Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thanks for the memories

The big Chaucer weekend is a lovely memory now. Hope some of you were able to attend the festivities.
     Triple digit temps left just in time. We had a few cool days for baking the poundcakes for the Chaucer celebration at the Claremont Library. The oven needs to be on for several hours to make enough poundcakes, so you don't want to start out on a day that's expected to get to the 90s.
     The cakes are sliced, plastic wrapped and handed out to Chaucer fans all afternoon. Many folks come back each year especially looking for the poundcake. It's become a tradition!
     Some folks ask "Why Chaucer and poundcake?" as if there is a mystical or historic connection. My answer may disillusion them, but it's simple: they are easy to make and easy to serve.

A few days before the celebration, I was pleasantly surprised by an invitation to do a radio interview about--what else?--Chaucer. Matthew Arnold is the interviewer. At the end of the program, he even put in a plug for the Saturday events.
     The show is now in the archives of the station. Just click on the link below and then October 21--

The music at the Mass was splendid. It got nothing but rave notices and complimentary remarks afterward. The Latin and medieval instruments transported us to the 14th century. Along with the perfect weather of the day, it's all treasured memories now.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chaucer comes first!

After dealing, last time, with the peacock disguised as a  Canterbury Pilgrim, I thought I'd tell you about another bird who parades incognito. But an email from a friend made me put that off. Our big event of the year is almost here. I'd better tell you about that so you can make your plans to participate.
     Every year--since 2000, the 600th anniversary--the Chaucer lovers here in Claremont, CA celebrate out favorite poet. We'll start this year at the front door of the city library at 2nd and Harvard. I'll be there from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. with slices of homemade poundcake and prizes and books and such.
     The second part of the event is quite splendid and has been in rehearsal for several weeks. You'll know how special it is if I just copy the announcement my friend forwarded. It's from a local Recorder Society Newsletter:

Saturday, October 25, 5:30 pm
Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Claremont presents: Annual Mass for Chaucer
Musica Ficta will provide music of Chaucer's time before, during and after the Mass. We will be playing Josquin's "Ave Maria -- virgo serena" as a prelude at 5:25. Music for the Mass includes a "Gloria" from the Old Hall Manuscript (1415 -- 1421), the ever popular "Deo Gracias, Anglia," Abelard's "O Quanta Qualia," selections from the Spanish Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, and "Angelus ad Virginem" (which is mentioned in the "Canterbury Tales.") Instruments include Praetorius style recorders, two sizes of psalteries, krumhorn, and percussion. We accompany the singing for the Mass, as well as playing instrumental pieces before, during and after.
Free Will Offering
Our Lady of the Assumption Church   435 N. Berkeley Ave, Claremont, CA
Phone: 909-626-3596

If you need it,  the zip is 91711. Come if you can. You'll enjoy it.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Unexpected ideas--including a bird!

The afternoon at Rowland Heights Library was unforgettable. It goes to prove that we need to ask questions about what Chaucer is doing. His works are not stiff, not dead, not completely understood. Questions add life, interest and new paths to investigate. Three gray-haired Chaucer lovers--Helen and Linda and Tom--demonstrated just how exciting it can get.

I generally start my presentation by promoting Middle English. As an ice-breaker, I  pass out little pink papers with a medieval version of the story of the three pigs. When I asked for a volunteer to read it, Linda said she'd try. You have to have a little courage, a little self-confidence to read Middle English in public, but it's not impossible--Three litel pigges eche hadde a hous--oon was straw, a-nothir was woode, the thridde brikkes.--See what I mean?
     After Linda's fine delivery, we moved on to the "game" I created that shows how Chaucer presents dual descriptions: the Canterbury travelers are really an organized group but each is disguised as a pilgrim. Really? Yes, really.
     Helen came to hear what I had to say about Chaucer because she had enjoyed reading his tales in high school many years ago. It astonished her when she correctly identified the hidden, the concealed, figure of one of the pilgrims. When the game had run its course she said, "I came today because I like Chaucer, but I was not prepared for this whole new world you've opened up!"
     That pleased me, as you can imagine. To make readers aware of the unacknowledged genius of Chaucer is my aim. His creativity goes far beyond that of a mere storyteller.
     Linda added that her class in Chaucer's Tales talked about the possibility of the Pilgrims being identified as Christ's Apostles. There are many ways to see the plan of the Tales. With biblical figures in mind, a brief perusal of a Chaucer concordance finds mention of Adam and Eve in Paradise, Noah and the flood, Joseph, Mary, Herod, Caesar, Magdalene, Satan, hell, heaven and ever-present Judgment. Of course, a "brief perusal" is only a place to start. With enough thought and research, a Bible message might be revealed in the Tales. That's especially true because the best storytellers in Chaucer's day were expected to provide a hidden meaning--a challenge to be discovered.
     When our conversation turned to a religious topic, Tom spoke up. He said, "I've always wondered about the Knight, his son and their servant. That has all the makings of a Trinity." I added that I had had a similar thought.  [It's covered in detail in my Chaucer's Pilgrims, pp. 263-277.] Here's the gist of it.
     The servant--Yeoman--has one of the briefest introductions, a mere seventeen lines. The image is exceptionally colorful, and peacock feathers are an unexpected feature. His head is close-cropped, and his face is brown. He has a coat and hood of green and a green shoulder strap for his horn. He is  equipped with a sword and an elegant dagger as sharp as the point of a spear.
     Put the details together and see the neat, brilliant green head of a peacock with eyes and a beak of brown. The horn provides its raucous voice. Bird's talons were described by Pliny, centuries before Chaucer, as "weapons [that] grow upon their legs."
     Now, how to begin to explain why the Yeoman must be a peacock? We have before us a group of three figures: the father, the son and the peacock. It recalls for me an exasperated reply I once heard given by a theologian. In response to a question about the role of the Holy Spirit, he sputtered, "That damned bird!" The third person of the Trinity is not a bird. That's just a mental picture we are attached to. I see Chaucer replicating here that picture of the Trinity with pagan personifications. That's why a bird needs to be part of this group.
     One heretical opinion saw the Holy Spirit as "a mere creature, who differs only in degree from the angels." And, angels wings, in medieval illustrations, were made of peacock feathers. We can see Chaucer's portrayal in a pagan light as a poetic variation of the third person of the Trinity.
     The Yeoman tells no story. After he is introduced, he is never seen or heard from again. This fits because the Holy Spirit is often referred to as silent--going about His work in silence.
     So Rowland Heights gained the stimulation of new, unexpected ideas. That's what Chaucer deserves.