Romance: A term that has been used at different times to refer to a variety of fictional works involving some combination of the following: high adventure, thwarted love, mysterious circumstances, arduous quests, and improbable triumphs. Although some scholars during and since the Renaissance have maintained that romances were first written in ancient Greece (Homer’s The Odyssey [c. 850 B.C.] has been called a prototypical romance), most literary historians maintain that the romance originated in twelfth-century France. The term romance derives from the French word roman and was first used exclusively to refer to medieval romances (sometimes called chivalric romances) that were written in French and composed in verse. These narratives were concerned with knightly adventure, courtly love, and chivalric ideals. By the seventeenth century, the term was used to refer to any medieval romance, whether in verse or prose and regardless of country of origin.

Unlike the epic, a narrative form that exalts the struggles associated with a heroic era of tribal warfare, the romance pertains to a courtly era associated with chivalry. Romances represent the supernatural as characteristic of this world rather than of the gods or their will. They also tend to have what we would describe as a psychological interest or component; the landscapes of romance are often outward manifestations of the hero’s or heroine’s inner state. Thus, a despairing character is likely to stumble into a cave, and temptation is likely to be encountered in a deep forest rather than on a broad, sunny plain. The quest romance was adapted and internalized by Romantic and Victorian Period poets, who in works like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Alastor” (1816), John Keats’s “La belle dame sans merci” (1820), and Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855) turned the search for the Grail (or Girl) common in medieval and Renaissance romances into an often frustrated psychological quest for some ideal, forbidden, lost, or otherwise unreachable state or condition.

The meaning of romance changed considerably over time, especially in the twentieth century. While the term may refer to any fictional work that features intense love, the supernatural, the unusual, and a quest or “impossible dream,” some critics have applied it to any work whose author rejects realistic verisimilitude in favor of fanciful or fantastic descriptions. The term is most commonly used today, however, to refer to a fictional account of passionate love prevailing against social, economic, or psychological odds (or even to any story whose plot revolves around love). Common hybrid genres involving the romance include historical romances, love stories with a historical setting; Gothic romances, in which romance conventions are overlaid with the supernaturally charged features of Gothic literature; and romantic comedies (or romcoms), which layer romance with humor.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Le roman de la rose (The Romance of the Rose), initially composed by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230 and expanded by Jean de Meung around 1270, and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) are romances in the original sense of the term. Romances in later senses of the term include Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), William Morris’s poem “Rapunzel” (1858), Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936), Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970), any Harlequin paperback, and Danielle Steel’s novels. Noted romantic comedies, long a popular cinematic form, include It Happened One Night (1934); Annie Hall (1977); Clueless (1993), an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma (1815); My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), Hitch (2005), and Silver Linings Playbook (2012).