Archive for January, 2010


The Canterbury Tales and the Medieval Tradition of Encyclopedic Works.

The huge masterpiece by Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, comes from a tradition of long, encyclopedic style works in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 12 and 1300s, wrote “sums” of all their knowledge concerning philosophy or theology. The most famous was Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a work thousands of pages long, in many volumes, in which he professes an encyclopedia of Christian theology. Others, like Duns Scotus, did the same thing.

Chaucer, however, decided to write a fictional, poetic narrative to serve as an encyclopedia of human character. By having thirty pilgrims from many different walks of life tell a story on their way to the shrine, and a story back, Chaucer intended to cover the entire spectrum of character and humanity.

Chaucer’s Original and Gigantic Plan for the Work.

Chaucer’s original plan for The Canterbury Tales was to have 120 stories, two for each pilgrim to tell on the way to Canterbury, and two to tell on the way back. He never realized the complete project, having written twenty two stories instead. In fact, they never reach Canterbury in The Canterbury Tales, so the gigantic work in of itself is incomplete. Many scholars like to call each section of the work a “fragment.” If Chaucer had completed his original plan, the work would have been massive, probably about the size and scope of Aquinas’s Summa.

Needless to say, what we have is large as it is, and has come down to us as one of the most central works in English literature. Each of the tales is unique, and represents both the character who tells it, and an aspect of the moral, social and economic world in which they live.

Chaucer’s Revolutionary Use of “Character” in Literature.

One of the major contributions Chaucer made to English literature is the development and depiction of human character. Before and during Chaucer’s time, character was never very developed in literature. Characters in any piece of fiction or religious presentation tended to be “types,” meaning abstract representations of concepts, like Vice, Virtue, Patience, Charity, etc. Authors were never particularly interested in character in the sense of psychology like we are today. In fact, our modern notion of character is pretty distant even from Chaucer. It was not until Shakespeare that character truly becomes central to the literary experience, and he owed a lot to Chaucer’s depiction of character. Chaucer’s characters of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner greatly influenced Shakespeare, and you can see echoes of them in many of his plays.

Don’t Confuse The Canterbury Tales with Literary Realism.

The fact that Chaucer forefronts characters and places them in a leveled and social world should not make us confuse his The Canterbury Tales with realism, a confusion that is easy to make. Although it is a significant development in literature that Chaucer depicts all walks of life in a common social setting and told from a familiar point of view (something I will discuss separately), the situation of the pilgrimage as he presents it is far from realism. None of these characters would ever have mingled together and engaged in such a prolonged activity as they do in The Canterbury Tales in the 1300s.

The Convention of the Framed-Narrative, or the Framing-tale.

Pilgrimages were very common, and Chaucer uses one as a convention by which to gather many different personages together, and to create a situation by which they can deliver different stories. The convention of a group of people telling each other stories in order to kill time has a long tradition, and has appeared in many works of literature up until today. A work of fiction in which the plot involves a story or stories told by a character(s) within the narrative is known as a framing tale, or today a framed narrative. In his travels through Italy, it is highly likely that Chaucer had been influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron. The narrative is about a group of people stuck together in a dwelling in quarantine because of the plague, and they decide to pass the time by telling each other stories.

The Legacy of Framed Narratives

One of the most famous modern framed narratives is Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. The enigmatic seaman, Marlow, tells the crew of a ship docked in the Thames waiting for the tide to rise, his story of leading a crew on a ship traveling into the heart of the Congo to retrieve the mad engineer of an ivory outpost, Kurtz.

Of course, television sitcoms love to use the framing-tale technique when the characters are holed up somewhere, or need to pass the time, and each one tells a story from the past. Movies, too, like to use framed narratives. One that comes to mind at this moment is The Princess Bride.


January 30, 2010 at 7:07 pm Leave a comment


The General Prologue.

Below, I offer guiding questions for each section of the General Prologue. Again, use the questions as a guide for your reading, and things to think about. And you can respond to anything here you want for your weekly writing responses.
Lines 1 – 18

How does Chaucer describe the season and the setting for the narrative poem? How do you think that the season is significant?  What is important about the fact that the poem is set in the month of April?  How is nature described, and how does the description of nature connect then to the description of people gathering for a pilgrimage?

Lines 19 – 34

Why do you think that it is important that the poem makes an “I,” the first person pronoun, pronounced?  What effect does it have on the poem that it is introduced by an “I?”

