Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Friar--a bag of tricks

We've had a brief look at Aries in the entries called "Written in the Stars" (4-23-2012). It showed how Chaucer provides star clues to recognize the signs of the zodiac. Now we'll take a broader look at Aries disguised as the Friar in his introduction in the General Prologue. Some Pilgrim introductions are minimal, but the Friar boasts sixty lines! The poet has a full palette to draw from, and he does. Hints from mythology, astronomy, astrology, medieval dramatics, the animal image, and symbolism are sprinkled throughout.

The myth tells of a young brother and sister--Phrixus and Helle--who are saved from a wicked stepmother by a magical ram (as in sheep). The creature flies through the air toward a safe destination with them on its back. Phrixus lands safely, but unfortunately, his sister loses her hold and falls into the water (today's Dardanelles) and drowns. And, unfortunately for the ram, Phrixus is so grateful to be safe that he sacrifices it! The ram's hide becomes the legendary Golden Fleece. And the gods reward the heroic animal by placing it in the heavens as the constellation Aries.
     An ancient creation story says the earth was made when the sun was in Aries. So in astronomy the sign coincides with the vernal equinox in March, which announces the beginning of a new year. The poet hints at a sign of beginning by inserting "In principio." Locating the figure in the sky is aided by a triangle of stars, sometimes seen as a harp, above it. Two distinctive stars--Hamal and Sheratan--mark the animal's head. And identifying the constellation couldn't be easier as Chaucer tells us:
               And in his harping, when he had sung,
               His eyes twinkled in his head aright,
               As do the stars in the frosty night.
March nights would certainly by "frosty."
     Astrologically, Aries is "a dreaded sign" indicating passionate temper and bodily hurt. Violence is also expected because of the association with Mars. The poet refers to men in pain, victimized widows and the Friar's rage. Several lines are a challenge to understand. Though editors interpret the words, the message doesn't seem to fit. We'll give that a closer look a little later.
     As the animal image, Chaucer says the Friar's "clothes" are not threadbare, but clothing fit for a person of importance.
               For there he was not like a cloisterer
              With a threadbare cope, as is the poor scholar,
              But he was like a master or pope.
              Of double worsted was his "semycope,"
              That is round as a bell out of the press.
He has a "semycope" (short cloak) made of worsted (wool). It is rounded as a "belle" (a kind of cloak or tunic) out of a "presse," which is a device to press and stretch cloth. In other words his woolen cloak--his fleece--fits him as if it were pressed and stretched just for him. What fun for the poet.
     Let's take a second look at the "worsted." This is fabric of "well-twisted yarn, long-staple wool."A handsome ram would have such a coat. But even better, the cope, the garment in question, is "double" worsted. "Double" seems an innocent enough word, but it's concealing a second image. The word is also the name of a medieval French gold coin. (Medieval Spain had the "doubloon.") Chaucer, in his international business dealings, would be familiar with a great variety of coins. To call the garment "double worsted" then becomes gold worsted, as in the famed Golden Fleece.
     Symbolically, being an animal with cloven hooves makes the Friar a symbol of the devil, often illustrated as a shaggy black ram. This covert diabolical identity applies to much of the Friar's portrait. We'll pick up there next time and uncover the entertaining allusion to medieval drama as well.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Enter Crispin

Well, here's the second brownie--but I'd better refer to him as an elf. One thing led to another. When I decided to give him curly hair, that reminded me that the word in Middle English for "curly"  is "crisp." That made me think of Crispin. And when I looked up the background for Crispin, it said he is the patron of shoemakers. Aha! Are you familiar with Grimm's fairly tale about the shoemaker and the elves? (It's even on YouTube.) Anyway, the name became more and more suitable. No naming problem this time.

Crispin does have curly hair--at least what is left of it.
     Next time we'll take a close look at the Pilgrim Friar.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I need a name!

Here's the very first Brownie doll--as in Elf.

When I'm working on a doll a name generally comes to me that fits. Well, any name that popped into my head just wasn't suitable. hmmmmm  So, can you suggest a name? What would YOU call him?