pages 61-359 in The Portable Chaucer, translated by Theodore Morrison, Viking 1949
Chaucer is the cornerstone of English poetry, and he gave to the world exactly what a great poet should give: new types of fictional characters, new expressions of human feeling, and a unique personal style. This volume brings together some of the choicest riches from the heritage left us by this fourteenth-century genius, put into modern English by Theodore Morrison, who is himself a gifted poet. He has admirably succeeded in producing a faithful rendition of the original, recapturing Chaucer in all his earthy vigor and timeless humanity, while removing what to many readers is the obstacle of the Middle English idiom.
Apparently in the 1940s this was not a necessary section of the book.
The Canterbury Tales
What a splendid and vigorous work. When one of the Wife of Bath’s husbands recites to her night after night the stories of bad women (Eve, Delilah, Eriphyle, Deianeira, etc.,), she clocks him one and rips apart his book. When the drunk Miller tells a tale of a cuckolded carpenter, the Reeve–who is a carpenter–returns the favour by telling a tale of students who have extra-curricular fun with a dishonest Miller’s wife and daughter. Some of the travellers are too drunk to stay on their horses. The details of their adventures are quite graphic as well. Chaucer’s stories remind me more of Catullus poems about getting ‘radished’ than later English literature. While later English poetry becomes more refined, it loses Chaucer’s vital drive. If you like music, it is sort of like Baroque versus Classical: Baroque, while earlier, is much more rhythmically intense and forwards hurtling.
This was a fun book to read. I hadn’t expected it would be. The last book I had read from the Middle Ages was the Venerable Bede’s history of the church, and that was decidedly less entertaining. I think what makes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales so vibrant is that the character types are instantly recognizable from the drunk cook to the greedy summoner to the assiduous student. Human nature has not changed all that much from the 1400s.
Chaucer’s characters represent a cross section of occupations in the Late Middle Ages. One fun exercise to see how things have changed since the 1400s is to see which occupations survived. Have you met the trades Chaucer encounters? Here are my answers, yours may be different:
Inn Owner – YES, I have met latter-day hoteliers
Knight – NO, I have not encountered any knights in my days
Squire – NO
Yeoman – NO (a yeoman is someone who owned land that would yield an annual income of 40 shillings. This is interesting, as in the feudal system they valued land by the income it rendered rather than the price of the land itself)
Prioress – NO, I have not encountered any prioresses
Nun – YES, I have never talked with a nun, but I have seen them abroad
Monk – YES, I have never talked with a monk, but I have seen one, and in my hometown
Friar – NO
Merchant – YES
Clerk – YES
Lawyer – YES
Franklin – NO, though the position is remembered in surnames, e.g. Benjamin Franklin
Craftsmen – YES
Cook – YES
Shipman – YES
Physician – YES (thank goodness they practise the modern variants of astrology and humorism)
Wife of Bath – YES
Parson – YES
Plowman – NO
Miller – NO
Manciple – YES, though they are called purchasers instead of manciples
Reeve – NO
Summoner – NO
Pardoner – NO
Of the 25 common occupations in the 1400s, 13, or about half, are known to me. In several hundred years, perhaps half of today’s occupations will still be around. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? One thing that reading classics gives us is an appreciation of the larger picture. And Canterbury Tales, which continues to be read over 600 years later, is well-equipped to show us how some things have changed and how some things have stayed exactly the same.
The Canterbury Tales and the Art Form of Tragedy
One thing that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much from the 1400s to today is the popular reaction to the dramatic art form of tragedy. Two of the storytellers in Canterbury Tales tell tragic tales: the Monk and the Physician. The reactions of the other pilgrims to the Monk’s Tale gives you an idea of the general lack of appetite for tragedy at that time (Knight and Host speaking to Monk):
“Stop!” cried the Knight. “No more of this, good sir!
You have said plenty, and much more, for sure,
For only a little such lugubriousness
Is plenty for a lot of folk, I guess.
I say for me it is a great displeasure,
When men have wealth and comfort in good measure,
To hear how they have tumbled down the slope.
And the opposite is a solace and a hope,
As when a man begins in low estate
And climbs the ladder and grows fortunate,
And stands there firm in his prosperity.
That is a welcome thing, it seems to me,
And of such things it would be good to tell.”
“Well said,” our Host declared. “By St. Paul’s bell,
You speak the truth; this Monk’s tongue is too loud.
He told how fortune covered with a cloud–
I don’t know what-all; and of tragedy
You heard just now, and it’s no remedy,
When things are over and done with, to complain.
Besides, as you have said, it is a pain
To hear of misery; it is distressing.
Sir Monk, no more, as you would have God’s blessing
This company is all one weary sigh.
Such talking isn’t worth a butterfly.
The reaction to tragedy today isn’t much different. With so much storm and strife happening in life, people today echo the Host and the Knight’s cry: “Enough of tragedy, give us musicals and comedys!” This is a shame, as the art form of tragedy–by dramatizing the amazing twists and turns of fortune–is one of the greatest shows on earth. How can tragedy be repackaged so that people say instead: “More tragedy please!”
If you ask these same people who don’t like tragedy: “Would you be interested in seeing a show on uncertainty and chance?” they would say: “Yes!” The same events responsible for the storm and strife in life have created a groundswell of interest in the role uncertainty and chance play in life. All of a sudden, people are saying: “Wow, the unexpected sure has stolen us on us. How did this happen? I am interested in chance and the unexpected. Where can I learn more?” This is the ticket in repackaging and reimagining tragedy for the 21st century.
To me, tragedy is synonymous with the dramatization of low-probability, high-consequence events: they are one and the same. The only difference is that the Hosts and the Knights have no stomach for tragedy while everyone loves anything to do with uncertainty and chance. So why not repackage tragedy as a theatre of risk?
This is exactly what I’ve done in my new, 21st century theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” If you’re curious, ask your local library to carry a copy of my book on literary theory. It’s called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Risk theatre is the theatre that dramatizes what every theatregoer wants to see: the impact of the highly improbable. If you like the old name, call it tragedy. If you like the new name, call it risk theatre. They are one and the same. The king is dead, long live the king.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.