As a literary genre of high culture, romance or chivalric romance refers to a style of heroic prose and verse narrative that was particularly current in aristocratic literature of Medieval and Early Modern Europe, that narrated fantastic stories about the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who goes on a quest. Popular literature alsi drew on themes of romance, but with ironic, satiric or burlesque intent. Romances often reworked legends and fairy tales and traditional tales about Charlemagne and Roland or King Arthur. A related tradition existed in Northern Europe, and comes down to us in the form of epics, such as Beowulf, which were deeply imbued with dreamlike and magical elements foreign to the classical epics.
Originally, romance literature was written in Old French, Anglo-Norman and Occitan, later, in English and German. During the early 13th century romances were increasingly written as prose. In later romances, particularly those of French origin, there is a marked tendency to emphasize themes of courtly love, such as faithfulness in adversity. From ca. 1800 the connotations of "romance" moved from the magical and fantastic to somewhat eerie "Gothic" adventure narratives.
The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability... Romance divides into two main forms: a secular form dealing with chivalry and knight-errantry, and a religious form devoted to legends of saints. Both lean heavily on miraculous violations of natural law for their interest as stories" (Frye pp 33-34).If, on the other hand, the hero is superior to other men but not to his environment, the tale falls into the mode of high mimetic.
Frye also divided fictions into the fields of comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. In this division, the essential component of romance is adventure, and the central theme is the hero's rescue of a princess from a dragon.
The term was coined to distinguish popular material in the vernacular (at first the Romance languages French, Portuguese and Spanish, later German, English, Italian and others) from scholarly and ecclesiastical literature in Latin. The boundaries between the romance and the chansons de geste of the troubadours were somewhat fluid. In general, the strophic heroic chansons ("ballads") were the property of professional performers, while the romance was associated more with aristocratic amateurs and private readers. Nevertheless, a professional poet-performer like Chrétien de Troyes could turn his hand to composing romances. The distinction between an early verse romance and a chanson de geste is often difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to make.
Unlike the later form of the novel and like the chansons de geste, the genre of romance dealt with traditional themes. Overwhelmingly, these were linked in some way, perhaps only in an opening frame story, with three thematic cycles of tales: these were assembled in imagination at a late date as the "Matter of Rome" (actually centered on the life and deeds of Alexander the Great), the "Matter of France" (Charlemagne and Roland, his principal paladin) and the "Matter of Britain" (the lives and deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, within which was incorporated the quest for the Holy Grail); medieval authors explicitly described these as comprising all romances. In reality, a number of "non-cyclical" romances were written without any such connection; these include such romances as King Horn, Robert the Devil, Emare, Havelok the Dane, and Roswall and Lillian,
The Acritic songs (dealing with Digenis Acritas and his fellow frontiersmen) resemble much the chanson de geste, though they developed simultaneously but separately. A related tradition existed in Northern Europe, and comes down to us in the form of epics, such as Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied. However, the richest set of Germanic literature of Romance comes from Scandinavia in the form of the legendary sagas. The setting is Scandinavia, but occasionally it moves temporarily to more distant and exotic locations. There are also very often mythological elements, such as gods, dwarves, elves, dragons, giants and magic swords. The heroes often embark on dangerous quests where they fight the forces of evil, dragons, witchkings, barrow-wights, and rescue fair maidens.
Many or most of the sagas are based on distant historic events and this is evident in cases where there are corroborating sources, such as Göngu-Hrólfs saga, Ragnars saga loðbrókar, Yngvars saga víðförla and Völsunga saga. In the case of Hervarar saga the names in the Gothic setting indicate a historic basis, and the latter parts of the saga are still used as a historic source for Swedish history. They often contain very old Germanic matter, such as the Hervarar saga and the Völsunga saga which contains poetry about Sigurd that did not find its way into the Poetic Edda and which would otherwise have been lost. Other sagas deal with heroes such as Ragnar Lodbrok, Starkad, Orvar-Odd, Hagbard and Signy.
