The essays in this volume were written over a number of months and were originally intended for very different audiences. They are confined to English Literature and start with Chaucer and end with Hanif Kureishi, although there are three excursions into Canadian and Australian literature. Each essay stands alone and can be read without reference to the others; they are arranged chronologically. Some essays are succinct; others more expansive. Some deal with well-known texts from the canon; others explore little-known byways. The purpose of this introduction is to try to offer a bigger picture of these snapshots from a national literature which is nearly 700 years old.
I abhor national stereotypes, but when one writes so often on a nation’s literature, it is impossible to do so without noticing recurring ideas and preoccupations. History and geography shape what we are, how we become and what we write. For example, literature in the United States has tended to reflect its status as a place of freedom and economic opportunity. The original Pilgrim Fathers, in an attempt to find a place where they could practice their religion free from persecution, founded a colony which deliberately marginalized those who would not conform – and so American literature is full of rebels and non-conformists who refuse to conform to the stifling atmosphere of homogenized America.
But what of the English? Two thousand years ago the language which into developed in to English was not spoken in the British Isles. The first speakers of English began to arrive in 450 CE to conquer the land the Romans had abandoned. Some historians argue that this was not a conquest, but a slow process of assimilation and of the gradual mixture of Celtic with Anglo-Saxon culture. The linguistic evidence suggests the complete opposite: the very word ‘Welsh’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘slave’; secondly, the English language, such a promiscuous magpie when it comes to stealing words from other languages, has only a tiny handful of borrowings from Welsh. And so, the English Empire, which was to be re-named the British Empire, began in the 5th century and England itself was the first colony, soon to be followed by Wales and Scotland. The early Old English texts which survive suggest a world of manly courage and stoicism (Beowulf) and a penchant for riddles and word-play (The Exeter Book of Riddles)... and an abiding and at times heart-rending nostalgia for the past and for home – that land across the North Sea where the Angles and Saxons had originated.
1066 changed everything. Linguistically English became unique – a northern European language brought into contact with a Romance language at a very early stage of its development. Socially the changes were even more profound: the Norman conquerors introduced the feudal system to replace the nascent village democracy of Anglo-Saxon society and, overnight almost, the English class system was born. Hence, one might say, the obsession that English Literature demonstrates, from Chaucer through William Blake and D H Lawrence to Kureishi, with class and social position. And with military conquest and force of arms comes an interest in politics, nowhere more obvious than in Shakespeare’s tragedies. And always, lurking in the subtext of much English Literature is a nostalgia for a past that is unattainable, but filled with a promise that the future never delivered – that race memory of the past before the Anglo-Saxons left mainland Europe, before the Norman Conquest, before Romeo met Juliet. Then, of course, came global empire which brought many new elements to literature written in English: new settings all over the world; a rich, exotic, global vocabulary; a leisured class at home living on foreign investments; and, eventually, a vibrant literature written by the members of the former British Empire. It is good to be able to include here stories from Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, and work by Hanif Kureishi.
And all this brings me back to the title of this collection of essays. Malory’s Le Morte Darthur predates the English voyages of discovery. But Arthur’s Camelot is the first English/British Empire and in its chaotic and tragic dissolution, we can see the foreshadowing of other dissolutions, other tragedies to come.
English – the World’s Lingua Franca
How far is the economic power of the USA the reason for the world status of English?
This chapter will discuss critically the assertion contained in the statement above. We will see that while the economic power of the USA is a very important element in English being the dominant world language, there are other factors which have contributed to the dominance of English: some of these are historical and have nothing to do with the current economic power of the USA; others are recent and current developments which have occurred at a historically propitious moment for the growth of English as a world language, but have nothing inherently to do with the economic power of the USA. As Crystal (2003, 88) puts it, “Evidence would suggest that English simply found itself in the right place at the right time.” So US economic power has played an important part, but it has coincided with other developments and historical circumstances.
It is certainly true that English is the dominant world language. Nearly a billion people worldwide use it either as a first or second language and it is the official language of 71 countries (Fraenkel, Haill & O’Riordan 2002, 25). In Europe English is very dominant: 99% of European official bodies cited English as their working language (Graddol 1997, 8). Even France has started to succumb – a 1980’s study showed that almost two-thirds of French scientific publications were in English (Graddol 1997, 9). In every field of human knowledge English is becoming the world’s lingua franca: in 1980 a study showed that in scientific journals and magazines “85% of papers in biology and physics were being written in English, 73% of medical papers and 69% of mathematical papersIn computer science over 95% of papers are published in English.” (Crystal 2003, 87).
