Like the term Fantasy, "romance" refers to a bewildering number of forms of literary expression, and even to some things apparently unrelated to literature. Romance can mean a medieval poem, a paperback novel (with a woman and a castle on the cover), the "love interest" in a movie, or a commercial product such as champagne or exotic underwear. When the term is used to identify particular kinds of literature it is usually part of a compound – e.g., "chivalric romance" or "scientific romance" – and some critics use this trend as an excuse to bump "romance" up a level from genre to mode. Modern fantasy draws heavily upon many of the early forms of romance, and the two categories overlap considerably. The exact boundaries of romance matter less, though, than the historical and interpretive perspectives suggested by the term.
The earliest texts classed as romances are a few prose narratives written in Greek between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD; best-known is Longus's Daphnis and Chloe (circa 160AD). The stories generally involve couples separated by circumstance and eventually reunited, often by divine intervention. Their structure is episodic, their characters conventional, their action full of improbable adventures and their endings happy. Most contain supernatural characters or incidents. The structure is often quite complex, including stories-within-stories and elements of Allegory. John J Winkler credits these narratives with the invention of "romance" in the extraliterary sense: the idea of seeking out and falling in love with one's predestined partner.
A text bearing some relationship to these Greek romances is Apuleius's The Golden Ass (2nd century AD), written in Latin but based on one or more Greek texts. The Golden Ass is more satirical than any of the Greek romances, but it shares with them the emphasis on fantastic adventures and an eventual reunion – not of lovers but of the hero Lucius and his human shape – brought about through magical means. Much of Apuleius's story is closer to farce or black comedy than to romance, but a lengthy embedded tale, the story of Cupid and Psyche, follows the pattern of the lovers' quest. Another text that resembles the Greek romances in many respects is the Latin Apollonius, Prince of Tyre (3rd century AD).
The Classical narratives are romances only in hindsight: they were given the name to indicate their similarity to medieval romances. The term "romance" itself was first applied in the Middle Ages to any text translated into or composed in the vernacular languages rather than in Latin, but soon came to be applied to verse tales of chivalry and courtly love, such as Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot (?1177) and the Lais (before 1167) of Marie de France, both from the 12th century. Medieval romances were based on traditional materials, such as the legends that had come to surround historical figures like Charlemagne and Alexander the Great or the court of Arthur. In retelling the familiar stories, the writer of romance felt free to embroider and embellish, often attaching incidents from one Legend to the hero of another. Medieval romances are characterized by several features that often reappear later, such as a Quest, a knightly Hero, episodic structure, embedded stories and the intrusion of the supernatural into the more ordinary world of court and village.
Like the Greek romances, later medieval romances often shift towards either Satire or Allegory. The most famous allegorical romance is Romance of the Rose. The first part, by Guillaume di Lorris (circa 1230), embodies in its narrative the various aspects of courtly love, while the second part, by Jean de Meun (circa 1275), shifts the focus to philosophy and misogyny.
Although the birthplace of the medieval romance was France, the fashion set in the French courts was eventually adopted by German, Italian, Scandinavian, English and Iberian writers. Among English poets, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower (circa 1330-1408) both dabbled in it. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (coll circa 1387) includes a Classical tale told in romance style ("The Knight's Tale"), a version of one of the Gawain romances ("The Wife of Bath's Tale"), and a romance Parody ("Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas"). Gower demonstrates a similar range among the stories of his Confessio Amantis (coll 1390), and also retells the Latin tale of Apollonius of Tyre, thereby providing an intermediary between the Classical romances and those of the Renaissance, for Gower's version became the source for Shakespeare's Pericles (performed circa 1608; 1609). Perhaps the greatest English romance is the anonymous 14th-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (> Gawain). One of the last major medieval romances is Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (1585), in which elements from many earlier romances are combined into a single narrative cycle centring on the life of Arthur.
In the Renaissance, writers such as García de Montalvo with Amadis of Gaul (late 15th century), Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) with Arcadia (1581) and Robert Greene (1558-1592) with Pandosto (1588) followed Malory in constructing long prose narratives combining various motifs from earlier romances. Poets including Matteo Boiardo (1434-1494) with Orlando Innamorato (1487), Ludovico Ariosto with Orlando Furioso (1516), Torquato Tasso (1544-1594) with Rinaldo (1562) and Edmund Spenser with The Faerie Queene (1590-1596) so greatly expanded the scope and significance of the earlier romances that their works are often called romantic epics.
A group of late plays by Shakespeare constitute a subgenre of romance in themselves. Sometimes called tragicomedies, these set up tragic situations and then transform them into improbable but frequently breathtaking scenes of reconciliation and Recognition. Among the Shakespearean romances, Pericles and The Winter's Tale (performed circa 1610; 1623) are based on earlier romances – Apollonius and Pandosto respectively – while Cymbeline (performed circa 1611; 1623) and The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) blend romance motifs with historical events.
18th- and 19th-century writers used the older forms of romance as justification for their own departures from the increasingly dominant realistic model of fiction. The scholarship of Sir Walter Scott, who wrote the original article on "Romance" for the Encyclopedia Britannica (1824), and Thomas Percy (1729-1811), editor of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (anth 1765) – usually known simply as Percy's Reliques – reminded readers in the Age of Reason of an older tradition of literature based on the unreasonable and the extraordinary. Hence, when writers began to incorporate fantastic and improbable events into their fictions, they invoked the past with the words "Gothic" and "romance". Scott, Clara Reeve and Nathaniel Hawthorne are among those who not only wrote romances but offered critical defences of the form as an alternative to the realistic novel. In The Progress of Romance (1785) Reeve attempted to distinguish between the two without prejudice to the romance: "The Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. – The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The Romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. – The Novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to friend, or to ourselves . . ." Reeve's approach anticipates that of Northrop Frye in The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (1976).
The Gothic romances of Horace Walpole, Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe soon generated a number of widely divergent forms. These include the historical romances of Scott and James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) – from which developed the Western – the ambiguously supernatural US romances of Washington Irving, Hawthorne and Herman Melville, the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, the pseudo-medieval romances of William Morris and Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) – which influenced J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis – the haunted love stories of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, which gave birth to the woman's romance tradition of Daphne Du Maurier and Mary Stewart, and the scientific romances of Mary Shelley, Poe, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Edward Bellamy, Mark Twain, Jules Verne and H G Wells, the forerunners of modern Science Fiction. Many of these varieties of romance continue in the form of mass-market formula fiction.
The Postmodernist version of romance seems to involve selfconscious elaboration of the popular formulae with a strong dose of metafiction. Indeed, it is often difficult to tell whether a particular story is a literary imitation of a popular genre or an attempt on the part of a gifted and ambitious genre writer to transcend the form. Writers who have produced works that might be considered Postmodern romance include Doris Lessing (1919-2013), Gene Wolfe, Umberto Eco, Angela Carter, Ursula K Le Guin, A S Byatt, John Calvin Batchelor, Geoff Ryman, Salman Rushdie and John Crowley.
It is difficult to make any statements that might cover all of this sprawling terrain. Perhaps the safest generalization about romance is that it is not realism. It does not aim primarily to reproduce the texture of ordinary life, though it may use realistic effects at various points in the story. The elements that dominate realistic fiction, such as the motivations and interactions of character, are frequently sketchy or stylized in a romance. Rather than presenting a coherent and motivated plot, romance emphasizes an inventive and open-ended story. This emphasis on Story – on the pleasures of narrative – may be one of the reasons that romance has nearly always been deplored by critics looking for moral messages and high seriousness. It is also one of the reasons for the appeal to Postmodernist writers, who are often interested in the operations of narrative itself. [BA]