Friday, March 30, 2012

Groundwork for the payoff

Here's the groundwork I promised so you may see what I see. It's sort of an introduction to the game that tells about Chaucer's clues, the bits of information he has hidden in his individual descriptions. These clues inform us about the identity of the characters that travel disguised as pilgrims.
     The first thing Chaucer does is emphasize that the whole group arrives at sunset to stay for the night. Ask yourself what "group" arrives when the sun sets. Chaucer saw them--and so have you.
     Here are Chaucer's hints that tell us about the pilgrim most often--and most easily--recognized. It's the Miller. Refined, he is not.

The Miller is called a stout churl, big of brawn and bones.
He's short-shouldered, with a broad, thick, gnarled body.
His nostrils are wide and  black and
he could heave a door off its hinges by running into it with his head.

What picture does that put in your mind's eye? If it surprises you, that's OK. Let it.. If you're on the right track, you might even know the name of this traveler you can see at night.
     Let's assume you recognized "him." (If not yet, maybe a second pass will catch the trick.) Now, what is your guess as to who the two brothers are that journey together? And there are two other pilgrims who stay the night and are treated very cordially. One is a man dedicated to war. The other is a woman whose motto is "Love conquers all." Are you beginning to understand what "group" the poet has concealed in his pilgrims?
     The "puzzle" pieces are not all that obvious, but what you've seen is a good start. Chaucer's plan is a thrill to me every time I think about it. Next time I'll identify the pilgrims mentioned here and talk about a few more.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sharing the jackpot

So, I'm holding the Canterbury jackpot. I know the hidden identity of the Pilgrims! Exciting? Can you imagine? I felt like I'd burst! I had to tell somebody. Fortunate, my husband was in the next room. He was a mathematician, a computer nerd who'd never read Chaucer. But he catered to my obvious excitement when I told him I had something I needed to share.
     With patience on his part and eagerness on mine, I made my first attempt to have someone else "see" what I see. After considerable explanation, when he finally reached the aha! moment, he responded to Chaucer's cunning with spontaneous joy for me. How wonderful!
     It was clear, from that first attempt, that I had to develop a much more concise explanation. I wanted to show the whole world Chaucer's amazing design. The literary world would be astonished, stimulated--as soon as I was able to have the design make sense to them.
      My explanation would have to be refined before I could publish it. I started by constructing a "game." I'd give Chaucer's clues--what he'd hidden in the descriptions of the pilgrims--to see if others recognized what was being disguised.
     I tried the game with my relatives at a family gathering. That version (plan A) was only adequate. After working it over, I presented plan B to a small group of friends from church. That went well. But the supreme test came when my friend Judy suggested I try it on her high school English class.
     What an afternoon that was! I don't know if it was more exhilarating for the students or me. That exhilaration, however, was not immediate. When I finished laying out the game plan, the room was utterly silent. After waiting a couple of moments, Judy prompted them--"Don't be shy. What do you think is the answer?" That's all the encouragement it took. The room erupted. A bit of insight, of recognition came first from one student, then another and another. They could "see" Chaucer's ingenious format.
     Next time, before I hand you the answer, I'll lay some groundwork. That way you might have the thrill of visualizing the pattern of Chaucer's scheme before I reveal it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Pilgrims in disguise

You could content yourself with the surface story of the Canterbury Tales and let the idea of a hidden meaning just slide. Chaucer's surface story has been enjoyed for centuries--and will continue to be, but I couldn't do that. The poetry nagged me: "Why did he say that?" For example, only one of the pilgrims is said to wear spurs. No, not the Knight. It's one of the women. Why would Chaucer say that? I figured he must have had a reason.

While we're on the subject of pilgrims, in one of his earlier poems (Troilus and Criseyde), Chaucer says the hero "Like a pilgrim he disguised himself" so that he could make his way undetected into enemy territory to visit his ladylove. I didn't know about that disguise until after the episode I'm about to describe, but it shows that our poet already had that trick in mind.