There is no doubt that the USA’s economic power has been a significant factor in the dominance of English, but after the First World War the USA also pursued a less isolationist foreign policy which also aided the spread of English. After the Second World War the USA established the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In addition, through the reconstruction of Europe, Japan and the Pacific islands through the Marshall Plan, the economic power of the USA encouraged the growth of English too.(Graddol 1997, 8). Culturally the USA has become dominant as well through the power and influence of Hollywood (Fraenkel, Haill & O’Riordan 2002, 25) and global brands like McDonalds. In addition, the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 left the USA as the only world super power and meant that English became an increasingly important language to learn in countries formerly under Soviet influence and which had used Russian as a lingua franca (|Fraenkel, Haill & O’Riordan 2002, 25). In addition, as the twentieth century went on and as open trade practices have spread and with the growth of globalization, English has cemented its position and this has everything to do with the economic power, cultural influence and foreign policy of the USA. (Graddol 1997, 8). The USA has led the progress and development of the internet and that has been based on economic power (which allows technological advances) and also increases the need for internet users around the world to use English. (Crystal 2001, 121). Crystal quotes Michael Spector writing in The New York Times: “If you want to take full advantage of the internet there is only one way to do it: learn English, which has more than ever become America’s greatest and most effective export.” (Crystal 2001, 121)
The current dominance of English, however, is not solely due to the economic power of the USA. There are historical factors which have helped the rapid rise to dominance of English. By the end of the nineteenth century, Greta Britain could be seen as the world’s leading super power: the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe (Graddol 1997, p. 8) and consisted of settler colonies (the USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) where significant numbers of native speakers has emigrated and settled; and other colonies where English was the language of education, bureaucracy and social prestige (India, Pakistan, large parts of central Africa) (Graddol 1997, 10). So there were existing patterns of trade and communication in English before the 20th century began. Graddol argues
...the world position of English might have declined with the British Empire, like the languages of other colonial powers, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, had it not been for the rise of the US in the 20th century as a world superpower. (Graddol 1997, 8)
Graddol is being rather disingenuous to use the Portugal and the Netherlands as examples. For instance, in the one settler colony that Portugal once owned – Brazil – the Portuguese language continues to thrive. The Dutch pattern of colonization was entirely different from that practised by the British, so the Dutch language was less influential in its own colonies. In addition, there was no large scale emigration of Dutch speakers to create the settler colonies that characterized the British Empire. A better example would be France: if we imagine, hypothetically, that all the countries in the former British Empire had been French colonies, speaking French, then would English have risen so quickly to world dominance – the answer is probably that it would have taken longer, especially since Francophone countries are often linguistically hostile to English and its spread. Therefore, the rise to global dominance of the English language is not entirely attributable e to the economic and cultural power of the USA. When the British Empire broke up, its newly independent colonies often chose English as an official language – not because of the economic power of the USA, but because of colonial tradition and as a unifying force in countries which had several tribal or regional languages and needed an official language (Crystal 2003 88)
Other historical circumstances favoured the rise of English. As the 20th century developed the volume of tourism, air transport and sea traffic increased dramatically and, as it coincided with better and better means of communication, the need was felt to have a common language to ensure safety standards and even to co-ordinate the actions of the police and emergency services across the world. English seemed the natural choice and we now have Seaspeak, Police Speak and Airspeak – simplified forms of English used everyday all over the world (Crystal 2003, 86-87). Of course, the status of the USA encouraged the choice of English (especially in Airspeak which was introduced after the Second World War) – after all, the victors were English-speaking countries largely, but it was the technology and progress which necessitated the need for a lingua franca.
In conclusion, it is true that the economic power of the USA has helped English to become the dominant world language today so quickly. However, other factors have been responsible too – the cultural power of Hollywood and the foreign policy of the US government (which could, of course, be argued to be part of its economic power). In addition, the speed with which English has become the dominant world language is also due to the historical legacy of the British Empire and the technological advances, especially in travel and communications, of the 20th and early 21st centuries. I will return to Crystal’s words from the introduction to this essay: “English simply found itself in the right place [the USA and its powerful economy] at the right time [the breakup of the British Empire and the rapid advance of technology allowing rapid global communication and the globalization of the world economy].”
Crystal, D. Language and the Internet. 2001. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crystal, D. English as a Global Language. 2003. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fraenkel, A., Haill, R. & O’Riordan, S. English Language, Life and Culture. 2002. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Graddol, D. The Future of English. 1997. London: the British Council.
Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale
It has become axiomatic of modern Chaucerian studies that the fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales which so shocked 19th century readers have become subject to scholarly exegesis as if to prove that they are indeed works of art worthy of the pen of Chaucer. This often takes the form of analysis of how, for example, The Miller’s Tale, mirrors and satirises The Knight’s Tale or how each of the fabliaux differs in key respects from its original source text (thus implying Chaucer’s greater artistic merit and credentials) or prolonged explanation of how each fabliaux reflects its narrator and how this, learned experts would have us believe, represents in full the cornucopia of life and society that is The Canterbury Tales – warts and all. But with The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale we are still left with tales of farting, snoring and energetic love-making. Delaney (104) argues that
In the pair of fabliaux narrated by Chaucer’s Miller and Reeve, two sets of young clerks have a special function: they are agents of the kind of retributive justice called ‘quiting.’