What is significant about the fact that the narrator and the other 29 pilgrims gather at a tavern?  Why is it important that the narrator emphasizes the sense of “fellowship?”

Lines 35 – 42

Describe the narrator’s tone in the opening of the poem.  What kind of narrative voice does he assume? What does his narrative voice suggest / foreshadow concerning the rest of the poem?

The Catalog of Pilgrims in the General Prologue, lines 43 – 717.

Do you think that there is any significance to the order in which Chaucer presents each pilgrim? If so, what is the logic behind the order?

Explore how Chaucer / the narrator develops his description of each pilgrim. What specifics does he emphasize?  Why does he emphasize certain aspects of each pilgrim?

Which pilgrim and description of him / her do you like the most?  Why? What is it about Chaucer’s description that interests you?

What social aspects to life and the world does Chaucer seem to emphasize in his descriptions of the pilgrims? What sorts of things does he seem to satirize?

The Narrative Voice

The voice of the narrator in The Canterbury Tales is very significant. The narrative poem is told from the specific, unnamed “I” who describes each pilgrim. How would you describe his voice? What is the narrator’s attitude toward everything and everyone? Does he seem to be a kind person? A reasoned person? A malicious person? A judgmental person? Is there any way in which you can “picture” the narrator in the same way that the narrator offers us “pictures” of each pilgrim?

The narrator describes each pilgrim sort-of “warts and all,” meaning he offers the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of the pilgrims are downright odious people. What sort of attitude does the narrator have toward each of them?  Does he judge and / or condemn any of them?  What do you make of his stance?

Lines 720 – 744

After offering a description of each pilgrim, the narrator digresses on the manner in which he plans to narrate the pilgrimage and all of the stories. What things about his storytelling technique does the narrator seem to defend? Why do you think he makes a big deal out of claiming he wishes to tell the stories straight and true?  How does he use both Christ and Plato to defend his storytelling style?

The Host at the End of the General Prologue.

What function does the host of the Tavern play at the end of the Prologue?  Why does it seem essential that Chaucer include the Host of the tavern in the scheme of The Canterbury Tales?

January 30, 2010 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment


1. How does the Wife of Bath defend her many marriages and her philandering in the first 60 or so lines of her Prologue?

2. The Wife of Bath invokes “Experience” at the very opening of her Prologue, and refers to the valors of her “experience” throughout the Prologue. Why might such an invocation of Experience as the test of human nature come across suspicious to a fourteenth century audience? Why do you think we should question her absolute reliability upon “experience” as her foundation?

3. What are the characteristics of most of her marriages? What are her husbands like? How does she wear all of her husbands out?

4. What is different about her last husband (now suspiciously dead, too) than her previous four (lines 510 – 550)? What makes him far more challenging for the Wife of Bath?

5. How does the Wife of Bath finally win sovereignty over her final husband (lines 795 – 817)? What does her unequivocal desire for sovereignty in marriage mean (lines 817 – 830)? How do you think we should read it?

6. How is the Wife of Bath’s Tale ironic, considering her character as she presents it in her Prologue?

7. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is in the tradition of an “Arthuriad,” which essentially means a fairytale / romance in the vein of King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. How does her Tale, despite the fact that it is ironic, relate pretty perfectly to the Wife of Bath, her experience, and in particular, her notions of female “sovereignty?”

8. What might the Wife of Bath’s Tale (particularly its ending) say about her psychologically? How might she be feeling now in life, particularly since she claims in the Prologue that she has had “world enough and time,” and now only has “chaff” to give when she once had “wheat?”

January 30, 2010 at 7:03 pm Leave a comment


Repeated Narrative and Plot Types.

In the last class we discussed how certain plots repeat throughout literature, and are common as a motif, even up until today. I discussed primarily the narrative of the journey and the quest. This is one of the most popular “masterplots” in literature. Particularly in a knight’s romance, like Sir Gawain, the journey and the quest is essential. Gawain journeys beyond Camelot in quest of the Green Knight. In most journey and quest narratives, the protagonist — after a series of encounters, trials, and hardships — returns home, having gained some sort of knowledge about his / her self and the world. It is important to note that as literature grows more modern, particular literature into the twentieth century, the journey and / or return home is usually negative, degenerate, pessimistic. For example, in most of the narratives in which a soldier leaves home for war in the 1900s (WWI, WWII, Viet Nam, etc.), his / her return is usually dark, as in Hemingway’s soldiers who feel a sense of hopelessness and betrayal.


