I have indicated at the end of the previous chapter how the episodic pattern of narrative structure breaks down in sixteenth-century prose writing as a consequence of the pressures from the themes and the requirements of length. The medieval epic romance, as a form that grew out of the oral medium, had managed to extend episodic structure by elaborating and concatenating one ‘scene’ after the other, and its overall comprehensibility was guaranteed by readers’ reliance on a holistic story schema accessible on the basis of their familiarity with the story material (French romance). Significantly, episodic structure disappeared first in texts which departed from these traditional forms—as witness Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde which relies on Boccaccio rather than myth or national history (the staple of epic poetry)—and in narratives of reduced experientiality episodic structure soon became levelled (as in the verse legends). In new recensions of great length episodic structure became particularly difficult to handle, as in the work of Malory who had to condense a new storyline from a vast literature of Arthurian legends whose sources had quite different plot arrangements (and were written in the verse medium). One can immediately see how Malory’s attempt to fall back on the episodic pattern available from the oral tradition results in diffuseness and in a lack of overall narrative movement.
On the thematic level, too, episodic narrative proved to be an embarrassment for Renaissance writers. No longer is narrative experience tied to the protagonist’s confrontation with the unexpected, miraculous or absurd; on the contrary, fictional characters increasingly become autonomous agents whose wit, sophistication and resourcefulness propel the action forward: it is their intervention into the lives of others, into the circumstances in which they find themselves, which ‘makes’ the story, not their encounter of unexpected strokes of fate to which they react. Whereas the medieval mind saw man as acted upon by divine intervention, Renaissance man takes the burden of agency on himself, creates his own circumstances and field of action and masters the world around him. The unexpected occurrence therefore moves from the centre of narrative experience to its periphery, providing an excuse for the protagonist