The term novel is derived from novella, Italian for a compact, realistic, often ribald prose tale popular in the Renaissance and best exemplified by the stories in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1348–53). The novel can, therefore, be considered a work of imagination that is grounded in reality. On the other hand, during the Middle Ages a popular literary form was the romance, a type of tale that describes the adventures, both natural and supernatural, of such figures of legend as the Trojan heroes, Alexander the Great, and King Arthur and his knights. Thus, the modern novel is rooted in two traditions, the mimetic and the fantastic, or the realistic and the romantic.
Indeed, the conflict between romantic dreams and harsh reality has been the theme of many great novels and the historical development of the novel continually reflects this dual tradition. Among the genre's precursors Petronius's Satyricon (1st cent. A.D.) presents a vivid portrait of life in Nero's Rome while satirizing the corruption there, whereas the Metamorphoses (2d cent. A.D.) of Lucius Apuleius describes the fantastic adventures of a young man who is transformed into an ass; Daphnis and Chloë (3d cent. A.D.), attributed to Longus, is a love story about a goatherd and a shepherdess, while the Thousand and One Nights (10th–11th cent.) is a collection of stories that often tell of magic or supernatural happenings; and Tale of Genji (11th cent.), by Lady Murasaki, depicts Japanese court life, whereas Amadis of Gaul (13th or 14th cent.) recounts the fabulous exploits of a knight who is a model of chivalry.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.