Masterplot is a term used by literary studies to describe any deep, underlying narrative structure that has repeated over a long period of time and in many different literary pieces. Masterplots can be simple to complex. For instance, there are many stories with the masterplot of a young boy who experiences something that serves as an initiation into adulthood.

Many masterplots derive from sweeping social /political / religious world-views passed down through the centuries. American literature developed the fairly new masterplot in the 1800s of the individual who can accomplish anything. This has come in literature to be known as the “Horatio Alger” story: the idea that, even if you are dirt poor and have seemingly no hope of a better future, through hard work and luck you can become a millionaire, or a leader, or somehow famous and anointed. Barak Obama, in many ways, has stirred the imagination of America because of the masterplot that, in this country, anyone can become president.

In the Middle Ages up through the Renaissance, almost all of the masterplots have a Judeo-Christian context. Many of the Christian masterplots remain strong in literature today, although in more secularly disguised forms. The many narratives of the Old and New Testaments have inspired and perpetuated variations of their stories. For instance, notice in class how a student pointed out that Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight in the beginning of the poem resembles the story of David and Goliath.

The Genesis Story of the Fall of Man and Original Sin

There is perhaps no masterplot more prevalent in literature of the Middle Ages than the Fall of Man. In fact, the Genesis stories all remain powerful masterplots for literature today.

The Fall

One of the most common motifs that repeat in narratives of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is the Genesis story of the Fall and Original Sin. Adam is the ultimate “archetypal” character in that he is the “first man,” and he gives into Eve’s temptation. Together, Adam and Eve break God’s one and only rule in the Garden, and as a result, they lost paradise and their consummate contact with God.  Generally, narrative theology and literature interprets Adam and Eve’s fall resulting from their lack of trust in God. Instead of having trust and faith in God, they trusted only themselves.

Various Narrative-types that Reflect the Fall.

Literature has reworked the Fall as a masterplot repeatedly up until today. It can be seen in numerous contexts and themes in narratives:

  1. The protagonist tempted by some representation of “forbidden fruit,” giving into temptation, losing some form of a “paradise.”
  2. The notion of the temptress, or “evil woman” throughout literature, referring back to the archetype of Eve.
  3. The story of a protagonist who is a good person, has some position of authority, power or well-being, and through some flaw, trusts only him/herself, or has too much pride, or can’t see beyond a particular interest, and has a fall.
  4. Any narrative that shows a movement from an original situation that is pure, or good, or innocent, or has a sense of well-being, and then turns into something impure, adulterated, ,guilty or unsettling.  The romantics loved poetry and narratives about how the growth from childhood to adulthood is like a fall, or losing paradise.
  5. Any narrative in which the protagonist diverts his / her faith in something other than God; or in which the protagonist does not fully or adequately have faith in God when he / she should.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight very much emphasizes the story of the Fall and Original Sin. The audience to the poem in the 1300s would have readily recognized all of the Biblical symbols and motifs in the poem, and they would have seen the narrative as a sort of illustration of the Genesis story of the Fall.

January 30, 2010 at 7:01 pm Leave a comment


Along with Dante and Shakespeare, Chaucer is one of the three or four most important figures in the history of literature. He is considered by many to be the father of English literature, particularly since he was the first major poet to use and to legitimate the vernacular English language in writing as opposed to Latin or French.

Chaucer’s Birth and Family

Chaucer was born in 1343 in London to a family of wine merchants. He began life, therefore, in a middle class background, which is a crucial aspect of his writing and the times he lived in. Unlike most authors and poets of his time –or any time up until the eighteenth century, for that matter — Chaucer’s life was well documented, mostly because he gained entrance to and traveled in illustrious and royal circles.

His big break came when he was a teenager. Since his father sold wine to members of nobility and royalty, he was able to get his son a job as a page to the court of the Countess of Ulster. This job essentially gave him a “foot in the door” to a career working with nobility and, eventually, royalty.

Chaucer’s Rise up the Aristocratic and Royal Ladder

After he was a page for the Countess, Chaucer worked for various members of nobility and for the state as a courier, a diplomat, a civil servant, and eventually for the king as a collector and surveyor of scrap metal (whatever that would have meant in the late 1300s).

