Book Review: Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance (Neil Cartlidge)—Review by Victoria Shirley

Book Review: Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance. Edited by Neil Cartlidge. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2012. Pp. ix, 247. £60.00. ISBN 13: 978-1843843047. (Hardcover)

Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance (2012) is the second collection of essays that Neil Cartlidge has edited for D. S. Brewer. It is the sixteenth volume in their ‘Medieval Romance’ series, which has published several critical studies on the romance genre in recent years, including A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance (2009), The Exploitations of Medieval Romance (2010), and Medieval Romance, Medieval Contexts (2011). The selected volume originates from the 8th Biennial Conference on Medieval Romance held at Durham University in 2002, and its contributions seek to challenge the perceptions of romance as an idealistic genre based on the adventures of an individual knight who must live up the heroic chivalric ideal based on class, loyalty, masculinity, and military honour.

In his editorial introduction, Cartlidge outlines the rationale behind the collection, writing that ‘[m]edieval romances so insistently celebrate the triumphs of heroes and the discomfiture of villains that they discourage recognition of just how morally ambiguous, antisocial or even downright sinister their protagonists can be, and, correspondingly, of just how admirable or impressive their defeated opponents often are’ (1). The consistent focus on the romance hero at the expense of the romance anti-hero means that some of the ambivalences and contradictions of the genre have been overlooked—it is this gap in the critical field that Heroes and Anti-Heroes attempts to redress.

The collection features essays from both recognized and emerging scholars of medieval romance, and the contributions are divided into two parts: the first ten essays concentrate on a variety of ‘individual characters’, while the final four essays look more broadly at recurring ‘character types’ across a selection of texts. The contents indicate that both well-established romance heroes (Hengist, Mordred, Merlin, Gawain), as well as lesser-known characters (Gamelyn and Ralph the Collier), are discussed in the current volume, and the essays aim to demonstrate the complex nature of these romance characters who are never exactly the same from text to text.

The first two essays in part one concentrate on how writers from the Christian Middle Ages reinterpreted historical figures from the classical past. Penny Eley’s essay focuses on the transformation of Rutulian general Turnus, the antagonist of Aeneas, in the Roman d’Eneas, a twelfth-century Old French translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. She illustrates how the French poet changed Turnus from a patriotic war hero into a character driven by greed and ambition who must be eliminated because he prevents the union of true love between Eneas and his beloved, Lavine. Meanwhile, David Ashurst’s essay on the legend of Alexander the Great shows how authors in medieval England interpreted the roles of another pagan general. He explores how Alexander’s reputation as an exceptional military leader, conqueror, campaigner, and explorer were either disapproved of or endorsed by various writers who reconfigured the pagan general as either an arrogant, bloodthirsty warmonger or a chivalric hero known for his generosity and courtesy.

The following essays address the changing representations of two historical English heroes: Margaret Lamont’s contribution focuses on the Saxon invader Hengist, while Laura Ashe’s chapter concentrates on Harold Godwineson, the last king of the England prior to the Norman Conquest. First, Lamont considers whether Hengist’s reputation as a sympathetic rather than villainous figure in post-medieval literature had its origins in the early Middle Ages. Focusing on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and Wace’s Roman de Brut, she asserts that Hengist, the conqueror of the Britons and the founder of England, functioned as a hybrid figure who connected twelfth-century readers to their mixed ethnic roots, encouraging a culture based on racial inclusion rather than exclusion. In her essay, Ashe examines how writers attempted to fashion an identity for Harold Godwineson, who is an exceptionally ambiguous figure in English history. She asks whether Harold was ‘a national, an English hero, whose tragic defeat brought all of England’s defeat? Or contrarily, might it even make him a national scapegoat, an English anti-hero, who shaped and carried the people’s dreadful fate in his own moral failings and corruption?’ (70). Her discussion reveals that Harold was presented negatively—or excluded entirely—in post-Conquest English historiography; she then shows that it was only Anglo-Danish or Anglo-Welsh literature that Harold was remembered, before his reputation was eventually restored in the Vita Haroldi, a Latin hagiography which transformed him into a servant of God.

The next set of essays concentrate on a selection of Arthurian (anti-)heroes—Mordred, Merlin, and Gawain—who have particularly complex character histories. Judith Weiss’ essay on Mordred seeks to explain his motivations for treachery, and to show how he became a villainous archetype in other non-Arthurian works. Weiss identifies Mordred’s passionate love for Guinevere and his incestuous origins, which developed in Wace and the French prose romances, as his reasons for rebellion and betrayal, and her discussion of Mordred’s associations with Cornwall and references to him in insular romances show how his reputation as a traitor became more widespread. In his essay on Merlin, Gareth Griffith explores how the figure of Merlin was consistently reinterpreted by medieval writers, explaining how Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert de Boron developed the character as an advisor and a prophet who functioned in the political, theological, and sometimes supernatural, worlds of romance.Finally, Kate McClune traces the changing nature of Gawain’s reputation in both French and English romance. She proposes that the authors of these works rely on a ‘Gawain-effect’ (p. 128) which plays on established assumptions about the character, including his reputation as a noble, loyal, and brave warrior, as well as a model of masculinity and courtesy.  While there are several casebooks and essays already published on the character development of these Arthurian heroes, these essays consider a wider range of texts, especially the popular romances which are often overlooked, and so they offer some new insights into the intricate textual makeup of these familiar figures.

