Monday, May 28, 2012

Let Me Make This Perfectly Clear

What I'm saying about reading the Canterbury Tales, about recognizing the identity of the characters, is not contrary to what you already know or believe from standard interpretations. I have no argument with previous interpretations. Chaucer's poetry can be read from many points of view.
     What I am saying is that the work has an additional level of meaning. The Host is the innkeeper AND the Host is Christ. Chaucer's message is not one OR the other --it is both. That's what is so fascinating about allegory. The pictures in our mind's eye are not "one-dimensional," but can have two or even three layers of meaning.
     We need to adopt/develop the medieval mindset to accept these multiple realities. The planets, for example, were seen as objects in the sky and as the ancient gods simultaneously. A visible conjunction of Venus and Mars, then, was recognized as a clandestine tryst between the two deities. Another way to achieve ambiguity--more than one meaning--Chaucer tells us specifically, is by using words with "two faces." Let's look at a few zodiac portrayals to get a feel for this fourteenth-century double talk.

The Pilgrim Cook is Cancer, the crab. The Cook prepares dishes that incorporate sea food--and he is the seafood ingredient, as well. A star cluster in this constellation is called The Manger. Chaucer makes us aware of that feature by telling of the Cook's expertise at making a medieval favorite: Blankmanger (white manger). A typical recipe for the dish calls for perch or lobster, boiled with almonds, rice and sugar--a sort of fish pudding. That's what we understand in regards to the Pilgrim Cook. On another level, the blankmanger "made" by the Cook refers to the star cluster in the constellation. He makes The Manger because it is part of him! An alternate name for the cluster is The Beehive. Then it is no surprise when the main character in the story that the Cook tells is a bee! The tale is a little joke about a mischievous drone who ultimately is banished from the hive. (I've included a complete explanation of the tale following the text of Chaucer's Pilgrims: the Allegory.)

The Pilgrim Monk is Leo, the lion. Oddly for a monk--but not for a lion--he enjoys hunting. Chaucer uses an airborne image of the Monk's greyhounds saying they move as swiftly as "bird in flight." They pursue no large quarry but only their traditional objective--the hare. We also learn that the Monk's favorite meal is roast swan. Celestial counterparts exist for the dogs and their prey in Canis Major and Minor, Lepus and Cygnus.

Then there is the Pilgrim Shipman, Capricorn, the Seagoat. When we suspect the Shipman is tapping wine from the ship's cargo, the theft is expresses as "to draw draughts of wine." The phrase, however, can also mean to haul quantities (measures) of wine. Chaucer, who had been in charge of Customs in London, had seen many a goatskin filled with wine. Goat leather, not fragile and easily transportable, carried wine commercially from ancient times down to the eighteenth century. We see the Shipman, then as both thief and--in his goat persona--as the means of carrying the wine.

Are you catching on? Here is an example that amazed me with its clarity when I recognized how allegorical levels work. If the travelers each correspond to a celestial entity, what/who is the Host? Here are the clues Chaucer provides. The Host is the guide for the zodiac travelers, that is, he indicates the path these signs will follow. In astronomy, this is called the ecliptic: "the apparent path of the sun." And, in considering the Host as identified with Christ, He is often poetically referred to as the Sun (or Son) of Righteousness. So, the main and guiding character in the Canterbury Tales can be seen as an innkeeper, as Christ, and as the Sun. That's just a hint of Chaucer's genius.