19.09.17 Sullivan, The Danger of Romance

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Randy P. Schiff

The Medieval Review 19.09.17

Sullivan, Karen. The Danger of Romance: Truth, Fantasy, and Arthurian Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. pp. 299. ISBN: 978-0-226-54026-9 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Randy P. Schiff
University at Buffalo, SUNY
rpschiff@buffalo.edu

An atmosphere of shame and suspicion sometimes surrounds scholarship on medieval romance. Whether it stems from elitist discomfort with popular cultural production, or from hardheaded condemnation of escapism, many scholars of medieval literature seem determined to cast romance as a distinctly secondary subfield. Critics create exceptional spaces, of course (few, for example, would dare disdain Chaucer's versions of classical and courtly romance, such as theKnight's Tale or Troilus and Criseyde), but literary critics, by and large, tend to downgrade romance--and Arthurian romance, with its magical and counter-historical core, suffers especially acutely from such prejudice.

Karen Sullivan's The Danger of Romance does an excellent job systematically resisting such generic contempt, while simultaneously exploring the complex pleasures and rewards of romance narrative. Focusing on Arthurian literature and its reception, Sullivan uses a thoroughgoing interest in issues of truth and fantasy, both to undermine modern views of hopelessly naïve medieval writers, and to recover the liveliness and sophistication of medieval romance. With her astute observation that much modern scholarly dislike of romance derives from the undue influence of "realism" in a literary critical culture dominated by the novel (18), Sullivan frames her fascinating study as performing both literary-historical and literary-critical work. By engaging both with medieval and medievalist unease with romance, Sullivan produces a compelling and wide-ranging study that belongs on the shelf of any scholar of romance.

In the Introduction, Sullivan makes a strong case for why Arthurian literature serves well as the primary area of inquiry for a general study of medieval romance. While the popularity of Arthurian stories in numerous medieval Western literary traditions might seem enough to justify such a focus, Sullivan makes a persuasive case that tales of King Arthur's world are particularly useful for meditating on the productive tensions between historicity and "fictionality" in medieval romance (9). Sullivan works against teleological views of literary history that see a modern, secular, and sophisticated "realism" replacing the naïve world of magical thinking that produced romance (11), and promises to show that much of allegedly "modern" critique of romance was already part of its medieval reception (12). Showing that medieval romance writers were fully aware of such cultural developments as rationalistic science and historical causation, Sullivan enables us to see that romance writers were intensely committed to offering self-consciously idealized narrative settings and extraordinary models of behavior. By setting romance in both its medieval and medievalist contexts, Sullivan argues, we can fully appreciate how writers of romance do not seek to escape "reality," but instead offer wondrous and indeed dangerous visions of life "in its exceptional aspect" (24).

Early in her excellent survey of "Romance and Reception" in chapter 1, Sullivan finds a fascinating literary image that concentrates much of the sense of danger in romance: Flaubert's Emma Bovary commits, not just adultery, but also engages in "a solitary infidelity" with romance books that offer "pleasurable," yet "potentially pernicious" pursuits (27-28). Although she acknowledges that romance was only recognized as a distinct "literary genre" in the sixteenth century (30), Sullivan makes a strong case that it makes little sense to assess medieval literature without a category of "romance" that is as much a medieval as a modern construction (33). Sullivan surveys "the case against romance" (34), exploring, first, medieval commentators' criticisms of romance, such as its being false and "frivolous" (35), and then early-modern critics who condemned romance for being ahistorical and morally corrosive. Sullivan identifies a critical shift in a nineteenth-century turn away from questions of "verisimilitude" and towards "realism" (43): with the rise of the novel came an increasing weight placed upon the accurate depiction of "everyday reality" (45), and romance fell into disfavor in such an aesthetic environment. Sullivan then surveys the "case for romance" (47), exploring medieval and modern commentators who praise romance for its ability to provide stirring and exemplary images and characters. Sullivan sets the stage for the remainder of the book in isolating romance's most dangerously seductive power: it invites us "to exit our world and to enter, imaginatively, another one" (59): such narrative potential can either be praised as sublime or condemned as escapism.

With chapter 2, "Merlin: Magic, Miracles, and Marvels," Sullivan moves the book into a series of studies of key Arthurian characters and settings. Surveying medieval critique of Merlin as pagan and demonic, Sullivan uses the debates surrounding Merlin and his marvels to explore medieval attitudes towards nature. Sullivan explores the two Merlins who became conflated in the Arthurian tradition--the grieving seer who, mad, retires to the wild woods with which he becomes associated in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, and the "engineer" of Geoffrey's Historia regum Britanniae (81), whose ingenious works show both a practical skill informed by medieval science, and a "supernatural" vision (84). Showing that Merlin, who was associated with demonic parentage on his father's side and who was seen as practicing "diabolical" arts, was nevertheless a key component in Arthur's rise, Sullivan convincingly links Merlin's "irreducibly indeterminate nature" with the "delight" he generates (98). In Sullivan's reading, Merlin's magic reveals, not a lack of medieval appreciation for order and reason in nature, but rather a self-consciously literary exception to it.

