Chaucer and Virginia Woolf

London was one thing they had in common. Photo by Hugo Sousa on Unsplash

So, I finished all The Canterbury Tales. And I did watch A Knight’s Tale again. Here are a few concluding thoughts:

  • The paperback version of Canterbury Tales had the following comment from Virginia Woolf regarding Chaucer (she was the only female amongst 21 commenters): “Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. . . . He will tell you what his characters wore, how they looked, what they ate and drank, as if poetry could handle the common facts of this very moment of Tuesday, the sixteenth day of April, 1387, without dirtying her hands.” (from The Common Reader)
  • I love this idea of poetry handling the everyday “without dirtying her hands.” It made me think of another quote from Virginia Woolf, one of my favorites: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” While I’m sure there are plenty of valid arguments to the contrary, I have found a certain personal truth to the statement. As long as writing fiction is not my sole livelihood, I feel a sense of freedom in it, whose absence might be suffocating.
  • Finally, in re-watching A Knight’s Tale, I had a better understanding of one of my favorite lines from the movie. It comes from Paul Bettany’s Chaucer: “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.” He says this to a pardoner and a summoner, neither of whom come off very well in the Tales.

All of this has had the effect of softening my memory of the experience of reading all The Canterbury Tales. Even if my only takeaway is a deeper knowledge of the state of our world over 600 years ago, I consider myself richer for that insight.

The Canterbury Tales: 82%

I’m on track to finish Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via my Serial Reader app in just about a week’s time, so this is likely my last post regarding the collection of 14th century stories.

It’s been a slog, I have to admit. Serial Reader contains all the tales, including several that were omitted from the paperback version Tim and I have been sharing. I can understand the choice to omit. One tale in particular, “The Tale of Melibeus,” felt particularly long and boring. The teller of this tale is the narrator himself, named, coincidentally (or not), Chaucer. The whole thing is a drawn-out dialogue between Melibeus and his wife, Prudence, as she tries to convince him to take her advice regarding a matter of revenge against his rivals. I swear, she has to mention Solomon at least a hundred times. Yes, the Solomon from the bible, the guy who advised splitting a baby in two.

The tales all seem filled with biblical and medieval religious references. Two particular ones were recently familiar to me, meaning, I’ve encountered them in the past year or so (and not during my own ancient school days). They are both from “The Monk’s Tale,” another story that’s not in our paperback. It’s basically a laundry list of mighty folks through the ages who have fallen when fortune takes a turn against them.

  1. In recounting how Belshazzar of Babylon met his fate, “mene, mene, tekel” popped up. I wrote about this in a post last year: The Writing on the Wall. A quick recap of that post — it’s about this phrase’s original meaning, how Belshazzar had been weighed and measured by God, found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided. And how the phrase is referenced in Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, perhaps not surprisingly, in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
  2. There’s a bit about Ugolino, Count of Pisa, and how he and his children starved to death while imprisoned. But it gets more gruesome when Dante’s Inferno is referenced. Dante’s fiction puts Ugolino in the second circle of hell with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, the one who supposedly caused his starvation in real life. In Inferno, Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity. I remember this reference in The Count of Monte Cristo, it comes up when Edmond Dantes is held at Chateau d’If, before he meets Abbe Faria.

So, bottom line, I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of a lot of ancient stories and their contexts. And that feels worthwhile. But I’ll also be happy to take a break from all this heaviness soon.

Maybe it’s time to watch A Knight’s Tale again.

The Canterbury Tales: 50%

So, I’m about halfway through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales on my Serial Reader app. And this time, Tim is reading along, not on Serial Reader, but via the tome featured in the picture above. Kind of a summer reading project for us both. A few observations thus far:

  • The hard copy book features both the original Middle English text and the translation to Modern English. The Middle English is pretty cool to look at, and it’s also pretty cool that The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the first works of prose to be composed in English. (Or maybe not prose, but poetry. In any event, I think Chaucer was among the first to take the type of stuff written in French and Latin at the time, and write it in English.)
  • The Canterbury Tales was unfinished when Chaucer died. (And, interesting fact, he died 40 years before the printing press was invented.) There’s no way to determine how he meant the finished work to appear. I’ve discovered that the order and inclusion of the individual tales varies, depending on the version you’re reading.
  • So far, I’m not loving the subject matter. Murderous in-laws cast a poor woman out to sea (“The Man of Law’s Tale”), there’s unthinkable spousal emotional abuse (“The Clerk’s Tale”), and, spoiler alert, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ends with a rapist living happily ever after. I realize times were different 600 years ago, but that doesn’t make the cruelty any more palatable. In fact, it offers some unsettling insight into our human history.
  • All this leads me to prefer to think of Chaucer more like Paul Bettany’s portrayal of him in the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale. It’s wildly anachronistic, but the character’s eloquence, motivations, and overall humanity are worthy of 21st century admiration.

