Thursday, February 28, 2013

The loathsome Pardoner clue

The Host's confrontation by the loathsome, contemptible Pilgrim Pardoner is a short but lively scene, ordinarily viewed with emphasis on humor.
     He is a minor churchman, and a fraud, who peddles absolution. His targets--the unsuspecting and the impoverished faithful. What we learn about him from the narrator repels us, but when the Pardoner speaks for himself, he becomes even more hateful. For example, he tells us he has a collection of "relics," which he declares are authentic. He promises they will cure diseases in animals and humans and relieve suspicions of jealous husbands. He tells false stories and ruins reputations with his venom while claiming to edify. Greed is his only motive; he cares nothing about counseling sinners. But, so powerful and persuasive are his words that even the poorest give him money, wool and cheese, though their children are starving.
     As he finishes promoting his cause to his companions, he offers to absolve each of them of his or her sins. Then he says, "I advise that Our  Host here shall begin / For he is most enveloped in sin." The Host is invited to come forward and kiss each of the Pardoner's relics! At this, the Host lashes out at the Pardoner's boastfully confessed hypocrisy.

As we go to our task of finding the image of Christ within this action, the Host's anger is fitting. Recall Christ lashing out at the money changers in the temple.
     One word, however, is the key to the scene--enveloped. Chaucer's Pardoner uses the word to describe the Host as most enveloped in sin. The Pardoner is not addressing a sinful man, that is, a sin-filled man. Sin surrounds, enfolds the Host. This image has long been a tradition with Christ. In the Harrowing of Hell, mentioned in our previous entry, Christ says to Satan, "Sin found thou never / In me as in other men."
     And as Chaucer's humble Parson tells us, "Jesus Christ took upon Himself the pain of all our wickednesses," but "in Him is no imperfection." Sin is closely associated with Christ, but it is external to His being. The poet, in providing additional evidence of Christ, indicates the same of Our Host.
     The tradition continues today. Christ is often described as taking all our sins upon Himself. Sinfulness is external to Christ; it envelops Him. That statement is a parallel to Chaucer's portrait of Our Host. Here again, we find a comic surface that needs to be penetrated in order to discover the portrait of Christ within. It takes only careful reading with an open mind to see the image Chaucer has concealed.
     Next time, we will look at our penultimate clue, a matter of genuine substance.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Host's "offensive" language

In the links between the Tales, Chaucer continues to give us clues to prompt us to see Christ concealed within the Host. A prominent objection to his identity as Christ is his offensive language--but wait. The innkeeper speaking profanely of things sacred is not our object; we are pursuing a hidden message, not surface comedy.
     First, let's establish what the Middle Ages understood to be offensive, that is, sinful language. To use God's name or refer to elements of Christ's passion and death as part of everyday conversation, was trivializing the sacred. For example: Christ's Holy Name, Christ's cross, By God's curse. Such phrases were believed to offend God. They were sinful and to be avoided. Today's values, to a great extent, appear to have changed.
Now to the Tales. Chaucer, in the General Prologue just before we meet the Host, says that "Christ himself spoke very broadly (freely) in holy writ / And you well know it is no villainy." This guides our view of the Host's words as simple and direct, assuming his expressions to be neither comedy, nor blasphemy.
     His supposedly objectionable language is scattered among the Tales. His ventings, rather than "offensive to God," are direct references to Christ's passion and death. These are personal recollections:

God's worshipful passion
By the cross
By blood and bones

But the most meaningful of the Host's outbursts is "Harrow, by nails and by blood."
     Chaucer and his contemporaries knew that Christ had been born to die. A medieval recounting of Christ's death says, "the godhead went into hell, / And harrowed it." This tells us that Christ's first action, after he died, was to harrow hell.
     Harrowing is the release of souls of the worthy, who had been waiting through time for their Savior. His coming freed them to enter paradise. This consummation of God's plan was described in a poem of the Middle Ages called The Harrowing of Hell.
     It is also commemorated in the ancient tradition of the Apostles' Creed: Christ "Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died and was buried: He descended into hell: The third day he rose again from the dead."
     Then the Host's precise recollection--"Harrow, by nails and by blood"--recalls His harrowing of hell, as a consequence of being crucified.