In chapter 3, "King Arthur: History and Fiction," Sullivan takes up what proves to be a complex medieval engagement with the "relation between history and fiction" (106). After establishing that medieval thinkers appreciated historical causality, with a special attachment to eyewitness accounts as validators of historical truth, Sullivan recounts the significant historical doubts medieval critics expressed concerning Arthur's historicity. Sullivan smartly avoids reducing this debate, insofar as it appears in medieval romance itself, to either historical truth or falsity: even as romance writers depicted Arthur as historically real, they rendered his world exceptional by situating it both in an idealized past and, with Arthur's potential return, a fantastic future. Focusing on the narratives of Arthur's fostering and the sword-in-the-stone incident sometimes linked with his rise to kingship, Sullivan highlights the fact that medieval romance writers present Arthur's identity as both contested and ideal: rather than being merely accepted by naïve contemporaries, Arthur is a subtle figure whose emergence is complex and communal. Sullivan also shows, in studying how fragile a collective Camelot is (for Mordred's ability to raise forces against it reveals that it was never a simple unity), that Arthurian romance prefers complexity and idealism to a merely credulous reporting of ancient facts. Finally, in exploring the ambiguous Avalon in works such as La Mort le Roi Artu, Sullivan makes a powerful case for the complexity and inherent interest of medieval romance by dwelling on the aesthetic use of Girflet's limited perspective to amplify the ambivalence and intensity of Morgan le Fay's appearance as healer and Arthur's mysterious passing. Through such distinctly literary touches as channeling Girflet's limited view rather than through an omniscient narrator, romance "invites us to linger" in the pleasurably uncertain limbo between "existence and nonexistence" (147).

Sullivan turns to Arthurian complication of morality in chapter 4, "Lancelot of the Lake: The Reality of the Ideal." After introducing medieval reservations about the sexual morality of Lancelot and Guinevere, Sullivan builds upon her observation that medieval thinkers did not share our modern binary "opposition" of the "ideal" and the real" (153), in order to help us appreciate the significance of Lancelot's perennially being the "best" of all Arthurian knights (154). After presenting Lancelot's love for Guinevere as a "rational and philosophical" decision, with this "best" of knights committed to loving the best of women (162), Sullivan surveys different types of responses to Lancelot's unsettling excellence. Characters whom Sullivan dubs "realists" (164), such as Yder and Morgan le Fay, insist on doubting that Lancelot is as excellent as he is reputed to be, and in so doing they reveal romance writers' observation that many "fallen human beings" have difficulty accepting earthily excellence (173). Those whom Sullivan dubs "romantics" (175) both recognize and respond to Lancelot's superlative character and behavior: while a figure like Galehaut does behave well with Lancelot as his model, he ends up dropping all his personal ambition merely to follow his hero; the Damsel of Escalot shows even more clearly the dangers of romanticism, as she literally wastes away while pining for this fleshly paragon. In a very intriguing formulation, Sullivan introduces a type of character called "readers," who avoid the risk of over-romanticization and the skepticism of realism by remaining "content" merely to "contemplate" Lancelot's excellence (183). After showing how the Lady of Malehaut and Galehaut play a constitutive role in Lancelot and Guinevere's affair, both through their active conversation and their passive appreciation, Sullivan offers a compelling reading of Lancelot and Guinevere's absence from the list of "damned lovers" in Dante's Hell (190): physical affairs are not themselves irredeemable, to the medieval mind, for both Lancelot and Guinevere had time to "repent" (190). Showing the complexity of this most passionate romance, Sullivan rescues this central affair from precisely the sort of simplicity modern commentators sometimes insist on seeing in the Middle Ages.

In chapter 5, "The Quest of the Holy Grail: The Sacredness of the Singular," Sullivan offers a rich and rewarding survey of Grail texts within the context of an increasing medieval Western interest in the complex debates surrounding the Eucharist. Arguing that the focus on procession and chivalric quest coincided with an increasingly "ritualized" view of knighthood (203), Sullivan proceeds to read various Grail incidents in the light of medieval commentators on the significance of immanence--of the religious significance of the Grail lying precisely in its being "in matter" (217; author's emphasis). Sullivan links the questing central to Grail stories with the late-medieval explosion in pilgrimage, and offers a fascinating reading of Perceval's journey as a form of pilgrimage where everything that is familiar becomes intensely "other" (232). Sullivan's study of incidents linked with Grail questing leads to one of her more powerful statements demonstrating romance's dangerous power: the "enchantment" that knights such as Lancelot encounter is inherently ambiguous, inhabiting a zone "neither diabolical nor divine" (237), where its luminous "semblance" exceeds anything so simplistic and abstract as the explanations of "significance" offered by nearby hermits (241): literature's power is greatest when it is "indeterminate" (241).

Sullivan turns to uncanny connections between medieval romance and modern fantasy in her final chapter, "Truth and the Imagination: From Romance to Children's Fantasy." After comparing medieval romance both to fairy tales and modern fantasy, Sullivan meditates on both medieval and modern reflections on the meaning of fantasy and the power of the imagination. Sullivan covers contemporary debates about the idealism and nostalgia in fantasy writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien, and also explores early-modern and Romantic advocates of the power of imagination, such as Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who maintain that poetic fantasy can produce higher modes of truth. Sullivan then offers in-depth readings of C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, to show how the modern genre of "portal-quest" fantasy (245) reveals the wonders available to those open to those willing to perceive imagined worlds.

Karen Sullivan's The Danger of Romance is a highly readable, effectively organized, and compellingly argued study that contributes significantly to our sense of the critical importance of medieval romance. It seems to me that, in a time of institutional crisis in higher education, when budget pressures and acute political change have caused many to fear for the health of the humanities in universities, we should embrace sustained arguments, such as Sullivan makes here, for the inherent power and significance of literary texts. In arguing that those who have condemned medieval romance for escapism or idealism thereby insist that the "value of literature lies outside literature," while simultaneously stating that those who admire romance's invitation to dwell on imagined worlds and desires thereby situate the value of literature "in itself" (280), Sullivan makes an outstanding case for the power of medieval romance that should energize other scholars advocating for our societal investment in studying literary form.

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