Medieval romances and collections of ballads, especially those concerned with the legends of King Arthur, were the germinal sources of the modern novel. They were fiction of a picaresque and lively kind, though rambling stories. They were peopled by stock characters such as the wicked wizard and the damsel in distress. But they catered to the human longing for fiction and imaginative stimulation.
Development in the Elizabethan Age
The Elizabethan Age was the rise of the prose romance, of which Lyly’s “Euphues” and Sidney’s “Arcadia” are examples. Their prose styles, however, are too fantastic. Characters are rudimentary and there is little attempt at an integrated plot. There is too much of moralizing. But they represent a further step taken towards the beginning of the novel proper.
Picaresque Novel in the Seventeenth Century
A new type of embryo novel of Spanish origin, namely, the picaresque novel, made its appearance at the end of the sixteenth century. It remained popular till the days of Fielding and Smollett. The name derives from the Spanish word, “Picaro, which means a wandering rogue. Its hero is a rascal, who leads a wandering life full of rather scandalous adventures. The hero is the only link between the various incidents. There were many digressions and interpolated stories. Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” is the best-known of picaresque tales in Spanish. Le Sage’s “Gil Blas” is a French example of this mode of writing.
The picaresque novel in England began early with “The Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jack Wilton” (1594) by Thomas Nashe. Though crude, it is vigorous and witty. “The English Rogue” (1665) by Richard Head is another of the type—gross and scandal in the course of the hero’s adventures.