During the early phase of the Hundred Year’s War, Chaucer went with the English army as part of King Edward III’s campaign against France, and was captured during the siege of Rheims in 1360. It is a testament to how valued Chaucer was that the King of England himself contributed the sum of money that released Chaucer from ransom, and returned him to England.

Chaucer’s Influential World Travelling

In his capacity as a diplomat and a envoy, Chaucer traveled all over Europe, a privilege only a small handful of people experienced. In his travels, he came into contact with a vast diversity of people from all social strata and cultures. In a diplomatic mission to Genoa and Florence in 1373, Chaucer came into contact with the burgeoning of the Renaissance, which had a giant influence on him and, as a result, the course of English literature. He came into contact with Italian poetry, narrative, painting and architecture. The writing, in particular, would influence The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer Dies Having Known and Worked for Three English Kings

In the last fifteen or so years of his life, he ran Customs for the port of London for the King, a very executive job. During this time he started writing. In 1389, he was appointed to the important job of clerk of the King’s works, a sort of foreman job for planning and executing any of the kings building projects. One of his last jobs was as forester for King Richard II, who was overthrown by Henry IV. Despite the overthrow, Henry IV kept paying Chaucer’s pension until Chaucer died around 1400.

A middle class son of a wine dealer grew up to work in the service of three British kings, Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV, all who admired him, and he went on to write some of the most central pieces of English literature!

The Rise of a Middle (or Merchant) Class.

Chaucer’s incredible career reflects the changing social and economic structures of England in the late 1300s. Before the 1300s, as I discussed, there were basically two classes. There was the Nobility, the wealthiest one or two percent of England, and there were the Serfs, everyone else.

As centuries passed, families began to pass on skills at trades and crafts they would pass on. By the time of the 12th into the 13th century, the products that peasants or serfs were able to make became a commodity for exchange. Instead of importing goods, or having certain products costume made expensively, aristocrats and nobility began to buy from and realize the benefit of trading with domestic and local merchants. Instead of enslaving the masses to maintain agriculture, those with money began to cultivate certain populations for the products and services they could offer. Particularly as trade between nations began to grow, London evolved into a bustling port.

This collapse in the two class society created a more mobile middle class that broke from agricultural serfdom, and began to find economic autonomy servicing the rich and, as time goes on, each other. By the time of Shakespeare, the popularity of theater was the result of a rapidly grown middle class that has some disposable income and a desire for leisure earned after a work week.

Chaucer grew up and lived during this expansion of a merchant class. Because his father served an important recreational function for the wealthy — wine distribution — he had connections through clients that allowed Chaucer entrance into a noble and aristocratic world.

As he worked his way up the ladder in the aristocratic and royal world of London (much like a young person working his way up the corporate ladder), Chaucer had access to and enjoyed many of the privileges of nobility. Importantly, he was not aristocracy, nobility or royalty. Evidence shows that he knew and fraternized with all of them, including three kings, but there were certain realms in which he would not be included, such as a Grammar School or University education. But, because of Chaucer’s work and access, and because class barriers allowed him to associate with all walks of life, he had exposure to a vast variety of humanity and experience, which is reflected in his writing, particularly The Canterbury Tales.

In short, he was a true social and literary Renaissance man many decades before the Renaissance itself settled in England.

Even though Chaucer is one of the three or four most important figures in English literature, it is important to recognize that no one at the time, including himself, would have called him a “poet” or an “author.” Chaucer would have called designated himself at whatever job he worked, such as Comptroller, or Forester, never, “poet.”

Writing in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, was not a career. There were no career writers in England until the eighteenth century, when the publishing industry made it possible for writing to become a commercial enterprise.

Poets or narrators, like Chaucer, created their work on the side. They usually distributed their work to other members of the court or nobility in limited circulation. Or, as in the case of Sir Gawain, a poem was written and used for an aristocratic or royal event, like a wedding, birthday or holiday. The Canterbury Tales was more than likely distributed for readership amongst Chaucer’s friends and colleagues in the various aristocratic spheres he traveled.

Depending upon how you choose to interpret a work, audience can be an important factor. It could be significant to know, for instance, when you read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” that only rich and noble men would have read it.

January 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm Leave a comment


In college, I had to read the entire Canterbury Tales in the Middle English, untranslated. Despite the fact that Chaucer’s masterwork is one of the most enchanting pieces of literature, I had a miserable experience. Therefore, I am giving you here two links to online translations of the Canterbury Tales, which is much easier reading, and you lose only a small amount of the original meaning.

