Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gothic Romance Novel of Chivalry - a few definitions

[Tristan and Isolde with the Potion, by John William Waterhouse, 1916. Waterhouse (1849-1917) belonged to the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The knight Tristan and Princess Isolde shared a love potion, which led to tragedy.]


Over time, the meanings of words can shift. Here are some words to watch out for:


Amadis would have understood that word in its most basic sense: an armed group of men on horseback. (It has the same roots as cavalry: "horse," cheval in French.) He also would have understood the term to encompass the rank and sacred responsibility that he assumed when he became a knight (caballero in Spanish), since in his day, as trained and well-armed soldiers, knights enjoyed both great esteem and great power.

Over time, as knighthood became more ceremonial, the term lost its lethal-weapons element and centered more on rank and honor, as well as on social elements such as courtesy, honor, and gallantry toward women.

These days, the meaning of chivalry sometimes settles on that last element: gallantry toward women. A chivalric man opens doors for them, pulls out their chairs, and such. Amadis might have been perplexed by that. He had servants to do those sorts of things.


Amadis of Gaul is a romance: It is a medieval popular fictional work of poetry or prose about chivalric heroism written in a vernacular, romance language such as French or Spanish rather than in Latin. These stories often include a love story as well as adventures and bloody battles. The tales of the King Arthur cycles were important medieval romances, inspiring medieval authors like Créchien de Troyes. Amadis, Tristan, Isolde, Merlin, the quest for the Holy Grail, the Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Guinevere, and Percival are elements of Arthurian literature.

As the centuries moved on, romance came to mean simply "novel," a work of book-length fiction.

These days, in English, romance refers almost exclusively to love and emotional attachment. According to the Romance Writers of America, "two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending." Happy endings are not guaranteed in medieval romances.

The term romanticism refers to the artistic, literary, and intellectual movement in the second half of the 18th century in western Europe that stressed emotion rather than rationalism, and sometimes reached back to medieval romances and art for pre-industrial and pre-neoclassic "authentic" elements. Tales of King Arthur and his Round Table (though not the tales of Amadis) were revived by writers like Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose re-imaginations of the legends mark our Arthurian imagery to this day, as seen in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The romantic movement included the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters; the name Pre-Raphaelite refers to the Renaissance Italian painter Raphael (1483-1520).

Romanesque is a style of European architecture from the 11th and 12th centuries that contained Roman and Byzantine elements, such as barrel vaults.


This architectural style flourished in Europe from 12th to 15th centuries and can be easily distinguished by its pointed arches, distinct from Roman and Greek styles. But gothic can also mean "medieval." The first Goths were Germanic tribes who settled much of Europe after the fall of the Roman empire.

The 1765 novel by Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story, added the notion of terror and gloom to the definition of medieval, and soon gothic romances sprang up, which were a type of horror story, including Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula. These days, urban goths favor vampiric aesthetics.


The word novel as a name for a kind of book-length narrative comes from the Italian word novella, or "piece of news," since these books recount events, albeit fictional.


  1. In April 2009 issue of Jim Baen's Universe, Kristine Kathryn Rusch discusses the changes in the gothic novel since the 1970s in an article called "Gothic Transformation":

  2. Hi, I saw that you have mentioned Handel's opera Amadigi, based on Bernardo and Torquato Tasso's epic poem-version of Amadis. But there's also other operas based on the knight-errant, by Lully, J.C. Bach and Jules Massenet, the first two based on a livret by Phillipe Quinault.

    I'm also considering undertaking a translation of Amadis, but to portuguese instead, for it's illogical that the first major work in portuguese (as it probably is) has no modern version in its original language, except for the first 20 chapters from Book I.

    Your effort here astonishes me. Your translation is much better than Southey's, who has cut half the text. And I know the hardships of even reading the 1508 version, which has a very big font-problem. Nonetheless, the arcaic spanish, which, despite being similar to the old portuguese, is still extremely complicated.

    1. Oh, I see now that you're spanish... You will probably disagree about the portuguese claim of authorship...

      Just out of curiosity, do you recommend any spanish dictionaries that includes expressions and lexicon from the old spanish? Usually, the word also had existed in portuguese and I can find it in a portuguese dictionary, but sometimes there's not. I recall the expression "más a un cabo que a otro" from chapter 21 or 22, which I opted to translate into "nem para a direita, nem para a esquerda".

  3. Hello Victor,

    Yes, Amadis of Gaul inspired several operas and a wide variety of other works. Some day it would be a good challenge to try to list them all.

    I’ve been working on this translation for a while and it’s a lot of fun. The Spanish is complicated, but it tends to follow certain regular patterns, after a while it gets easier. I use the Diccionario de la Lengua Española from the Real Academia Española, which explains a lot of archaic uses of words. You can check words online here:

    Myself, I’d translate “más a un cabo que a otra” as “from one side to another,” although your version is also correct and a bit more poetic, which is very fitting for the style of the book.

    I’m originally from the United States and I live in Madrid now. As for the Portuguese claim of ownership, I’m afraid the evidence points in the other way. I discuss the latest scholarship here:

    Good luck with your project. If I can help in any way, don’t hesitate to ask.

  4. Yes, it's quite impossible to find out the true author, unless some hidden parchment is discovered in some castle basement somewhere. Anyway, if the two languages are already extremely alike, true twins, reading a work from that time in the original has shown me how much more they were 500 years ago.

    Thank you very much for the dictionary. It has saved me. Although I searched a long time, I didn't find one with such quality and reputation. As for that expression, I stayed a really very long time trying to understand its meaning, and Google showed me that the only place on the web that also had it literally was a Spanish geometry book from 1526, referring to parallel lines I think.

  5. I'm glad I could help. If I can do anything else, I'm here for you.