Prose fiction is said to have evolved from a variety of writings known as “belle letters” in French. However many scholars trace its origin to some other longer narratives like the epic and other forms of imaginative writings of the early centuries. In this unit we are going to trace the origin of prose fiction to these writings by studying some selected authors of the narratives. This will guide our understanding of prose fiction as a branch of literature from the earliest forms of the genre.
The origin of prose fiction as a literary genre is traced to the ancient world of “the Mediterranean basin and the period…roughly 800 B.C. – A. D 400”. In this place and time the intellectual and religious foundations of modern Western outlook were laid. The literature of that world “…which is still the background of our institutions, attitudes, and thought, was written in three languages – Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (Mack 1). The people who created these languages lived separately with their independent civilisation but the “…development of the Mediterranean area into one economic and political unit brought them into contact with one another and produced a fusion of their typical attitudes …of Western thought” (Mack 1) reflected in these early writings.
Some scholars refer to these early fictional narratives as the extended fictional prose and are seen as the antecedents of the prose fiction. However, it is possible that some early prose fictional writers may have not been aware of these early writings but may have been influenced by verse epics. The origin of prose fiction in this course material is associated with early epics, some stories in the bible, romances and the works of notable writers like Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Thomas Malory and others.
The development of prose fiction as a genre in Europe emerged with the availability of paperwhich gave writersthe opportunityto document and circulate their composition which contained entertaining exploration of subject matters that concern an individual.
An epic is a long narrative poem which tells a story that involves a hero. Western tradition of the prose fiction dates back to the verse epics of the earliest centuries like the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (1300-1000 BC), Indian epics likeThe Ramayana (400 BCE and 200 C) and Mahabharata (4th Century BC). However, these were not as popular as the Anglo-Saxon epic of Beowulf (c. 750-1000) rediscovered in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) in early modern Europe.
Other notable epics include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (9th or 8th Century BC), and Virgil’s Aeneid (29-19 BC) which were read by Western scholars since the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the 18th Century, modern French prose translations brought Homer to a wider public, and with this publicity his works were accepted as forerunners of the modern novel which is the genre of prose fiction. Other ancient prose narratives which influenced the modern prose fiction include the incredible stories of Lucian of Samosata, and Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.
Some of these were presented in verse (poetic forms) though in form of narratives while others were presented in prose. In whatever form it is presented, the epic tells imaginative or historical, stories that are artistically constructed, in a sequential order with a beginning, a middle and an end just like the modern prose fiction. However, many of them lack the causality and verisimilitude that are vital characteristics of prose fiction as a literary genre. We will illustrate with The Epic of Gilgamesh which is regarded as the oldest.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
This epic is regarded as the first great heroic narrative in the literary world. Its origins stretch back “…to the margins of prehistory, and its evolution spans millennia. Tablets containing portions of Gilgamesh have been found at sites throughout the Middle East and in all languages in cuneiform characters, wedge-shaped characters incised in clay or stone” (Mack 12 ).
This epic presents the adventures of a legendary hero, Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, who is a tyrannical and arrogant ruler. His people complain of his oppressive and tyrannicaltendencies to the Sumerian gods. The gods responded by creating Enkidu, a powerful figurewith a blend of human and animal qualities who is raised by wild beasts. He becomes a threat to the community but fortunately, a prostitute seduces and transforms him.
The prostitute leads him to Uruk for a confrontation with Gilgamesh in fulfillment of the original intent for his creation. Ironically, their confrontation results in “…a deep bond of friendship” and both as companions direct their ‘…prodigious energies…toward heroic achievements” (Mack 13).
They get involved in several adventures encountering humans, animals, and gods and achieve popularity and fame. In one of such adventures, they encounter Ishtar, a powerful woman, who tries to seduce Gilgamesh and was rebuffed. The woman is enraged by this just but harsh rejection; so she sends the Bull of Heaven against the people of Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are forced to destroy the Bull but Enikdu dies in the process.
