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The Danger of Romance

Truth, Fantasy, and Arthurian Fictions

The curious paradox of romance is that, throughout its history, this genre has been dismissed as trivial and unintellectual, yet people have never ceased to flock to it with enthusiasm and even fervor. In contemporary contexts, we devour popular romance and fantasy novels like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones, reference them in conversations, and create online communities to expound, passionately and intelligently, upon their characters and worlds. But romance is “unrealistic,” critics say, doing readers a disservice by not accurately representing human experiences. It is considered by some to be a distraction from real literature, a distraction from real life, and little more.

Yet is it possible that romance is expressing a truth—and a truth unrecognized by realist genres? The Arthurian literature of the Middle Ages, Karen Sullivan argues, consistently ventriloquizes in its pages the criticisms that were being made of romance at the time, and implicitly defends itself against those criticisms. The Danger of Romance shows that the conviction that ordinary reality is the only reality is itself an assumption, and one that can blind those who hold it to the extraordinary phenomena that exist around them. It demonstrates that that which is rare, ephemeral, and inexplicable is no less real than that which is commonplace, long-lasting, and easily accounted for. If romance continues to appeal to audiences today, whether in its Arthurian prototype or in its more recent incarnations, it is because it confirms the perception—or even the hope—of a beauty and truth in the world that realist genres deny.

336 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory, Romance Languages

Medieval Studies


“A stimulating study of medieval French Arthurian romance. . . . Convincingly rebuts critical responses to romance as a dangerous form of self-delusion distracting readers from the truths of the world.” 

Times Higher Education

“Karen Sullivan vividly shows why the stories of King Arthur and Camelot have lost none of their old power. . . . One of the top books of 2018.” 

American Interest

“Thanks to her careful exploration of these sources, Sullivan is convincing in arguing that reality can exist in the realm of the imagination as well as in experience. . . . Highly recommended.”


“Sullivan shifts the terms of the debate in arguing that fiction is not about the suspension of disbelief but an exercise of belief. In her masterful and airtight defense of literature, the Middle Ages come off as the true Age of the Enlightenment compared to our own Age of the Internet.”

Zrinka Stahuljak, University of California, Los Angeles

"An in-depth survey of Arthurian romance’s relation to truth, fantasy, and historicity. Sullivan resists essentialist defenses of romance in favor of a nuanced approach to truth claims and escapism in the Arthurian canon. In shifting the focus away from historicity (while nevertheless keeping it in mind), she explores the mechanisms by which romance makes possible different forms of pleasure, narrative, and experience. . . . The Danger of Romance’s greatest strength is in interrogating how truth is framed in fantasy, and what we learn in the process of marveling, wondering, and witnessing fantasy, from Chrétien de Troyes to J. K. Rowling. . . . Its method is sure to provoke interest in romance as a genre and stimulate debate on the role of romance, from the imagined to the political, the literary to the literal."

Modern Philology

The Danger of Romance is written with beautiful clarity and the elegant erudition one associates with Sullivan’s work. I do not know of any other book that moves among so many medieval writers to detail theological and moral understandings of the nature of the marvelous and the miraculous, the relationship between truth and imagination, and the value of exemplarity. Sullivan’s book shows that such questions are part of medieval literary history and that they can articulate broad understandings of literary culture and of what literature does and can do. The range of this book is truly impressive.” 

Peggy McCracken, University of Michigan

“Zeroing in with philosophical precision on the bond between truth and trust, Sullivan offers a spirited defense of romance against ‘realists’ who spurn its vain fictions and ‘romantics’ who may love it too blindly. The Danger of Romance achieves its finest insights by following Merlin, Arthur, Lancelot, and the Grail to reveal how Arthurian romance contains its own critique even as it exuberantly represents the power of imagination.”

Matilda Bruckner, Boston College

"It is clear that this book is a stimulating defense of the novel and of romance, which, according to the author, teaches us to read, but also how to live and love."

Cahiers de civilisation médiévale (Translated from French)

Table of Contents

1          Romance and Its Reception
The Case against Romance
The Case for Romance
2          Merlin: Magic, Miracles, and Marvels
The Madman and the Seer
The Engineer and the Prophet
The Devil and the Enchanter
3          King Arthur: History and Fiction
The Sword in the Stone
The Court at Camelot
The Isle of Avalon
4          Lancelot of the Lake: The Morality of Adultery
The Lovers
The Realists
The Romantics
The Readers
5          The Quest of the Holy Grail: The Sacredness of the Secular
The Eucharist and the Grail
Penance, Pilgrimage, and the Quest
Significance and Semblance
6          Truth and the Imagination: From Romance to Children’s Fantasy
Castles in Spain
The Chronicles of Narnia
Harry Potter
Selected Bibliography

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