Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The thrill of research

My Chaucer research was a personal endeavor. Professors I knew tried to "dissuade" me from pursuing what I "saw." But that's OK, because nothing, no one, hindered me from following connections I found. One book led me to another as I collected information I needed--and discovered things I'd never seen before.

A charming, recent opinion regarding Professor Stephanie Trigg says, "when she walks around the corridors of the University of Melbourne a golden radiance follows her." I mention this radiant  professor because she did me a great service when she reviewed my second book, Pilgrim Chaucer. I got a quick course in the standard attitude toward producing literary criticism. "Cullen thus makes an interesting discursive intervention into a field that is normally dominated by specialists." True. I might even be considered an unqualified intruder into elitist territory--but I had something I had to say.
     She notes that I "sidestepped" a lot of Chaucer criticism published in the preceding forty years. "In a research paper, this would be woefully inadequate." Yes, but I wasn't writing a "research paper." I wasn't addressing academia. I was telling my reader about my adventure. I did delve into a lot of sources. (Most everyone acknowledges that.) What I chose to include bolstered my ideas--what I saw as Chaucer's ideas.
    Professor  Trigg is surprised that I present the evidence I find "as if they represented novel and fresh primary research." But to me it was! No one gave me a required reading list. Everything--from Augustine to our contemporary V. A. Kolve--proved new, exciting, stimulating.
     I love words. When you're dealing with an allegory, the author is bound to use words with more than one meaning. So when the professor says I depend "a great deal on searches of the Middle English Dictionary . . . for possible alternative meanings for Chaucer's lines." Of course. That's how you discover possibilities. But they have to fit the thought. The most outstanding example is fonde. The seventh definition is "to try, to strive." That's what the notes recommend. But the first definition is "to try the patience of God." What a startling difference, but each does fit--one for the surface plot and the other for the covert storyline.
     Her next comment comes as a real eye opener. "She charts, for example, her own frustrations and successes in her library searches ("I almost cheered"; "my face turned red . . . and I burst out laughing"). Such enthusiasm is normally edited out." What a sad editorial practice. Doesn't it dull down what I'm saying if you don't know how excited I got? Let me tell you the story of my almost cheering.  
     It has to do with the Thopas story, one of Chaucer's own contributions to the Tales. The main character, Thopas, is pricking here and pricking there when he is confronted by an enemy. Pricking can refer to horse riding, but it also means intercourse--as Chaucer makes clear in the Reeve's Tale: John (an opportunist and overnight guest) manages to share a bed with the good wife. "He pricketh her hard and deep"--the best she'd had in a long time!
     I assume the enemy, Sir Elephant, must be a threat to sexual activity. He exclaims "Termagaunt!" a word the Middle Ages took to be of Arabic origin. Chaucer gives us only these two clues to identify this adversary.
     At the library I took down books on the history of diseases. I turned the pages slowly, scanning each description. At last, after several books and many pages, when I turned a page the next caption read Elephantiasis Arabum!--and "Right there in the library, I almost cheered." Wouldn't you?

Upon publication of Pilgrim Chaucer, Judith Wenrick, a reviewer and specialist in guiding young writers, said--"It serves as a teaching model to inspire writing students to view scholarship as an adventurous and creative endeavor." That was precisely my intention.
     To be continued.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Pilgrim dolls?

A friend recently asked me if I plan to make Canterbury Pilgrim dolls. The answer is a firm NO. Why so firm? It goes back to that astonishing epiphany, that moment of insight. As I've said, that moment changed my life! I can never see the characters Chaucer presents as one-dimensional travelers. They are all in disguise--as pilgrims.
     He presents an allegory--a story with a double meaning. His characters all have to have multiple personalities to be able to function on two (three?) levels at the same time. There is no way--that I've thought of--to portray these dual images as one entity. So, no, there will be no pilgrim dolls.
     In between working on The Merchant/Sagittarius, our next post, I have been making another doll. It's a fun thing to do, a different way of channeling your creative juices. This one is Bluebell.  He's tiny because that's all of the blue fabric I had.  I sent him off this morning to a special person.
I'll be back soon.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Salute to Geoffrey

A very talented recorder player--and much more--received the latest elf.  It was her decision to call him "Geoffrey."  Who am I to say nay?   She understands that the elfkin's mother delighted in Chaucer's poetry and would listen to his recitations while peeping out from the medieval shrubbery.  A likely story.  :)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Friar: The devil holds the key