The final three essays in the first section of the collection focus on quasi-romance texts and their less conventional protagonists. Nancy Mason Bradbury’s welcome contribution on The Tale of Gamelyn reassesses the nature of violence in this much understudied text. Romance, of course, legitimates the use (and abuse) of strength and force through the figure of the knight-errant, but Bradbury argues that the episodes of violence in the text—which are carried out by a ‘hero’ from the middle-class gentry—are essentially non-chivalric in nature; indeed, she sees the violence in Gamelyn as parodic of the chivalric violence of the upper classes who, in this romance, are inefficient at maintaining law and order. Ad Putter’s essay also centres on a character of low status who imitates the chivalric classes: he demonstrates how, in the Middle-English Charlemagne romance, the peasant known as Ralph the Collier performs acts of hospitality, welcoming a king and his knights into his home, as well as keeping promises and upholding his word. Ralph, Putter concludes, is ‘neither a peasant not a knight but an irresistible blend of both’ (158). Putter’s essay is followed by Stephanie Viereck Gibbs Kamath’s chapter on the Anti-Heroic Heart, who features in the French romance Livre du Cuer d’Amours Espris (Book of the Love-smitten Heart). She considers how the author uses an allegorical hero—Heart—to question the nature of the romance narrative since the text focuses more on the internal experience and desires of the protagonist rather than on his quest and his chivalric achievements; this is a distinctive change which could, as she points out, be considered ‘anti-heroic’ (167).

The section of essays on character types in the collection begins with two complementary essays on Crusaders and Saracens. In his chapter on crusaders, Robert Allen Rouse demonstrates how some of the crusade romances produced in England after the fall of Acre in 1291 could challenge the motivations and expose weaknesses behind the Christian desire to fight the Saracens in the Holy Land. He explains how Richard Coer de Lyon attributes the failure of the Third Crusade to the lack of unity between the English and the French, before examining how the Middle English Guy of Warwick and Sir Gowther encourage their heroes to redirect their violent actions towards their legitimate enemies, the Saracens, which will allow them to be successful on crusade and to redeem themselves in the eyes of God. Following this, Siobhan Bly Calkin’s chapter explores how non-convert and convert Saracen knights could be used to contrast and emphasise the flaws of their Christian protagonists. She illustrates that the Eastern enemies of medieval Christendom could also display military and martial prowess at the expense of their opponents, and so they pose a challenge to the traditional model of chivalric, Christian heroism prevalent in medieval romance. Calkin’s essay, then, rethinks the stereotypical portrayal of the medieval Saracen, and she shows the portrayal of such characters to be more complex than conventionally assumed.

The final two essays by James Wade and Neil Cartlidge discuss the nature of moral conduct and ethical behaviour in romance. In his contribution on Ungallant Knights, Wade focuses on the construction of domestic miscellanies, and he considers how moral exempla in two manuscript collections—Bodleian MS Ashmole 61 and Cambridge, University Library MS Ff.5.48—could have been read in context with Lybeaus Desconus and Thomas of Erceldoune. He argues that the contrast between exempla and romance could affect the way that readers interpreted the behaviour of the two-knight protagonists as the juxtaposition of texts foregrounds their ungallantry and deviance from the chivalric ideal. Meanwhile, in his essay, Cartlidge examines how the Antichrist became a prototype for a range of romance characters known to be descended from the Devil. He claims that the conception of characters fathered by the Antichrist imitates and parodies the Incarnation—this is most notable in the conception of Merlin in the French Arthurian romances—and he considers how demonic lineage can question the nature of humanity and expose its wickedness. Nevertheless, Cartlidge also shows that characters with such diabolic paternity do have the potential to repent and turn towards God, and so there is no need for romance readers to fear corruption by the seductive power of the Devil.

Overall, this collection of essays sheds new light on the romance genre by asking some innovative questions about the nature of the conventional romance protagonist. While some of the essays could probe further into the reasons why these characters underwent such dramatic changes in the transformation from hero to villain, the essays are generally accessible and detailed, and they also cover a good range of romance and pseudo-historical texts. The collection as a whole could benefit from a bibliography, rather than relying on footnotes and references in the individual essays, but this useful collection should interest both students and scholars of medieval romance. This volume succeeds in its aim to offer separate ‘case-histories’ (2), or short cultural biographies, of a variety of heroes and anti-heroes in medieval romance, and it should prove a valuable addition to the study of a genre of writing that has still not been fully appreciated.

Victoria Shirley


Victoria Shirley is a doctoral candidate in the School of English, Communication, and Philosophy at Cardiff University. Her thesis focuses on the rewriting of, and response to, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain in late medieval England, Scotland, and Wales. More broadly, she is interested in Arthurian literature (medieval and modern), chronicles and historical writing, medievalism, medieval cultural studies, and nationalism and nation studies.


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