The whole scheme of the Canterbury pilgrims distracted me. Chaucer's reputation was too well known, his skills too well recognized by his contemporaries for me to think that the group was a haphazard collection. So what was it that made this precise combination necessary? Why was there one pair of brothers, not from a religious order, but two men related by birth? Why not three brothers or no brothers? Why was there a wife--but no husband and wife? Why no children? Why so few women?
     When I raised the question of the make-up of this assortment of travelers, I was told, "That's just the way it was in the Middle Ages." End of discussion. But that never satisfied me. And it didn't stop the tape loop that had begun playing in my head. No matter what I was doing, in some little compartment of my brain, a never-ending succession of the images of the pilgrims was always on screen. I knew there had to be an answer to the selection of exactly this group. My need for the answer was obsessive, unrelenting. That ever-present pilgrim tape streamed past my mind's eye for more than a week--and then it happened.
     Picture this. What's going on in your mind is projected on a TV screen, and at the bottom of the screen there is a narrow tape running--rather like news headlines are displayed. That tape at the bottom ran on and on with the pictures of the pilgrims. And then--without any warning--my memory dredged up a second tape of images that began running just above the pilgrim tape, and in a few moments they meshed. They matched. The pilgrims were identified. The tapes stopped running, and I sat there overwhelmed, contemplating the matched identities. It was like checking your lottery ticket against the winning numbers printed in the newspaper-- and realizing you've won the jackpot. Eureka! I suddenly knew that Chaucer presents one group of characters described in terms of another group. The pilgrims are all disguised!

Monday, March 5, 2012

What time is it?

The basis of the Canterbury Tales, as you may know, is the journey of a fascinating group of pilgrims who travel from London to Canterbury. The travelers are given a night's bed and board in "the Tabard" before they set out. Chaucer puts himself into the story as one of the pilgrims. He is alone in the Tabard and anticipating his journey to Canterbury when, as if by coincidence, a large group arrives.

At night was come into that hostelry
Well nine-and-twenty in a company,
Of sundry folk, by chance come together
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all,
That toward Canterbury would ride.   (A 23-27)

In lines of the General Prologue, Chaucer gives an account of the arrival. He tells us it was late when the nine-and-twenty companions appeared. He takes immediate interest in these folks. By sunset, he has spoken with every one of them. He says this with one information-packed sentence:

Shortly, when the sun had gone to rest
I had spoken with everyone of them
So that I was of their fellowship immediately    (A 30-32)

This is followed directly by a plan for the morning.

And we agreed early to rise
To make our way, as I will describe to you.    (A 33-34)

What seems a heading-for-sleep is not. Instead, Chaucer tells us that he will take this opportunity--as if time stands still--to describe each member of the company, and proceeds to set forth an entertaining cast of characters the like of which had never been seen (or heard) in English literature before. With many intimate details, we will come to know these pilgrims. More about that later.

But before thinking of the pilgrims, I am confused and flip the page back and then forward again to make sure that line A 23 says they arrived at night, and seven lines later it says that when the sun had gone to rest (that is, by the time the sun had set), Chaucer had spoken to each of the travelers. If we agree that "night" means night, the indications of time are backwards. On the other hand, if we explain that "night," in this case, really means evening, we have the amazing accomplishment of the poet speaking to, and becoming acquainted with, each of the twenty-nine individuals within minutes. The time elapsed would be the brief period between evening and the moment when the sun disappears below the horizon.
     My feeling is that "night" means night, and the references to time are actually given in reverse order--night and then sunset. We will find that Time, in this adventure, will never be what we expect. Chaucer will soon see to it that the whole idea of time will be a blur.

The efficiency with which the poet gets to the heart of his subject, the economy of words used to reach their time of departure, is remarkable--but misleading.
     Chaucer makes the acquaintance of each traveler and all agree to rise early next morning. We would expect that the venture would begin immediately following "we agreed early to rise to make our way, as I will describe to you." But our expectation of the progress of linear time is side-stepped once again. In spite of this quickly-to-bed-and-early-to-rise impression, what was originally said in two lines (A 31-32) will now be expanded to six hundred seventy-one lines. Chaucer, while he has "time and space" (A 35), is ready to tell us all about his new-found friends.
     The narrator's extended monologue is some of the most entertaining reading in the English language. But while we are being entertained, a problem is developing: We have been cut adrift. Is this the same night? Or is Chaucer speaking from a time in the future looking back? Is he talking to us from the Tabard, or telling us recollections of bygone days? It's no longer clear. We are losing touch with when or where we are.
     And, his ultimate time trick, when the 600 some lines telling what he knows of the travelers is finished, the Host enters to serve their meal. We are once more at the arrival scene. The owner of the Tabard has just made his initial appearance!
     The poet makes time expand, contract, invert, or even stand still. He surrounds us with the conviviality of the Tabard, or immerses us in the adventures of the road. Within a few lines, we are no longer functioning in any specific time or space. And we accept the fantasy--the uncertainty--without objection.