Medieval Romance & the Fairy Tale

by Claire Delacroix (a July 4, 1998 Write Byte)

I heard so many good things about Claire Delacroix’s (aka Claire Cross) most recent medieval trilogy for Harlequin (My Lady’s Champion, Enchanted, and My Lady’s Desire), that I asked her to send a copy of her upcoming release The Princess for us to review. When AAR Reviewer Alina Laurie gave a favorable rating to this story, I asked Claire if she would talk about medievals and fairy tales, and if she would include a book list of her own favorite medievals and/or fairy tales.

–Laurie Likes Books

Pennants and pageants, chivalry and bard’s tales, there’s something about the Middle Ages that captures the imagination. It seems a period perfect for romance, for quests and expressions of undying love, it seems a moment in time when all manner of possibilities are open.

Clearly, that’s because of fairy tales.

Yes, fairy tales!

The first book I can remember reading – or more accurately, the first book I memorized by its pictures! – was a compilation of fairy tales. I loved it. It was lavishly illustrated – or at least it seemed so to me at the time. Each page was adorned with bold knights on stomping chargers, their pennants flying in the breeze overhead, or beautiful damsels in distress, their embroidered gowns pooled about their ankles, their hair in long braids. There were sorcerers and witches, and fire-breathing dragons, there were quests and pledges and duels to the death – each and every time for A Noble Cause. There were lofty summits and mysterious grottos and enchanted forests. Looking at it now, it’s evident that the illustrators used the Middle Ages as their reference for costumes and settings – perhaps that is why the two are linked forever in my mind. I’ve never forgotten that book, or the many other similar volumes that I gobbled up in the years since.

In fact, the Middle Ages seems to be a perfect choice for these illustrations. Much of the literature that remains from the period is concerned with chivalry and love, with honor and duty, with fulfilling quests. Additionally, in the medieval period, there seems to linger the possibility of magic, the danger of things unseen, the prospect of daring adventure. It’s not unthinkable that Rumpelstiltskin could demand his due, or that Rapunzel could unfurl her hair in lieu of a ladder, or that a frog could really be an enchanted prince.

Maybe it’s the inherent sense of justice in fairy tales that appeals to us all. Here, the bad get their punishment, the good are amply rewarded. And beauty must be more than skin deep. The possession of spiritual qualities – like generosity or a willingness to help or a good heart – is always rewarded with earthly riches. Love lasts forever in fairy tales and withstands any number of tests. There are adventures to be had and obstacles to be conquered, prizes to be won and character to be proven. And in the end, the main characters always live happily ever after.

It’s not surprising that we don’t want to let these powerful stories go, even once we’re deemed “too old” to be reading them! Medieval romance is a natural outgrowth from fairy tales – just as the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites are the natural extension of those illustrations. Fairy tales are the seed from which medieval romance is sprung, perhaps even the seed that gave birth to all of the romance genre. The themes and expectations of fairy tales have shaped romance as nothing else – and it could be argued that the most satisfying romances echo a familiar fairy tale in some way. Romance lets fairy tales “grow up” by giving more insight into relationships than is found in those children’s tales. There’s more development to the characters, they’re made more dimensional and “real”. Often the challenges they face are more complicated, the repercussions more dire, certainly they capture our hearts even more effectively than those fairy tale heroes.

But despite these differences, the core of a successful medieval romance still clings to the fairy tale themes that originally spoke to us (and encouraged many of us to learn to read the stories that matched those pictures.) A good romance will echo the theme of a fairy tale, but will still manage to surprise us along the way. The characters will eventually live happily ever after, but the best of medieval romance will really make them earn their prize!

An Eclectic List of Favorites from Claire. Not all are medieval romances, but most have medieval (or at least historical) flavor and/or the sense of wonder common to fairy tales:

  • anything by Mary Stewart
  • anything by Angela Carter (particularly her short stories)
  • anything by Daphne duMaurier
  • Archangel by Sharon Shinn
  • Avalon by Anya Seton
  • The Cornerstone by Zoe Oldenbourg
  • Daughter of Prophecy by Anne Kelleher Bush
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (an LLB favorite as well)
  • Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (an LLB favorite as well)
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein
  • Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • The Mummy by Anne Rice
  • Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
  • The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies
  • The Wolf & the Dove by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
  • Spells of Enchantment edited by Jack Zipes (simply the best compilation of fairy tales to be found) Simply the best compilation of fairy tales to be found:
  • Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  • Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
  • Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Claire Delacroix aka Claire Cross, who never colors inside the lines!

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