Saturday, August 6, 2011

Virginia gets the picture

Virginia Adair lost her sight late in life. She could, however, draw upon a wealth of memories and a lively imagination. We'll return to Thopas for a final look at his pricking activities and adventures in the saddle. But this time we'll feature Virginia's instant recognition of Chaucer's intent.
     A sudden problem confronts our hero. Enter the enemy, another participant in the double entendre. The enemy--Sir Olifaunt--is the only other named character in the plot. If you figure his name means Elephant, you're right. That's fitting because he is a giant--and heaves stones at Thopas. But, strange to tell, Sir Elephant means Thopas no bodily harm. "I'll slay thy steed," he says.
     If Thopas had no horse, there would be no saddle and no pricking. "Something" that aims to prevent pricking ought to be a physical affliction. Here is where Virginia got ahead of my explanation. When Sir Elephant threatened the horse she said, "Don't tell me he is Elephantiasis!" and burst out laughing. After we enjoyed the laugh, I did get to fill in Chaucer's details.
     The poet gives only two clues to identify the adversary; he knew they'd be enough. The name Elephant is one. The other comes from an exclamation the enemy uses: "By Termagant!" Crusaders brought back stories of Arabic culture; Termagant was said to be a god of the Arabs. Using the word, then, identifies Sir Elephant as an Arab. With these two ideas--Elephant and Arab--I set about scrutinizing Ackerknecht's book about the history of diseases. When I found the right "diagnosis" it was obvious. The heading read Elephantiasis Arabum. The malady, or tales of it, were well known in the Middle Ages in England and on the Continent.
     Another book (by Drs. George Gould and Walter Pyle) contained illustrations of "anomalies and curiosities" in medicine. It had a photograph of an Elephantiasis victim afflicted with large "stones." His grotesque scrotal enlargement had long ago prevented copulation.
     Virginia couldn't see the picture in my book, but she told me she had once seen a case of Elephantiasis. Her imagination did the rest.

No comments:

Post a Comment