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The national epic in France bears the characteristic name of Chanson de Geste, or song of deed, because the trouvères in the north and the troubadours in the south wandered from castle to castle singing the prowesses of the lords and of their ancestors, whose reputations they thus made or ruined at will.

In their earliest form these Chansons de Geste were invariably in verse, but in time the most popular were turned into lengthy prose romances. Many of the hundred or more Chansons de Geste still preserved were composed in the northern dialect, or langue d'oil, and, although similar epics did exist in the langue d'oc, they have the "great defect of being lost," and only fragments of Flamen?a, etc., now exist.

There are three great groups or cycles of French epics: first the Cycle of France, dealing specially with Charlemagne,—the champion of Christianity,—who, representing Christ, is depicted surrounded by twelve peers instead of twelve disciples. Among these, to carry out the scriptural analogy, lurks a traitor, Ganelon; so, in the course of the poems, we are favored with biblical miracles, such as the sun pausing in its course until pagans can be punished, and angels appearing to comfort dying knights. The finest sample of this cycle is without doubt the famous Chanson de Roland, of which a complete synopsis follows. Other remarkable examples of this cycle are Aliscans, Raoul de Cambrai, Garin le Lorrain, Guillaume d'Orange, Les Quatre Fils d'Aymon, Ogier le Danois, etc.

Even the character of the hero varies from age to age, for whereas Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland—which dates perhaps as far back as the tenth century—is a heroic figure, he becomes during later periods, when vassals rise up against their overlords,—an object of contempt and ridicule. A marked example of this latter style of treatment is furnished by Les Quatre Fils d'Aymon.[7]

The second group, or cycle of Brittany, animated by a chivalrous spirit, and hence termed court epic, finds its greatest exponent in the poet Chrestien de Troyes, whose hero Arthur, King of Brittany, gathers twelve knights around his table, one of whom, Mordred, is to prove traitor. The principal poems of this cycle are Launcelot du Lac, Ivain le Chevalier au Lion, Erec and Enide, Merlin, Tristan, and Perceval. These poems all treat of chivalry and love, and introduce the old pagan passion-breeding philtre, as well as a whole world of magic and fairies. These epics will be noticed at greater length when we treat of the English versions of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, because many of the poems have been reworked in modern English and are hence most popular in that language.

Besides the Chansons de Geste pertaining to various phases of this theme, the Breton cycle includes many shorter works termed lais, which also treat of love, and were composed by Marie de France or her successors. The best known of all these "cante-fables" is the idyllic Aucassin et Nicolette, of which a full account is embodied in this volume.

One of the best samples of the domestic epic in this cycle is the twelfth century Amis and Amiles, in which two knights, born and baptized on the same day, prove so alike as to become interchangeable. Still, brought up in separate provinces, Amis and Amiles meet and become friends only when knighted by Charlemagne, whose graciousness toward them rouses the jealousy of the felon knight Hardré. When Charlemagne finally offers his niece to Amiles (who, through modesty, passes her on to Amis), the felon accuses the former of treacherously loving the king's daughter Bellicent, and thereupon challenges him to fight. Conscious of not being a traitor, although guilty of loving the princess, Amiles dares not accept this challenge, and changes places with Amis, who personates him in the lists. Because Amis thus commits perjury to rescue his friend from a dilemma, he is in due time stricken with leprosy, deserted by his wife, and sorely ill treated by his vassals. After much suffering, he discovers his sole hope of cure consists in bathing in the blood of the children which in the meanwhile have been born to Amiles and to his princess-wife. When the leper Amis reluctantly reveals this fact to his friend Amiles, the latter, although broken-hearted, unhesitatingly slays his children. Amis is immediately cured, and both knights hasten to church together to return thanks and inform the mother of the death of her little ones. The princess rushes to their chamber to mourn over their corpses, only to discover that meantime they have been miraculously restored to life! This story is very touchingly told in the old Chanson, which contains many vivid and interesting descriptions of the manners of the time.

In this cycle are also included Gérard de Roussillon, Hugues Capet, Macaire (wherein occurs the famous episode of the Dog of Montargis), and Huon de Bordeaux, which latter supplied Shakespeare, Wieland, and Weber with some of the dramatis personae of their well-known comedy, poem, and opera. We must also mention what are often termed the Crusade epics, of which the stock topics are quarrels, challenges, fights, banquets, and tournaments, and among which we note les Enfances de Godefroi, Antioche, and Tudela's Song of the Crusade against the Albigenses.

The third great cycle is known as Matière de Rome la grand, or as the antique cycle. It embodies Christianized versions of the doings of the heroes of the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Thebais, Alexandreid, etc. In their prose forms the Roman de Thèbes, Roman de Troie, and Roman d'Alexandre contain, besides, innumerable mediaeval embellishments, among others the first mention in French of the quest for the Fountain of Youth.

Later on in French literature we come across the animal epic, or Roman du Renard, a style of composition which found its latest and most finished expression in Germany at the hands of Goethe, and the allegorical epic, Le Roman de la Rose, wherein abstract ideas were personified, such as Hope, Slander (Malebouche), Danger, etc.

There are also epic poems based on Le Combat des Trente and on the doings of Du Guesclin. Ronsard, in his Franciade, claims the Franks as lineal descendants from Francus, a son of Priam, and thus connects French history with the war of Troy, just as Wace, in the Norman Roman de Rou, traces a similar analogy between the Trojan Brutus and Britain. Later French poets have attempted epics, more or less popular in their time, among which are Alaric by Scudéri, Clovis by St. Sorlin, and two poems on La Pucelle, one by Chapelain, and the other by Voltaire.

Next comes la Henriade, also by Voltaire, a half bombastic, half satirical account of Henry IV's wars to gain the crown of France. This poem also contains some very fine and justly famous passages, but is too long and too artificial, as a whole, to please modern readers.

The most popular of all the French prose epics is, without dispute, Fénelon's Télémaque, or account of Telemachus' journeys to find some trace of his long-absent father Ulysses.

Les Martyrs by Chateaubriand, and La Légende des Siècles by Victor
Hugo, complete the tale of important French epics to date.


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