In the previous Chaucer entry we closed with the fact that a ram, because of his cloven hooves, symbolizes the devil. Chaucer clearly says the Friar is "wanton and merry," "beloved and familiar" with franklins (country gentlemen) and women of the town. Pursuing this less than an exemplary cleric as the devil provides solutions to the poet's crafty lines.
     When the lines are NOT clear, allegorically speaking, that makes them important. (Read--Fletcher's Allegory: A Symbolic Mode.) Several Chaucer lines try the ingenuity of editors. For example, "rage he could, as if he were a whelp." Notes advise the reader to see a "puppy" in the "whelp," but where is the sense in a puppy raging? Fourteenth-century rage can mean carnal desire as well as madness, wrath, fierceness, violence. "Puppy" does not fit. Checking further, a whelp can also be "the offspring of a noxious creature." The OED includes quotations like "fiend's whelp" and "whelps of the devils."
     Another outstanding instance of confusion is:
          His tippet was stuffed (farsed) full of knives 
          And pins, for to give fair wives.
 A tippet is this long, narrow, ornamental strip of fabric that hangs freely.
 The Friar supposedly stuffed (farsed) his with knives and pins. One editor suggests there must be a pocket in his tippet! Medieval "pins" were not the flimsy items of today, but sturdy implements such as spikes, tools for stabbing, and prods that a devil might use in hell--or in a stage production of hell. These heavy, sharp instruments deserve a sturdy pouch. Again, there is something wrong with this picture.
     The most troublesome word is "farsed," followed closely by "tippet" and "pittance." "Farsed," in French, means "stuffed," but it is also the source of the word farce. Farce is a direct connection to devils in medieval plays. On stage, demons were always a comic element, "continually being dragged in, even where [they are] not strictly required . . . purely for . . . merriment." Devils are portrayed as fear-filled; they do a lot of sprawling, groveling, and breaking wind. When the battle--the defense of hell--is in full swing, a demon runs into the fray with the medieval equivalent of sparklers in his hands, ears and arse. The ultimate for our imagination is a grand finale: a crew of demons dragging sinners to the pit of hell amid great noise, prodding and confusion.
     Our next challenging word is "tippet." (M.E. typet) It actually has two parts. If we remove the "et" (the French diminutive ending) we have the English word "type"--a snare, a trap. Now we do NOT have to picture that narrow strip of cloth "stuffed full of knives and pins." The line provides a devilish trap--such as hell--full of instruments that prod and puncture.
     "Pittance" is our third word. Chaucer's playing a game with the word. The rules are like the ones that hold for remembrance, hindrance, deliverance. The -ance functions as "caused someone to be" remembered, hindered, or delivered. In similar fashion, then, pittance is "caused someone to be" pitted, where the pit is hell. "Hell pit" was a common term.
     Covertly, the scene becomes a snare for this farcical performance where knives and pins represent assorted, pointed instruments aimed at "worthy" women as they are herded into a pit. The pit entrance was called "hell mouth" and was a prominent feature of medieval staging.

Dramatists reveled in portraying Doomsday where "devils rolled, shoved, pricked and tossed the damned into Hell Mouth unceremoniously." The wicked were a source of "rude laughter and humiliating action." Elegant women being herded by the devil was the "pittance" he'd hoped for. And the raging whelp becomes a demon giving his comic all.

If the devil told a story about hell, it would be appropriate. Of course, that's where we began with the story of Helle--not a place, but a girl. The clincher of the Friar / Aries identity as the devil--if we still need one--is his Tale.
     Aries is the Ram that let Helle slip into the water. The Friar, then could tell a story about Helle--and he does. The twist is that h-e-l-l-e is the Middle English spelling of the devil's territory. The Friar entertains us with a story about "helle" and how the devil, who announces himself "a feend; my dwellyng is in helle," transacts his business to trap souls.
     Ovid, the Latin poet, may have directly inspired Chaucer's duplicity. For our poet, who read both Latin and Middle English, a double image would be evident when Ovid refers to Aries as "the ram of Helle": one image is the animal that carried a girl named Helle; the other is an animal symbolic of the devil from "helle." Not a word need be changed; the images superimpose.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Goin' to Virginia

This little fellow was an unexpected arrival. He stopped  by just long enough to have his picture taken and tell me his name. It's Pablito. He's on his way to Virginia --Virginia Cabrera, that is. She doesn't know he's coming. But as a house guest he makes few demands, so I think it'll be OK. I gave him a smile, wished him well and sent him on his way.