While I'm thinking about important books, here's one that brought a clear focus to what I saw in Chaucer: Allegory: the Theory of a Symbolic Mode, by Angus Fletcher.
Let's set the scene for allegory with words from W. T. H. Jackson in The Literature of the Middle Ages, published in 1960. "This feeling for allegorization, for double and triple levels of meaning, is one of the features which distinguish the great works of imagination in the Middle Ages from the mediocre." Allegorical literature, with its cultivated obscurity, was "the most characteristic literary form during the later Middle Ages." These statements from Jackson gave me confidence in seeing Chaucer as a great allegorist.
However, in 1962, D. W. Robertson, Jr. published A Preface to Chaucer with opinions at odds with the acknowledged importance and dominance of allegory. The title surely demonstrates that its opinions should be absorbed before pursuing Chaucer. Robertson says, "allegory is almost universally regarded with suspicion, if not with contempt." One reason is that "its presence cannot be detected by Modern Philological methods."
[Decades before, it had even been claimed that Chaucer had freed himself from allegory. Scholar G. L. Kittredge went so far as to say, "Chaucer, they tell us, is very modern. So he is; this crisis proves it." The resolution of the "crisis" was having someone interrupt the Monk's long chain of sad stories to bring an end to it.]
In the face of such scathing dismissal, Angus Fletcher, in 1964, courageously wrote an entire book about allegory. He demonstrated the purpose served by the form. It's a fascinating must-read for anyone interested in medieval literature.
When the Middle Ages is condemned for its allegorical tastes, it is often because imaginative allegory is lumped with mechanical allegory. The imaginative creates fresh pictures for the mind, while the mechanical starts from an existing story and destroys it to get at something inside. One destructive moralizing example, offered by a Professor Emeritus of UCLA, will suffice. An erotic episode of "the lover plucking his rosebud," in the Romance of the Rose was moralized to signify "Joseph of Arimathea taking the body of Christ down from the cross." Such a distorted "inner meaning" is bound to prejudice the average reader (or critic) against allegory.
Fletcher asserts that "allegories are far less often the dull systems that they are reputed to be than they are symbolic power struggles involved with authoritarian conflict." Allegory can serve a purpose beyond entertainment.
Fletcher tells us, "in the simplest terms, allegory says one thing and means another." Or, "one thing is said in order to mean something beyond that one thing." It is "structured according to ritualistic necessity, as opposed to probability."
An important aspect of allegory is that once its structure is determined, it must be complete. A variation of "Romeo and Juliet" must have the lovers come to a sad end. Or, if "Cinderella" is the underlying structure, there has to be a Prince Charming. Once the presence of Chaucer's zodiac figures are established, the travelers are all assumed to be cosmic entities. [See blog entries Apr 2012; Jul 2013]
So how did Fletcher's book answer questions I had with what I saw in Chaucer? Here are a few examples:
There are two scenarios of allegory--a progress--that is, a questing journey; or a battle--two opinions or "good versus evil" portrayed as an actual battle or a debate. Obviously the Canterbury Tales is a progress where the destination is not reached. [Jul 2013]
The "cultivated obscurity" of allegory is shown in the blurring of time and space early in Chaucer's General Prologue. And though the pilgrims are presumed to be traveling in the countryside, not a word is said of road conditions or weather. [Mar 2012]
Considering "involvement with authoritarian conflict," when we identify the Host as Christ, the Host's wife is then the "bride of Christ"--the Church. Now examine the purpose of this violent, domineering wife about whom he laments. [Feb 2012]
Though you could content yourself with the surface story and ignore any hidden meaning the poet's images may nag you. "Why did he say that?" Certain words demand special attention. Fletcher uses the term "conspicuous irrelevance"--words that are outstanding because they seem out of place in some way. Five men are said to be in one suit. [Aug 2013] Only one pilgrim is said to wear spurs and it is a woman! [Mar 2012] Taking note of such "irrelevancies" may bring a parallel structure into focus because these are clues to their astrological identity.
Another allegorical maneuver is juxtaposing two things that would seem better off separated. Remember the excellent reputation of the Cook who is then immediately said to have an open, incurable running sore. [Aug 2013]
Sometimes Chaucer's grammar is questioned and "corrected" by editors as when the ever-pricking Thopas hunts a wild deer "for river." Editors suggest it should be "to the river"--which unwittingly bypasses the risqué intention of riving (penetrating) a sought-after "deer."
When all the characters are recognized, the varying relationships can be understood by "ritualistic necessity." For example, it explains the Host's lack of respect toward the Pardoner [Feb 2013] or the Nun's Priest. [Mar 2014] And we understand the deference shown the Prioress and the Knight. [Mar 2012]
The point of allegory, such as the Canterbury Tales, is that it does not need to be read with interpretation. [May 2012] But it is "a structure that becomes stronger when given a secondary meaning as well as a primary meaning." The greatness of Chaucer's allegory has yet to be appreciated by the world of academia.