Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Harrow, by nails and by blood!"

My dear friend Rose was only one of many who readily see the image of Christ in Chaucer's Host. John, my publisher, recognized what Chaucer was doing and so did Eric, book designer extraordinaire.
     Preparation of my first book (Chaucer's Host) for publication was lengthy and complicated, but exciting. Galleys to proof. Deadlines to meet. I loved the cover design. When I received a copy of the material for the back cover, the synopsis of the book meant to be a hook to catch a reader, I called John immediately, but it was Eric who answered the phone.
     "Eric, who chose the quote to head the back cover?"
     "I did. Why? Is something wrong?"
     "No. Nothing's wrong. It's perfect!"
     When Eric read the book to get a feel for the image he wanted to create, he singled out that phrase: "Harrow, by nails and by blood!" It is the most powerful "clue" the Host speaks--that is, as words spoken by Christ. "By nails and by blood" is easy to grasp as a reference to crucifixion, but what is "harrow"?
     Typical guidance from footnotes in the Tales will explain the word to be "a common ejaculation of obscure origin." That's one way to look at it. But what is in tune with the presence of Christ is the religious drama popular in Chaucer's day: The Harrowing of Hell. It is the portrayal of the crucified Christ, during the three days before his resurrection, descending to the gates of hell to burst them and release the righteous souls who had been waiting to be delivered by Him. The phrase--Chaucer's line--then, is a recollection of the harrowing of hell, as a consequence of being crucified. Harrow is not "obscure" at all; it is the object of Christ's sacrifice. He came to die and harrow hell.
     Eric saw the words he chose as the core of the book's message.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reasonable, even self-evident

I don't understand the trouble you've had in getting your ideas about Chaucer accepted. Your thoughts seem reasonable and even self-evident. That's what my friend Rose said when my first book was published.
     And what did she see as "self-evident"? My demonstrating the concealed identity of the Canterbury Host. Many others have also recognized it as self-evident.
     As I read the description of the Host at the end of the General Prologue, what took shape in my mind's eye was the figure of Christ. His image became clearer with one detail after another.
     The name "Host" opens the mind to the possibilities. His first action--after a warm welcome to the pilgrims--is to serve them best food and strong wine. Such words were, and still are, often used poetically to describe the Eucharistic Host. He offers to guide the pilgrims at his own cost. The group must accept his terms without discussion. He promises a banquet at the end of their journey. His repetition of "the way" in speaking of the journey echoes the biblical declaration of Christ as "the way," (truth and life). And, as the travelers prepare to depart in the morning, he gathers them in a flock. Did you see a momentary shepherd image--the Good Shepherd? Each detail plays a part in creating the portrait.
      The Pilgrim Cook mentions the Host's actual name--Herry Bailly--but it is never used. If the pilgrims had addressed him as Herry, the image of Christ within the figure would not exist. Instead, the ongoing use of "Host" reinforces the Eucharistic potential.
      Critics have a habit of referring to the Host as "Herry." It's more comfortable, I'm sure, but it distorts Chaucer's intention; the guide of the pilgrim journey becomes just a guy named Herry. No wonder the "self-evident" identity of Christ has been overlooked.
      If a religious underpinning to Chaucer's masterpiece surprises, it shouldn't. The poet's chosen frame for the collection is "pilgrimage."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Canterbury postscript

A friend prompted me to find the significance of the design of that gift from Virginia'a daughter. Doing general searches about CANTERBURY were too broad. Then I tried the Latin words: Ave Mater Anglia. That did it. It is the coat of arms of the City of Canterbury. Here is the description given of the images on the shield.
The full Coat of Arms of Canterbury carries a Golden Crown [of King Canute*] above the Shield. The "Golden Lion of England" is at the top of the Coat of Arms on a scarlet background. The three black birds are Cornish Choughs, who have red legs and red beaks. At the end of the 1800's, the City Council adopted the words "Ave, Mater Anglia"--"Hail, Mother of England"--and this is now on a scroll at the bottom of the official Coat of Arms.

*King Canute was an ancient Christian Danish ruler of Kent.

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.