The death of his companion “…reveals the hollowness of mortal fame and leads Gilgamesh to undertake a solitary journey in search of the secrets of immortality”(Mack 25). This specific goal leads him to series of adventures and encounters with wild beasts, monsters, difficult and hazardous terrains. He is discouraged at every step but perseveres and finally he meets Utnapishtim who listens and promises to help him. Unfortunately, he fails the two tests given to him by Utnapishtim.
The first test is to remain awake for six days and seven nights but he could not; the second test is to get the plant that assures eternal rejuvenation. He finds the plant but carelessly loses it to the serpent. He returns, disillusioned but consoled becauseUtnapishtim assured him that his worldly accomplishments will endure beyond his own lifetime.
I have summarized the story, but get any good literary anthology and read the full version of this epic for a better understanding and appreciation. It contains a story but is inclined towards fantasy instead of realism which is the hallmark of prose fiction.
Some scholars refer to the Bible as the forerunner of modern prose fiction. This group uses the Genesis, the first book of the Bible as a point of reference. This book which presents the account of the creation and fall of man is regarded by these scholars as the Hebrew myth of creation. However, Christians and some other scholars insist that it as an authentic historical account. We are not going to study the Bible as a text but refer you to the stories in the Bible which scholars in the latter group see as forms of prose narratives.
These narratives in the Old Testament are focused mainly on individuals. The creation and the fall of man (Genesis 1-3) iscentred on Adam and Eve; the first murder (Genesis 4) is on Cain and Abel; and the flood (Genesis 6-9) is on Noah. These stories contain some interesting narratives but are not full length accounts with systematic development of characters who engage in actions as seen in the epic above.
The second set of narratives in the Bible iscentred on individuals that engage in some actions with beginning, middle and an end. These include the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-46); the story of Job (Job) the story of Ruth (Ruth). These ones show the development of the characters, their growth from innocence to maturity as rounded characters, a presentation of action in chronological causal order with a beginning, middle and an end as we encounter in modern prose fiction. Some of the early novels tow this path and the titles of such novels reflect the names of such characters. Hence, just like we have the books of Ruth and Job we also have novels like Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.
The word roman or romance in fiction dates back to some historical publications of the 11th and 12th-century southern France (Wikipedia). The central subject matter was initially derived from Roman and Greek historians and was later adapted by the Dutch and Germans in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1380–87) is a late example of this European form of writing.
The subject matter of the early romance was based on Arthurian histories that were fashionable in the late 12th century because of their ability to glorify the northern European feudal system as an independent cultural achievement. The works of Chretien de Troyes set an example, in that his plot construction subjected the northern European epic traditions to ancient Greek aesthetics. The typical Arthurian romance focuses on a single hero and leads him into a double course of episodes in which he proves both his prowess as an independent knight and his readiness to function as a perfect courtier under King Arthur.
The model involved quest and adventure as basic plot elements: the quest was a mission the knight would accept as his personal task and problem; the adventurepresents a situation where tests are sent by God to the knight on a journey, whose course he (the knight) would no longer try to control. This plot framework is still part of some modern world Hollywood movies which still unite, separate and reunite lovers in the course of adventures designed to prove their love and value.
This plot is also found in some modern prose fiction but with some modifications. Other popular romances with unexpected and peculiar adventures are Sir Gawain and The Green Knight (c. 1380). The two are regarded as the “…cream of Middle English metrical romances…told with a unity of narrative effect, a vigorous style and highly poetic colouring that are most unusual for the romance…Instead of the usual manifold adventures that befall the hero there are only two, and these are made to depend one upon the other” (Woods et al 171).
The two central incidents serve as tests for Gawain’s character as a Knight. One, the beheading incident, tests his physical courage and his fidelity to his words; the incident of the lady in the castle of the Green Knight, questions Gawain’s chastity and moral courage. The ultimate purpose of romance is didactic.
