappy ending. Malory serves as the primary example with knights who quest after death instead of salvation, a child who survives being set adrift not because he is chosen by God, but because he is fated to destroy the Round Table, and a woman whose desire for the perfect knight leads to her own death. The book concludes with a very useful appendix of medieval romance in English after 1500.

As this brief synopsis should show, there are few topics covered by this book which will come as a surprise to the reader of romance. In the early chapters, in fact, you might have the feeling that the book offers little that is new. The strength of the book, however, lies in Cooper's ability to create an interpretive context for her readers which allows us to view very familiar literary moments in new and fresh ways. Take, for example, the meme of magic that does not work, or more specifically, which is not used. Cooper discusses the many rings which will protect paramours (such as that given by Laudine to Yvain) or magical horses which, after lengthy and seemingly significant introductions, are never mentioned again, let alone used. In the case of the rings, the wonder of magic does not reside in the physical object but is transferred to the love that it represents. Yvain performs valiantly in tournaments while wearing Laudine's ring, but when he forgets to return to his wife the ring is taken away. Did the ring protect him as promised, and is its removal responsible for his descent into madness? As Cooper shows, the Middle English version of the romance takes pains not only to describe the ring, but also to establish it as a token of Yvain's love for his lady. Whether the ring is magical or not is less significant than the love it symbolizes. It is as though the love itself protected Yvain, just as its loss drives him to madness. Marie de France's Les Deux Amants makes a similar point. The two lovers can only be wed if the man can carry his paramour to the top of a steep hill. The lover acquires a magical potion to give him strength, but while carrying the girl he refuses to drink it as he is carried away by excitement. Although he succeeds in the climb he immediately dies of exhaustion. Here, the barrier to love can only be surmounted with supernatural aid, but, as Cooper argues, "[t]he supernatural properties of the potion are transferred to his emotion--they become the means by which the power of love is made manifest. The magic liquid becomes the focus, the measure, and the means of definition of heroic ideals and sublime emotions" (149). When Cooper turns to more familiar magical items, such as Sir Gawain's green girdle or Othello's handkerchief, we as readers have been trained to recognize the symbolic value of questionable magic. Indeed, whether the lace protects Gawain from bodily harm, or whether the handkerchief ensures the continuity of Othello's love doesn't really matter: "Whether or not the weaving of the handkerchief incarnates Othello's love for his wife, it symbolizes it in the most literal of ways: its loss means the destruction of that love, and 'perdition' for both of them" (164).

The scope of the book is impressive, as is the range of sources examined, and most readers will at times wish for a bit more direction as they shift from Marie de France, to Valentine and Orson, to William Shakespeare. Cooper is fully in command of this broad range of material, however, and the abrupt shifts from medieval to early modern are always worth the ride and clearly demonstrate the medieval foundations of many renaissance formulae. My only quibble with the book is that Cooper is sometimes a bit loose with her citations, and a reader wishing to follow up on some of her leads will at times be frustrated. While discussing the story of Craddock's mantle, for example, she includes an off-hand reference to Thomas Gray's Scalacronica which claims that the mantle is preserved at Glastonbury (316), but there is no citation to Gray's unedited text. I suspect that this information is actually drawn from Thomas Wright's 1863 article in Archaeologia Cambrensis, but neither Wright nor Gray appear in the bibliography.

The English Romance in Time explores the building blocks of romance. It is easy to assume that these narrative motifs are simply formulaic tropes which are symptomatic of an age which valued adherence to a tradition over creative innovation. Cooper has shown, however, how the memes of medieval and renaissance romance formed ever shifting patterns of meaning and interpretation which both author and audience could exploit for thematic ends.