From the high Middle Ages, in works of piety, clerical critics often deemed romances to be harmful worldly distractions from more substantive or moral works, and by 1600 many secular readers would agree; in the judgement of many learned readers in the shifting intellectual atmosphere of the seventeenth century, the romance was trite and childish literature, inspiring only broken-down ageing and provincial persons such as Don Quixote, knight of the culturally isolated province of La Mancha. Hudibras also lampoons the faded conventions of chivalrous romance, from an ironic, consciously realistic viewpoint. Some of the magical and exotic atmosphere of Romance informed tragedies for the stage, such as John Dryden's collaborative The Indian Queen (1664) as well as Restoration spectaculars and opera seria, such as Handel's Rinaldo (1711), based on a magical interlude in Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata..
Many medieval romances recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who, abiding chivalry's strict codes of honour and demeanour, goes on a quest, and fights and defeats monsters and giants, thereby winning favour with a lady. The story of the medieval romance focuses not upon love and sentiment, but upon adventure.
The first romances heavily drew on the legends and fairy tales to supply their characters with marvelous powers. The tale of Sir Launfal features a fairy bride from folklore, and Sir Orfeo's wife is kidnapped by the fairy king, and Sir Orfeo frees her from there. These marvelous abilities subside with the development of the genre; fairy women such as Morgan le Fay become enchantresses, and knights lose magical abilities. Romancers wrote many of their stories in three, thematic cycles: (i) the Arthurian (the lives and deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table); (ii) the Carolingian (the lives and deeds of Charlemagne, and Roland, his principal paladin); and, (iii) the Alexandrian (the life and deeds of Alexander the Great).
Originally, this literature was written in Old French, Anglo-Norman and Occitan, later, in English and German— notable later English works being King Horn (a translation of the Anglo-Norman (AN) Romance of Horn of Mestre Thomas), and Havelok the Dane (a translation of the anonymous AN Lai d'Haveloc); around the same time Gottfried von Strassburg's version of the Tristan of Thomas of Britain (a different Thomas to the author of 'Horn') and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival translated classic French romance narrative into the German tongue.
During the early 13th century romances were increasingly written as prose, and extensively amplified through cycles of continuation. These were collated in the vast, polymorphous manuscript witnesses comprising what is now known as the Vulgate Cycle, with the romance of La Mort le Roi Artu c.1230, perhaps its final installment. These texts, together with a wide range of further Arthurian material, such as that found in the anonymous cycle of English Brut Chronicles, comprised the bases of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Prose literature thus increasingly dominanted the expression of romance narrative in the later Middle Ages, at least until the resurgence of verse during the high Renaissance in the oeuvres of Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and Edmund Spenser. Don Quixote (1605, 1615), by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), is a satirical story of an elderly country gentleman, living in La Mancha province, who is so obsessed by chivalric romances that he seeks to emulate their various heroes.
In later romances, particularly those of French origin, there is a marked tendency to emphasize themes of courtly love, such as faithfulness in adversity. From ca. 1800 the connotations of "romance" moved from fantastic and eerie, somewhat Gothic adventure narratives of novelists like Ann Radcliffe's The Sicilian Romance (1790) or The Romance of the Forest (1791) with erotic content to novels centered on the episodic development of a courtship that ends in marriage. With a female protagonist, during the rise of Romanticism the depiction of the course of such a courtship within contemporary conventions of realism, the female equivalent of the "novel of education", informs much Romantic fiction. In gothic novels such as Bram Stoker's 'Dracula, the elements of romantic seduction and desire were mingled with fear and dread.
In 1825, the Fantasy genre developed when the Swedish literary work Frithjof's saga, which was based on the Friðþjófs saga ins frœkna, became successful in England and Germany. It was translated twenty-two times into English, twenty times into German, and into many other European languages, including modern Icelandic in 1866. Their influence on authors, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, William Morris and Poul Anderson and on the subsequent modern fantasy genre is considerable.
Modern usage of term "romance" usually refer to the romance novel, which is a subgenre that focuses on the relationship and romantic love between two people; these novels must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending." Despite the popularity of this popular meaning of Romance, other works are still, occasionally, referred to as romances because of their uses of other elements descended from the medieval romance, or from the Romantic movement: larger-than-life heroes and heroines, drama and adventure, marvels that may become fantastic, themes of honor and loyalty, or fairy-tale-like stories and story settings. Shakespeare's later comedies, such as The Tempest or The Winter's Tale are sometimes called his romances. Modern works may differentiate from love-story as romance into different genres, such as planetary romance or Ruritanian romance.
Romance as a fictive mode: Romance may or may not be realistic depending on the story and its events.