To state the obvious, for those who would insist on the Host's words as blasphemy, we need only realize that God Himself could not use God's name in vain, nor could He blaspheme.
     Next time, we will consider the Host's confrontation by the loathsome, contemptible Pilgrim Pardoner.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Canterbury adventure begins

The Host's position has been assured; agreements have been reached. We need to recognize, however, that individuals of high and low estate sharing accommodations and being willing to take orders from an innkeeper would never happen in the 1300s.
      So, why present something that is an impossibility? One reason is a characteristic of old poetry called "signaling." This can occur when what we're told is preposterous or is a non-sequitur. It's a way for the poet to alert us: take notice!
     In this instance of "signaling," the situation is preposterous. Then why is the poet claiming it took place? What does he want us to understand? The Host is portrayed as domineering. This trait, for the obvious storyline, contributes humor.
     Allegory can have an entertaining comic surface which becomes difficult to set aside in order to see an inner, in this case, a spiritual meaning. Because the Host is generally accepted as a bully and a buffoon, it takes determination to see him as Christ at another level. His dominance in the  underlying message fittingly illustrates Christ's omnipotence.
     The poet's reason for creating this special challenge will be clear when we put the final touch on the portrait of this Host.

The night has passed, as we pick up the story. The pilgrims prepare to depart. But their departure is without details--no breakfast, no transport of possessions, no saddling of horses, no sounds or movements, no mention of weather, nor attitudes of the pilgrims. Particulars would have been simple enough to include, but are purposefully omitted.
     Chaucer, in his minimal style, tells us only: In the morning, when the day began to spring / Up rose our Host, and was our cock. The Host stands in for a rooster which did the job before alarm clocks were invented.
     Then the Host gathers the pilgrims "all in a flock." Did those words bring the image to your mind's eye of a shepherd with his "flock"? Non-verbalized images both inform and entertain. Taking note of what comes to our mind's eye gains a fuller experience of the poetry. We'll see this strategy again.
     The group is on the road now, moving slowly. The slow pace is the one fact confided. We get to know the personalities of the pilgrims by their tales. The Host interacts with the pilgrims to link the tales one with the other. These brief interludes fascinate me. Chaucer's skill and ingenuity with multifaceted images goes far beyond the standard opinion regarding his creativity.
     As the group travels, the links continue to give us clues to see the figure of Christ in this Host. We'll delve into these mini-dramas Chaucer creates.
     First we'll take a wide-eyed look at the Host's offensive language. That's our topic for next week.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Host wears many hats

Chaucer's Host tells his guests that they will "stand at his judgment" and he will "tell them what to do." Does his plan please the pilgrims? Apparently it does. When he directs them--without more talk--to raise their hands as a sign of acceptance, they respond immediately and ask him to do even more. He tells them he will be their guide, and they ask him, in addition, to be their governor and reporter.
     So, how do we accomplish the task we've set for ourselves in this blog? How do we recognize Christ in these roles? Perhaps we don't , but in the 14th century each specified role was based on a traditional image of Christ.
     For example, Chaucer himself, in his translation of Boethius says, "God governs all things in the world . . . ; and all things will obey [are obliged to ] Him." And Cursor Mundi, which we've drawn from before, refers to Christ as "our Lord and God / And evermore our governor." John Lydgate, addressing the Eucharistic Christ, beseeches Him to "govern and guide us."
     Chaucer, in several works, shares this point of view as he calls upon God as guide of mankind, and indicates that it is God who leads men. Here, in the General Prologue, the Host freely offers himself as guide for the pilgrimage.
     And what about being a reporter? Christ, in the Chester Play of the Last Judgment, is addressed as "informer of all things," and the Grail Legend portrays a sinner asking Christ to have pity and mercy "my sins to report."
     Who receives the report? That's clarified in Cynewolf's Last Judgment. Men will come before "God's Son" and "the Father . . . will learn / how . . . [men] have guarded their souls" while on earth. And, in Wyclif's Gospel of John, Jesus asks if men expect him to accuse them before God the Father. Today, we are probably more comfortable when the Bible calls Christ our "advocate" with the Father.
     The Host will hand down verdicts, his guests swear oaths to abide by his directives. We are aware that the Host's proposal and pilgrims' agreement are overlaid with terms too serious, decisions to automatic. This could be interpreted as comedy on the surface. But, in an underlying interpretation, the scene portrays the  resignation of profound inevitability--man's inescapable submission to God's plan. The weightiness of oaths and verdicts informs us that these are more that mere friendly interactions.
     The activity described is universal; it is daily life--man bound to accept each day, though he knows not what lies ahead. The circumstance dramatizes God's prerogative. As Chaucer's Parson counsels: "Always a man shall put his will subject to the will of God."
     With the Host's position assured and agreements reached, it is time for sleep. We will pick up the story next week as the pilgrims prepare to depart on their journey.