The Medieval Review 17.06.05

Cavallaro, Dani. The Chivalric Romance and the Essence of Fiction. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. pp. viii, 219. $39.95 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-7864-9983-0 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Morgan Powell
Zurich University of Applied Sciences and Arts

Dani Cavallaro's is not a name that will be familiar to many medievalists. The prolific author has written at least 23 monographs, of which the present title is the first to deal with a subject grounded in medieval studies. More than half of her other books fall in the field of Japanese anime and manga studies; the rest cover areas as broad as Critical and Cultural Theory and as contemporary as Cyberpunk and Cyberculture. Neither the publisher's website nor a brief internet search reveals any further information on her, and indeed, a blog devoted to anime and manga studies recently asked its members to ponder the question "Who is Dani Cavallaro?", as even within that field, it appears, the author is known solely through her works in print.

It will not surprise, then, that The Chivalric Romance and the Essence of Fiction cannot be fairly reviewed for its contribution to scholarship in medieval romance no even in medieval literature generally. The book shows little to no grasp of the relevant scholarly discussions among specialists. By way of illustration: Derek Pearsall's Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003) most often stands as the definitive and on occasion as the only scholarly witness on the medieval romances Cavallaro considers, and there is no trace of the extensive discussion in recent decades, above all in German scholarship, of the fictionality or fictional essence of the same texts. Similarly selective treatment of scholarship applies throughout the book. While such may be forgivable in a work that proposes to sweep across five and a half centuries in the space of only 200 pages, Cavallaro's way of writing rather rubs it in the reader's face. The argument is generally not constructed from her own reading of the texts in question, but rather built around strategically assembled quotations, often lengthy, from her very select collection of witnesses.

I have chosen to clarify the above points first so as to best place this book in relation to the expectations of TMR's readers before asking them to consider it further. If The Chivalric Romance and the Essence of Fiction falls well below the highest standards of scholarship in medieval studies and other fields in the humanities, it is not, all things considered, a poorly written book, nor does it lack real insight.

Cavallaro's project is to show that the "chivalric romance" is, as a genre, quintessentially committed to the project of fiction, as it always proposes or allows for a multiplicity of interpretations or avenues to meaning; indeed, its defining characteristic is irony, by which Cavallaro understands the questioning and undercutting of orthodox structures of meaning. The author is well versed in literary studies, in particular in the study of the fairy tale and its cultural construction, and this expertise she successfully brings to bear on her chosen texts. From the medieval period these are: three romances of Chrétien de Troyes (the Charrette, Yvain and Perceval, the Lancelot-Grail cycle, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal, and Gawain and the Green Knight. A subsequent section, entitled "Renaissance Refashionings," considers Orlando Furioso, The Faerie Queene, and finally two of Shakespeare's latest plays, The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline. Each text is read with an eye to changing social and historical context, such that Cavallaro's readings do emerge as distinct and as (to varying degrees) her own, despite her habit of stringing them through the judgments of others like beads on a chain.

The readings of the medieval texts are sensitive and successful in demonstrating Cavallaro's thesis as far as this goes. Despite the brevity of the book, they also tend to sideline into areas of particular interest to their author (e.g. gender construction), while the relevance of the same to her argument may appear questionable. The prose is engaging and stylish, for some tastes no doubt too much so (expressions such as "redolent of" occur with noticeable frequency), but for this reviewer often appropriately expressive and showing a welcome knowledge of the more refined English vocabulary. The knowledgeable reader will not find Cavallaro's interpretations of the texts provocative or challenging, but they are well and thoughtfully constructed and thus may serve as a useful introduction to the genre or, in particular, to support a course that studies it in diachronic survey. The weakest section, as judged from the vantage point of this reviewer, who is well read both in medieval romance and Shakespeare, is the latter. For one thing, Cavallaro does not address the jump from narrative to drama, nor does she consider the Jacobean romance in its peculiarity--an idea of romance quite distinct from Arthurian conventions, to which she convincingly argues all the other texts can be seen variably to ascribe. In fact, the readings of the Shakespearean texts appear to abandon the "chivalric" concept (from the beginning never clearly defined) altogether in favor of harking back to classical romance. As appropriate as this is for the plays in question, it does little to further elucidate the project. This problem is only exacerbated by the lack of any conclusion to the volume; it simply ends with the last sentence on The Winter's Tale, so that there is no return to the over-arching concepts at all, still less an attempt to reconcile Shakespeare's texts with these.

This latter defect displays the shortcomings that are bound to trouble such a diachronic project. The same are evident in the introductory section, where Cavallaro, by way of attempting to survey the Arthurian genre, ventures into territory she is clearly too little acquainted with, as when she discusses the monumental German contributions to the genre, Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach (alternately referred to as "Wolfram" and "Von Eschenbach") and Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (similarly misnomered). For Cavallaro, Wolfram's Grail romance, perhaps the most multifarious and all-embracing of any text of its time, lies outside her purview because it strives to subordinate the Arthurian panoply to an "ethical" order and a "coherent" vision. Scholars of the work will be surprised to realize all they have missed--but Cavallaro fortunately does not belabor the point. If she knew the work better herself, she would undoubtedly have been surprised in turn to find how much it resembles her description of Orlando Furioso, and thus also how productive it might have proven for her own thesis.

This thesis itself, that romance continually refracts structurally, is essentially acentric and, as a result, exists in itself as a vehicle for the frustration of hermeneutic designs or overarching truths, is not one to which the present reviewer entirely subscribes, but it is a thesis capable of elucidating much of what is most characteristic of the genre and its enduring fascination. It thus serves well as the backbone of such a diachronic project. If Cavallaro's readings are not terribly original, they do the service of placing medieval and later romance texts within a discussion of the most fundamental literary questions and thus of re-emphasizing both their relevance and the rewards they promise contemporary readers, with no apology made or needed for their historical or cultural remove. Since this is something scholars of medieval studies rarely undertake, still less accomplish, one can welcome the contribution of an ecclectic such as Cavallaro on its own terms and for its own value.

Copyright (c) 2017 Morgan Powell

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