Octavian, A Medieval Romance

I think I was promising sometime last year I was going to read more Medieval writings, and so I’ve finally started to get around to it. We are now in early c14th England, a time whose writings are entirely influenced by c14th France and whose setting is almost always late c8th France (i.e. the reign of Charlemagne) – but an c8th France which is oddly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire, both of whom are of course engaged in a life and death struggle with the fearful Saracen.

If you think not bothering about historical research is the preserve of the fashionable avant-garde, then – well, you haven’t read any medieval literature (or, probably, anything pre-c20th). Who is this Octavian, you may ask? – Well, he is Emperor of the Romans. – He is Augustus, then? – Well, he has the same name, certainly, but his life certainly isn’t the same. Augustus / Octavian didn’t send his wife and two newborn sons into exile after he’d been deceived by his mother into believing his wife was having an affair (in fact, it’s a fairly important point in Roman history that he didn’t have any sons); and his sons weren’t subsequent stolen on the same day, one by an ape, and one by a lioness (and said lioness wasn’t subsequently transported to an island by a griffin, as far as I recall); nor was Octavian a Christian, and he didn’t spend any time fighting the Muslims (he would have had trouble finding any to fight).

I do like Medieval romance, however, since – as you might have grasped from the above – it is quite mad. Orlando Furioso, which I have also set out upon, is far madder than the above.

What else: ah, yes – Medieval romance is a strange beast, caught between two contradictory worlds: on the one hand, the kingly courts, where chivalry holds sway, where everything is a matter of honour; and on the other, the teachings of the Church, where one is taught to turn the other cheek. This is in fact just the Medieval world: not perhaps a static one, where one is forever certain of everything, but an awkward amalgam of the Germanic tribal practice, Roman law, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Which gives us that favourite blend of romancist: the Church Militant, where going to war becomes the most Christian of acts, whilst also happily being an enjoyable subject to write about.

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3 thoughts on “Octavian, A Medieval Romance

  1. This one I hadn’t heard of, but it fits the pattern – quite mad, yes. Wolfram’s Parzival may be the craziest book I have ever read. Orlando Furioso just goes on and on, getting crazier with each page.

  2. A favourite of mine is Guillaume le Clerc’s Roman de Fergus, whose protagonist is based, apparently, on the historical Fergus of Galloway (although the real Fergus presumably didn’t go around slaughtering boatmen, doing battle with hags and jousting with Sir Lancelot). It’s a very funny, knowing work; the battle with the hag could have come from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

  3. It all sounds marvellous. Perhaps I was put off before by the Chretien de Troyes I read, which was really rather boring – though I think it was his early work.

    The lioness is great. When the lost baby is rediscovered, she continues to guard him throughout his life – and then when he comes to fight against the Saracens, the lioness goes into battle with him (though thinking about it, she’d probably be fairly old by then).

    I’m glad Orlando gets madder: I’m only on Book 2 so far, and signs of madness are already creeping in.

    I’ve got another book of verse romances to read next, and also Chaucer (my old battered edition which is falling apart I managed to replace last week).

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