However, read some parts of the General Prologue in the untranslated version in your book to get a feel for the original language, its cadence, its sound, and oftentimes its own historical and cultural beauty. Try to read some of the original version out loud to hear what it sounds like.

Here is a link to translation.

January 29, 2010 at 12:54 pm Leave a comment


Here are some questions for thinking, reading and writing that I wanted to offer you last Friday. Look through them all: I divided them up for each important section / stage of the poem. The questions can help you with reading, re-reading and interpretation.

The Opening Historical Invocation Juxtaposed to the Scene of Camelot.

1. Why does the narrator of the poem give a history of England from ancient Rome up until the point in which the poem begins? What effect does this condensing of history have? Following the history, the poet describes Camelot and their holiday partying. Why does the Yuletide description of Camelot follow the history? What does the description of Camelot say about King Arthur’s court?

The Entrance of the Green Knight.

2. How is the Green Knight received in Camelot when he enters? What opinion does he have of Camelot? Why do you think that Gawain volunteers to take up the Knight’s challenge of the beheading game? Why is Gawain essentially putting his head on the block? Why do you think the Green Knight comes to Camelot to invite this challenge?


3. Knowing the importance of courtesy in the poem, examine how Camelot treats the Green Knight?  Yes, the Green Knight is extremely odd — the jolly green giant carrying an ax — but he bears a great deal of symbolic expression in his attire and his voice that Camelot should be able to understand.

Gawain’s New Role.

4. What does Gawain represent when he takes on the Green Knight’s challenge? Why does Gawain volunteer?

5. Examine the symbolic language of Sir Gawain’s armor, and the care with which he dresses for his journey.  What does his armor say about Gawain and the kingdom he represents?

Gawain’s Perilous Journey

6. On Gawain’s “perilous journey” battling beasts and trudging through snow, he prays when he nearly freezes to death, and the Baron’s castle appears. Why should Gawain be suspicious of the castle in an Oasis of lawn and deciduous trees? What should it remind him of?

7. How is Gawain received at the Baron’s castle? Consider how Gawain is dressed and the various instruments he bears with him on Gringolet. How do you think Gawain should be received in contrast to his reception at the Castle? How does his reception parallel and contrast to the reception that the Green Knight receives at Camelot in part I?

The Exchange Game and Courtly Love — The Test of Gawain’s Virtue.

8. What should the Game of Exchange that the Baron proposes remind Gawain?  Examine the significance of Exchange games/challenges. What do thy test? What aspects of Gawain’s character and values are being tested / challenged?

9. Examine the paradoxical and excruciating position he is in with the Baron’s Lady?  How, in many ways, does Gawain find himself in a no-win situation for a Knight?  Remember the post of key concepts I had publishes a few days ago concerning the Knight and Courtly Love.

The Green Girdle: A Seriously Absurd and Absurdly Serious Symbol.

10. What does the “green girdle” represent in the context of Gawain’s quest, his virtue, Christianity, the whole kit-and-kaboodle?  In many ways, the climax of the narrative comes when Gawain accepts the Lady’s gift of the green girdle.  The audience to this poem would have gasped in recognition of this climactic moment. Why?  What does Gawain’s acceptance of the gift symbolize and why is it so important? In particular, why is it important that he does not give it to the Baron at the end of the day when Gawain received the fox?

Surprise! Gawain Caught on Candid Camera.

11. Did the Baron’s disguise as the Green Knight at the end of the narrative come as a surprise?  Should it have come as a surprise?  What  might it say about Gawain that he is taken by surprise by the ruse?  How does his surprise parallel the many twists and turns that carry Gawain along in the journey / plot?

The Judgment of Gawain. (Go on, get out of here, you rascal.)

12. What is the Baron’s attitude toward Gawain?  How does he judge the Knight?  According to the Baron, what are the results, so to speak, of Gawain’s test? What does the outcome of Gawain’s test / challenge say about not just Gawain, and not just Camelot, but all of humanity?

The New Hero? A New Dawn for Camelot?

13. Does Gawain return to Camelot in triumph?  Defeat? A combination of both? Does the conclusion of Gawain’s journey represent anything about human beings?

14. In honor of Gawain, everyone at Camelot sports green girdles. Now this is clearly meant to be funny — almost slapstick. At the same time, what does the green girdle come to represent?  Why is it significant that everyone wears it?

January 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm Leave a comment

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