The Grail Code 
The Last Great Age of Romance

Though I’d contend that the golden age of chivalric romances reached its climax with Walter Map, that was far from the end of the genre. Even Cervantes, whose Don Quixote is still the greatest parody every written, hardly made a dent in the flow of romances. As late as the late 1600s, Mlle de Scudéry brought chivalric romance to yet another peak of popularity—and perhaps, in her own way, to an artistic peak as well.

Madeleine de Scudéry’s romances appeared under the name of her brother, “M. de Scudéry, Governour of Nostre Dame,” but most critics think he had little to do with them. One of her novels, the famous Grand Cyrus, still probably holds the record as the longest novel ever written. In the original edition, it took up more than 13,000 pages. Yes, that’s a five-digit number, and it’s not a typing mistake.

I’ve been reading one of her romances called Almahide: or, the Captive Queen. It’s a bit shorter than the Grand Cyrus, but not a whole lot shorter. My copy was printed in a giant folio in 1677, with small print in two columns and almost no paragraph divisions, and it still takes up hundreds of pages. (Hard to say how many, because the folio combines several volumes with their own page numbers, and I don’t feel like doing any of that higher-math stuff.) The binding smells of 331-year-old leather, and I always end up falling asleep with the thing beside me, which means that my poor wife has to lift it when she comes to bed. In extenuation I can only point out that she knew what she was getting into when she married me.

How, you might ask, does a writer fill up so many pages? The machinery of the plot is usually pretty straightforward: a large number of female characters get themselves abducted and rescued by an equally large assortment of male characters. What takes up space, and gives the book its distinctive atmosphere, is the long internal monologues of the characters.

In Almahide, for example, we have a noble young man in the court of Granada, Morayzel by name, who seems to have no interest in the beautiful women who surround him.

Here is the way an ordinary novelist might express the idea:

Though the court of Granada was filled with famous beauties, Morayzel—much to everyone’s surprise—remained indifferent to them all. Sometimes, in fact, even Morayzel himself was surprised by his own indifference.

But here is the way Mlle de Scudéry writes the same thing (in the 1677 translation by J. Phillips, Gent.):

He was Courteous and Civil among Ladies, but never in Love; and whatever Ambuscado’s they laid to insnare his Liberty, he still preserv’d his Freedom. All Persons were amaz’d at it, and sometimes he admir’d at it himself, and oftentimes examin’d himself from whence such an indifferency should proceed, especially at those Years when the most indifferent are concern’d. Is it, said he, a Vertue or a Vice? Is it an Excess or a Defect of Reason? Hast thou Eyes, or art thou blind? Is it an effect of thy Pride or thy Humility? Dost thou owe thy Freedom to thy Contempt of thy self, or thy Disdain of others? The first perhaps does not seem agreeable to Reason; the second less. Flatter not thy self Morayzel; and since thou wilt not betray thy self, consider with thy self whether it be out of any poorness of Spirit, or out of Vanity, that thou art so insensible; and whether thou neglectest thus all sorts of Conquests, by reason of their difficulty, or because they are too easie to obtain. Is it possible, said he, that in so great a Court there should not be one Lady surpassingly beautiful? Is there not one worthy of thy Love? Then calling to mind the several Beauties of the Court; The young Algadire, said he, has she nothing in her Eyes that sparkles and pleases? The Complexion of the amiable Zambrine, has she nothing that is excellent? The Lily whiteness of the noble Despine, does not that dazzle thee? Alicola’s Vermilion, does not that delight thee? The Lips and Teeth of Miriane, have they no Charm? The lovely face of Meladine, has that nothing that pleases? The Breasts and plumpness of Amesabeg, are they not worth thy taking notice of? The lovely Hands and Arms of the charming Donique, will they not move thee? The Shape and Majesty of Lidive, do they not attract the Eyes of all the World? Zelebine’s Disdain, does that damp thy Courage? The sweet temper of the amiable Nafile, is that not sufficient to move thee? The sprightly Humour of Tamarate, will that not sport thee into Love? The serious Gravity of the prudent Caramante, will that not gain thy Respect? The sublime Wit of Osmane, has that no absolute Power? The moderate and equal temper of Alemate, does that not always please alike? The Mirth and Conceits of Myrize, are they not pleasant and sharp? The Eloquence of Alabee, knows that not how to win a Heart? The harmonious Voice of Liparis, will that not allure the Souls of all that hear her sing? The languishing Looks of Emine, cannot they insensibly insinuate themselves? The Vertue of Betulite, has that no Power? The Generosity of Enoramira, is that not to be admir’d? The Nobility of young Isa, is not that enough to satisfie an ambitious Spirit? The Riches of Ziliole, are they not sufficient to satisfie the most Covetous Person in the World? And are there not others in the Court, that have those Charms I know not how to express, whose secret Power is more terrible than all those visible Beauties? Yes without doubt there is all this in Granada, and therefore since all this will not move, conclude with thy self that thou art rather a Statue than a Man, and that thy Insensibility is as reproachful as it is extraordinary.

Here we have the names of (by my quick count) twenty-three women, from Algadire to Ziliole, whose sole function in the narrative is to be dismissed by Morayzel. Yet each is the subject of a brief character sketch. You can see how that sort of thing would take up page after page, even if the plot is a bit thin. But the astonishing thing, and perhaps the thing that marks Mlle de Scudéry as some species of literary genius, is that they’re not just names; they’re twenty-three different women, even though we’ll never hear of any of them again.

I have more to say about this last burst of glory for the chivalric romance. Just as the medieval romances found their perfect satirist in Cervantes, so the seventeenth-century romances found a perfect foil in Mrs. Lennox. And because I happen to love her, but you probably don’t know who she is, I think she’s worth an article by herself.

33 Responses to “The Last Great Age of Romance”

  1. Warren Says:

    I have observed often the style in a certain century of english-writing, of the apostrophe with d, instead of “ed”. Witness “admir’d at it”. Was there a reason for this convention? It is these tiny bits of English spelling that seem to be of suche swyte vertue, now long lost. In it’s place we have the following: “So, like, I was talking to Zelebine, and she was saying that Alemate is so totally into Morayzel, but he’s like so totally not into it, so she was like, ‘What’s up with that?’, and I’m like…”.


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    Oh dang. I have comitted an ‘it’s’.

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