The Writing on the Wall

A Knight’s Tale is one of those movies that I missed out on, for the first ten or so years of its existence. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to know and recognize some of its many charms.

Of course, I love the character of Geoff Chaucer (Paul Bettany). He’s a down-on-his-luck writer, who falls in with the rag-tag traveling crew of faux knight Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein (Heath Ledger). Geoff is able to concoct the papers Sir Ulrich needs to “prove” his lineage, and he also uses his mad word skills to hype up the crowds in favor of Sir Ulrich.

This imaginative portrayal of the author of the famed Canterbury Tales strikes me as a true depiction of #writerslife. Centuries before hash tags were a thing.

I could probably go on about Chaucer, but I have another intention for this post. There’s a theme that comes up between Sir Ulrich (really, a peasant named William Thatcher), and his nemesis, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). A “real” count with the bloodline to prove it, and a true villain. Adhemar suspects Sir Ulrich is a phony. When Adhemar takes top prize in their first tournament match-up, he serves Ulrich the very ungracious insult:

“You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.”

This insult does eventually come around to bite Adhemar in the heinie. But again, I’m digressing.

The point I’m wanting to make: I hadn’t realized that “weighed and measured” was a biblical reference, until I encountered it both in Moby Dick, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s from the Book of Daniel, and the narrative account of Belshazzar’s feast. Apparently, everyone was enjoying themselves a little too much at this feast, when a mysterious hand appeared and wrote on the wall:

“Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”

Well, no one knew what it meant, not even Belshazzar’s wise men, and he was beyond freaked out. He sent for Daniel, who interpreted it as such:

  • mene — “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end”
  • tekel —  “you have been weighed. . .and found wanting”
  • upharsin — this one’s a little less clear to me, but, essentially, “your kingdom’s gonna be broken up, dude”

Melville uses “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” to foreshadow the fate of the Pequod. Dumas uses it in reference to the letter that denounced Edmond Dantes. That he eventually gets his hands on and uses in service of his vengeance.

Two big lessons I take from all this:

  1. “The writing on the wall” is literally mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.
  2. In fiction, (as in real life), karma can be a bitch.

Crawfish Break

I’ve spent a fair amount of time this month squirreled away, focused on writing, getting Lacey’s story down and out of my head. But it was time to take a break this past Saturday, for my family’s annual crawfish boil.

I can’t tell you who first decided to pick up one of these little crustaceans and put them in a boiling pot full of spices. But apparently, they’ve always been plentiful in the swamplands of southern Louisiana. I figure some hungry, early denizen of these parts must have figured they were worth a shot.

By the late 1800s, crawfish were being sold commercially. This, according to the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board. In those 100 plus years gone by, crawfish have grown into a pretty big deal down here. This time of year, not a weekend goes by where someone isn’t boiling crawfish somewhere.

With our mild winters and really (really) long summers, some clever folks have claimed that our seasons are different in Southern Louisiana. Instead of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, we have: Mardi Gras, Crawfish, Hurricane, and Football. (I’ll sometimes see Hunting instead of Mardi Gras, and Sno-ball instead of Hurricane, but Crawfish and Football are constants.)

To give you some idea of the scope of crawfish boils down here: as of this year, Louisiana has a crawfish “pardoning event.” Yes, like the pardon some lucky Thanksgiving turkey receives from the POTUS each year. On March 7, Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor pardoned Emile the Crawfish to live out the rest of his days in Bayou Segnette. (Emile was named after Emile Zatarain [1866-1959], the guy who first packaged all the spices together. Seems a little ironic.)

The crawfish boil tradition in my family only goes back six or seven years. It’s definitely tied to the next generation—several of my nieces and nephews have birthdays in March. Since March/April is the height of crawfish season, it makes sense. It’s also a great excuse to get people to come visit, since all but one of those March birthday holders live outside Louisiana.

There’s a lot I like about this family event. I like that it’s something that’s been forged recently—it’s not some holdover from our family’s past. I like to see Husband Tim and Brother Jerry working together like Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear in Stuck on You. I like that it gets distant family and friends into New Orleans for a visit.

I could go on, but I won’t. There’s a quote from A Knight’s Tale that sums up my feelings nicely. (Uttered by Paul Bettany, from his brilliant portrayal of Geoffrey Chaucer): Days like these are far too rare to cheapen with heavy-handed words.

Indeed.