restricted access More Than Something on the Side: Teaching Medieval Romance
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More Than Something on the Side:
Teaching Medieval Romance
A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance. Edited by Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009.

For many of us, medieval romance is a nostalgic fantasy of chivalric knights and damsels in distress, not a coherent literary corpus. This disembodied poetic is nevertheless made familiar through its persistent set of memes, ranging from orphaned heroes to sacred vows to magical quests. For most teachers and students, these characteristics can be easily identified in popular novels, such as J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter, and even the expanding genre of vampire fiction. While the stock plot of medieval romance—usually composed of a mysterious birth, adventurous exile, reintegration into society, and happy ending—is recognizable to almost all, its ubiquity has led to its anxious, and sometimes materially absent, position within the literature canon.

Even for those of us who specialize in medieval literature and recognize the immeasurable delights of the romance genre, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the few Middle English romances we teach. As a result, popular romances such as Bevis of Hampton rarely appear in our syllabi. Some of these romances, such as The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, have [End Page 379] successfully cornered spaces in Arthurian curricula, but only if they involve King Arthur and his court. Others have even cracked the seemingly impenetrable Chaucerian reading list, but only as a foil to Sir Thopas, Chaucer's parody of the tail-rhyme romance. In this scenario, selections of Guy of Warwick are offered up to students not as a text worth reading on its own but as cultural background for understanding Chaucer's joke about this unbearable kitsch. Contextual forays into representative romances such as Sir Orfeo are therefore only brief literary affairs, supplementing the "real work" of the course.

In response to this crass treatment of romance as just "something on the side," A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance, edited by Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton, offers a number of compelling arguments and resources that rightfully assert the rich, dynamic, and influential character of this vast literary tradition. Since any attempt to survey all of "popular romance" is a Herculean task in itself, the editors restrict the scope of their collection to "those texts in Middle English, sometimes with origins in Anglo-Norman versions, which show a predominant concern with narrative at the expense of symbolic meaning" (7). While specialists might quibble with the general exclusion of the French romances from the "popular" realm and chafe at the suggestion that "symbolic meaning" is expendable in these texts, this definition provides an admirable coherence for the volume. Even more helpful is the delineation of topics for each chapter that address the manifest difficulties of studying romance, its flexible generic boundaries, the medieval and postmedieval material contexts of the poems, the genre's role in the development of English national identity, and the performative character of its rhyme and meter.

Of the many searching studies in this volume, four chapters provide fertile sites for developing pedagogical principles that would encourage students to study romance as more than just a marginalized literary enterprise. While the editors' introduction provides valuable guidance to navigating the collection and the genre of popular romance, I would suggest reading the companion backward, beginning with the last chapter, "Modern and Academic Reception of the Popular Romance," by Rushton. Anchoring this provocative chapter is the assertion that, despite what Nicola McDonald, in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England (2004), had earlier called their "degraded academic status" (4), it is the academy that has almost exclusively ensured the afterlives of these artifacts of medieval pop culture. This recent critical elevation of the study of romance in turn requires a new pedagogical orientation in which these texts are taught as more than just side dishes to the main fare. The second chapter that transcends this impoverished "sideshow" model is Ad Putter's thrilling chapter, "The Metres and Stanza Forms of Popular Romance," [End Page 380] which makes the convincing case that "metre is a...