Back in the High Middle Ages, a literary form developed (well, many literary forms developed, but I'm interested in one): the chivalric romance. Most English-speakers get little contact with the form, unless they're specialists (the main example in English is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; most of the examples of the form are in French and the final extreme derivatives of it are in Italian -- Boiardo and Ariosto). We do get exposure to them indirectly through Malory -- much of the Morte d'Arthur is translations (somewhat simplified) of French verse romances regarding Arthur. Mediaevalists meet the form in Chaucer (The Knight's Tale being a reasonable example, coming by way of an adaptation from the Italian, and Troilus and Criseyde has some of the marks of one although it has a different formal structure).
The typical form of the verse romance involves knights on quests: I use the plural advisedly, because the general form relies heavily on interlaced adventures, although some examples (like the Gawain poem) do not. In the period, they had a clear social function: to reflect an ideal of chivalric behaviour back towards the nobles who were their audience (many if not most of these poems were the products of aristocratic households). In this they are similar to many of the lyric forms of the same period, which played the game of amour courtois and were frequently not only for but by aristocratic figures. In both cases, the ideals and forms reflected and reinforced a life of leisure (qualified by the fact that the "leisure" involved strenuous military training) and a deliberate separation of social rules from those of other layers of society. (For a discussion of how this reflection worked in actual life, I can direct the reader to Lee Paterson's Chaucer and the Subject of History, which not only analyses examples in Chaucer's work but discusses their reception and the social context.)
(There's a secondary audience which developed later on: a middle-class one which read the stories as pure escapism, the one made fun of in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. But they were not the payors for the original production of the works, and with the decline of the old feudal aristocracy the form basically vanished.)
The chivalric code these works reflected back at the reader (more likely, the auditor, as these would have been read aloud) exalted both prowess and a relatively narrow form of "honour". It did not align in all things with the general mediaeval Catholic Christian ethic (which is why the Grail Quest story in its final form, which has the form of a romance but a content provided by monastic writers, is so aggressively against many of the chivalric patterns, and why Lancelot, the epitome of the chivalric, fails as compared to Bors, Percival, and Galahad). Its audience, however, was happy to take it as normative, and the works can be considered a form of reinforcement of that ideal.
That is not, however, the end of the story.
Consider Raymond Chandler: "But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.... The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure."
The hard-boiled detective novel of the 1930s and 1940s picks up on the overall shape of the chivalric quest, with a twist. The case parallels the knight's quest, and the P.I., like the knight, moves on the edges of society; it is not a coincidence that, just as the knight has to deal with regular challenges from hostile (or even just ambitious) knights which involve significant mayhem, the hard-boiled detetcive is typically beaten up in the course of a case.
Like the knight, the P.I. (as Chandler notes, not a realistic one: "The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.") hews to a code requiring prowess, toughness, a certain amount of care with regards to women (for all of the difference between the ladies amour courtois and the dames of the hard-boiled stories), and a central integrity.
One key element changes in this transposition, though: where the audience of the verse romance wanted to see the knight as someone whom they should emulate, whose code they shared, the audience of the hard-boiled detective story instead relates to them as society does to Jane Jacobs' Guardians: these patrol the outside of our society, not being like us (tougher, stronger, more determined), but (along with the police, with whom they interact) making it possible for society to continue on its way.
If the works have a social function beyond entertainment, then it is not reinforcement (as with the chivalric romance) but rather reassurance: that at least notionally there are guardians out there protecting the circle of society. (Per George Johnston: "Around the battlements go by/Soldier men against the sky,/Violent lovers, husbands, sons,/Guarding my peaceful life with guns.")
There is a further twist to this story.
As it currently stands, the subgenre of urban fantasy has a significant presence of (if not "is dominated by") stories which in their form and protagonists have a direct and unmistakeable descent from the hard-boiled detective story. Sometimes the principal characters are literally PIs (October Daye); sometimes they fill that role within a narrative structure very like that of the PI novel (Harry Dresden, Anita Blake, Matthew Swift, Kate Daniels).
However, these figures do not notionally guard us against dangers which we might take as really out there, the inhabitants of a "realistic" underworld. They guard against dangers which are, by definition, unreal, not just in the sense that they don't exist but in the sense that they cannot. The dangers against which the heroes guard have been displaced into the imaginary, much as the secondary middle class audience for Amadis de Gaula and Sir Isumbras took them as straight tales of marvels rather than as mirrors of behaviour to follow.
|comments: Leave a comment|