Although romance is not categorized as modern prose fiction but it contributed to its foundation because of its presentation of stories in a chronological sequence with characters. The didactic aspect of romance is still an aspect of modern prose fiction as the modern reader, after reading a prose fiction “…should leave…a wiser person with deeper understanding of life (Ezeigbo 24).
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)
Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian author and poet. His tales in Decameron constitute “…the greatest achievement of a prose fiction in vernacular language of southern Europe during the medieval period” (Mack 1467). The exact details of his birth are uncertain. A number of sources state that he was born in Paris and that his mother was a Parisian and his father, a Florentine merchant. He grew up in Florence, studied canon law and later pursued his interest in scientific and literary studies. (Mack 1468). His final years were troubled by illnesses, some relating to obesity and what often is described as dropsy, severe edema that would be described today as congestive heart failure. He died at the age of sixty-three on 21 December 1375 in Certaldo, Florence, where he was buried. Boccaccio never married, but had three children.
His studies allowed him the opportunity to travel widely and make good contacts with fellow scholars. He produced in this period, Filostrato and Teseida (the source for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale respectively) and Filocolo, a prose version of an existing French romance, and La caccia di Diana. Boccaccio is renowned for hisDecameron which he wrote in 1352. It was Boccaccio’s final effort in literature and one of his last works in Italian, the only other substantial work was Corbaccio (dated to either 1355 or 1365).
Boccaccio revised and rewrote the Decameron in 1370-1371. This manuscript has survived to the present day. Boccaccio provides a dramatic framework for his narrations in which the story tellers are seven young ladies and three gentlemen who have withdrawn from Florence to the countryside, to escape the Black Death or the plague of 1384. They are refined and cultivated ladies and gentlemen who decide to tell stories to enliven their stay. Each member of the group is assigned to tell a tale each day. Sometimes, a general topic is assigned to the storyteller but at other times, the narrator “…follows his own taste and judgment” (Woods et 52).
Boccaccio’s contribution to prose fiction is his dialogue which scholars believe surpasses others in verisimilitude. In his hundred stories contained in Decameron, he presents a great variety of people and situations “…aptly and often acutely characterised, and abundant dialogue of great liveliness and realism more than that of virtually all of his contemporaries”(Consoli 52). Some of the tales are: The story about Brother Alberto and his impersonation of Angel Gabriel; and the story of Federigo and the Falcon. Boccaccio presents these tales in such graphic description that the reader is made to see successive scenes in vivid details. He creates memorable and amusing characters, and relates the incidents of the narrative closely to the personalities of those characters. These are fundamental attributes of contemporary prose fiction.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) was born in London. He was an author, poet, philosopher, bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. Although he wrote many works, he is best remembered for his The Cantebury Tales.He is sometimes called the father of English Literatureand is regarded as the greatest Middle English writer. Chaucer is credited by some scholars as the first author to demonstrate the artistic legitimacy of the vernacular English language rather than French or Latin which were the popular languages then.
His name is derived from the French chausseur, meaning shoemaker. Chaucerhad a successful career as a writer with nearly five hundred written items testifying to his career though not much is known about his early life and education. The recorded part of his life was that of officialdom: he worked as a diplomatic agent, the Comptroller of the Customs, a superintendent of the king’s works and also a Member of Parliament for Kent in 1386. He is thought to have started work on The Canterbury Talesin the early 1380s.
Chaucer traveled to Picardy the next year as part of a military expedition, and visited Genoa and Florence in 1373. It is speculated that, on this Italian trip, he came in contact with Petrarch and Boccaccio. They introduced him to medieval Italian poetry that influenced his writings especially in the forms and stories. In 1378, Richard II sent Chaucer as an envoy/secret dispatch to the Visconti and to Sir John Hawkwood, English mercenary leader in Milan. It is believed that the character of the knight in the Canterbury Tales was based onthe person of Hawkwood, whose description matches that of a fourteenth-century condottiere. (Woods et al, 92)