Minor characters made medieval soap easier to follow

May 23, 2002

The complex stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were well understood by medieval people. The predictable roles of various minor characters ensured that the listeners did not lose the thread of the story. This is the conclusion reached by Bernadette Smelik in her thesis: Minor characters in the Lancelot en prose.

The thirteenth-century tales about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were extremely popular in the Middle Ages. The tales were read aloud at the courts of the well-to-do members of nobility, where everyone present listened enthusiastically to the heroic deeds. The modern reader quickly loses the thread in the complex tales. Some tales have dozens of principle characters and many more minor characters. Sometimes the tale splits up into twelve parallel story lines.

In many ways the tales are similar to modern television soaps. These also have many main characters whose adventures are intertwined, many soaps are very popular and few soap viewers seem to complain about the complexity of the plot.

Bernadette Smelik investigated the structure of the French text 'Lancelot en prose'. This is the first part of a series of three books about King Arthur and in particular about his knights. She wanted to know why this book enjoyed such popularity in medieval times. Which elements in the book made it comprehensible to the medieval reader or listener?

The book tells the tale of the young knight Lancelot who serves at King Arthur's court. But Lancelot falls in love with the queen and an amorous relationship grows between them. At the same time Lancelot develops into the King's best knight.

The literary historian shows that the minor characters in the tales help the public to keep a firm grip on the plot in all of the separate adventures. Each adventure culminates in a fight between two knights. In these tales, each type of minor character has a stereotyped function. Damsels provide the reader with information about the reasons for the conflict. Dwarfs torment the knights and tempt them to fight. Hermits criticise the main characters.

For example, a knight encounters a damsel who is weeping because a dwarf has stolen her dog. The reader now knows that the scene is set for a fight. The knight asks the dwarf to return the dog but the dwarf refuses. The dwarf's master, also a knight, backs up the dwarf and is willing to fight. Good triumphs over evil. In the entire story, Lancelot does not lose a single fight.

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For further information please contact Bernadette Smelik (Nijmegen Institute for Informatics and Information Technology, University of Nijmegen), tel. +31 (0)24 3652204 (work), fax +31 (0)24 3653450, e-mail bsmelik@cs.kun.nl. The defence of the doctoral thesis will take place on 24 May 2002. Ms Smelik's supervisor is Prof. W.P. Gerritsen (Faculty of Letters, Utrecht University). A commercial edition of the thesis will be published: Bijfiguren in de 'Lancelot en prose'; een studie over de verteltechnische functies van ridders, jonkvrouwen, schildknapen, dwergen en kluizenaars [Minor characters in the 'Lancelot and prose', a study of the narrative functions of knights, damsels, squires, dwarfs and hermits]. Nijmegen: Stichting Uitgeverij de Keltische Draak, 2002. ISBN: 90-806863-1-x.

The research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research
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