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Reviewed by:
  • Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance
  • Roger Nicholson
Whetter, K. S., Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008; hardback; pp. 218; 12 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9780754661429

Keith Whetter's ambitions in Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance are large, if we trust his title; their actual reach encompasses both less and more. For the most part, he discusses genre as it bears on medieval English romances. But, although not mentioned in the title, Morte Darthur also proves significant – taking up almost a third of the book – perhaps suggesting it is Whetter's real object all along.

In his compact account of genre, based in Frye and Fowler – representatives of different approaches – Whetter questions whether genre, as textual contract, is socially or formally established, and tackles important breaks like those between genre and mode, theory and history. He argues that genres are properly established by reference to actual texts, within periods, in line with practices recognized by composers and consumers, making up what he terms a 'community of users'. He denies that they necessarily relate to social experience, by social or ideological function.

Yet, although sympathetic to Frye's semantic, modal typology, he insists on the historical specificity of genres, but prefers to define them in formalist, syntactic terms, like Propp's fairy tale. Where Propp's analysis of fairy tale is essentially structuralist, however, Whetter places his version of romance in diachronic relationship with earlier and later narrative forms, specifically novel and epic. If Whetter's romantic essentials – 'love, ladies, adventure and the happy ending' – relate to Propp's actants and plot functions, they also distinguish romance sharply from epic.

His reading of romance as genre, then, recalls Jauss' important study. Both wish to break down the Aristotelian notion of genre as a universal, literary class, by introducing history as the locus of generic change. Transformation [End Page 261] is more important for Jauss than for Whetter, but the latter does insist on the specificity of medieval romance against other forms. For both, too, history is an extra-textual aspect of the text; the historically determined 'horizon of expectations' to which genre relates, according to Jauss, looks more abstract than Whetter's 'community of users', yet the latter is similarly extrapolated from meta-textual elements of self-referentiality and parody.

If discussion of genre has ancient beginnings, discussion of romance is comparatively modern, but reaches back to the nineteenth century and includes numerous significant contributions. Whetter's own concern with particularizing the genre in terms of essential components means that much of his discussion simply illustrates the presence of his sentimental matrix. I have no doubt that a sense of romance is crucial to understanding texts, but worry when genre analysis seems to complete critical performance, diverting readers from other critical business. Whetter's own developed readings of texts like Havelok and Gawain and the Green Knight miss so much that the question of generic function can seem mismanaged.

In many respects, Whetter's account of medieval romance accords closely with those of other scholars, in emphasising love and adventure, but, where most are reluctant to define the genre by eliminating texts on the ground that essential components do not figure, Whetter is not. 'Family resemblances', Wittgenstein's approach to language categorization, will not do, however attractive to others, because it proposes the relational role of overlapping similarities, rather than fixed, key components. Whereas Davenport, for example, argues that medieval terms for narrative forms never seem 'to have very sharp edges', Whetter sees the edges as very sharp indeed. Love and adventure are necessary; so are women and happy endings. In an important argument, then, he claims that where the happy ending is lacking, despite the presence of other typical characteristics, what we face is not a romance, but a generic hybrid, mixing romance and tragedy.

What is most valuable for Whetter in the modern debate on genre is recognition that generic structures are binding, but inevitably open to adaptation. Since this permits him to argue that Middle English romance is a specific form, he can establish a strong base for reading Malory. Morte Darthur not only exemplifies the principle that texts are...


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pp. 261-263
Launched on MUSE
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