But I will argue that the differences between the two tales are more profound than Delaney suggests and they go far beyond the Reeve ‘quiting’ the Miller for his original tale of cuckoldry. In this paper I am going to use William Woods’ essay on The Miller’s Tale ‘Private and Public Space in The Miller’s Tale ‘ as a starting point to explore the dichotomies that exist between The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale at almost every level, from the most basic to the most profound, and argue, not simply that the tales reflect the tellers (or some such cliché –which has been done before ), but that the two tales reflect radically different views of what it is to be human and what is most valuable in human life. We will see by the end of this paper that The Miller’s Tale offers a view of humanity which is life-enhancing and spirited, and offers a bewildered and confused mankind redemption of a sort; by contrast, we shall see that The Reeve’s Tale offers us a nihilistic vision of a brutish world where there is little pleasure to be had in anything other than violence and solipsism. As Blandeau (17) puts it, “The Reeve’s Tale is quite as brutal and brutally delivered as the unfortunate punch that knocks the Miller senselessly onto his bed.” And for once Chaucer deliberately brutalizes his source text, as Beidler (58) points out that in the French original the miller’s daughter did at least offer herself to one of the students.
Woods points out the the spatial setting of The Miller’s Tale takes place on three levels: the room at the top of the house where Nicholas has his astrological implements and sees the future flood and where, later in the tale, John naively hangs the three tubs and awaits God’s flood. The middle room where John and Alisoun sleep; and the street-level shot window where Absolon gets his ‘kiss’ and where he later appears fresh from the forge with the hot iron coulter. These three levels are remarkably reminiscent of the Christian pattern of Heaven, Earth and Hell. The upper room is where Nicolas is allowed insight in to “Goddes prvitee” and where John waits for God’s will; the middle room is earth; and the shot-window with its punishment of Absolon’s naive foppishness and the punishment of Nicolas for taking the joke too far is a sort of Hell – it is a pace of punishment, and, at the end of the Tale, it is where all three men end up – in their fall through the air to self-knowledge and the amusement of the townsfolk, a sort of Hell in itself. This view of the Tale fits appropriately with Rowland’s views of its similarities to English Mystery Plays of the same era. Woods points out that Alisoun has three levels too: her ‘likerous eye’ which promises so much at the top; her ‘nether eye’ which Absolon kisses in error; and her middle – the region around her waist which is what the narrator concentrates on in his description and which is the source of her power over the three men.
The irony really is that paradise lies not on the top storey of the house but in the middle – in Alisoun’s bed, in Alisoun herself. Woods argues convincingly that Alisoun is the most private space in the tale and that each of the male characters attempts to create his own private space with Alisoun at the center. Because Alisoun remains in the house, the house becomes the central setting, the only pertinent setting. The tale consists of five episodes and each episode begins with one of the characters leaving or having left the house creating an opportunity for Nicholas or Absolon to approach Alisoun. Woods argues that each man creates his own vision of paradise with Alisoun: John the vision of Alisoun and him as a new Adam and Eve – survivors of the flood; Absolon getting a kiss from his “swet brid”; and Nicholas making “melodye” in Alisoun’s bed. Only Nicholas’s dream becomes true and he spoils that by his insistence in adding to Absolon’s humiliation –which is also a way of demonstrating to Absolon that he (Absolon) cannot have her. And for this act of arrogant impertinence Nicholas too is punished. As Woods puts it
Towards the end of the tale, this movement from private ideal to public reality engenders a climactic reversal for all three men. Absolon’s sugary lines from the Song of Solomon, Nicholas’s fart-music, and John’s dizzy accusations all receive an appropriate audience response, as each man’s private pretensions are reductively inverted, the private dwindling abruptly into the public... Each man will define himself, and thus expose himself, when he tries to make that private space exclusively his own. (Woods, 167)
Gallagher writes that Nicholas exudes “a cocky omniscience” and that at the end of the tale he wants “to ascend to a new level of trickery.” (132)
So far much of my argument has relied on Woods, but let us now shifts perspective to The Reeve’s Tale. There are literally no levels in the tale. The miller lives in the middle of the fen and the one room they all sleep in is on the same level. In one sense, it has to be so that the mix ups involving beds and identities can occur, but compared with The Miller’s Tale it represents, I would argue, a literally flatter view of human life. More egalitarian, one might say, but it is presented in such a way that there is no upward aspiration – either visually within the tale or literally within the miller’s house or spiritually and or emotionally within any of the characters. The flatness of the landscape and the room they sleep in is a metaphor for a view of human life and potential which is reductive and narrow.
The dichotomies between the two tales range from the most simple and basic to ones which give us profound insights into the world view of each narrator. One tale is set in Oxford, a busy town; the other in its rival university town, Cambridge, but in a village south of the city. The one student of The Miller’s Tale is contrasted with two in The Reeves Tale. There are three levels in John’s house and we have seen their wider implications; in the miller’s house there are three beds but all on the same level. John and Simekin are both possessive husbands. John’s house is big, the miller’s small. The Miller’s Tale is filled with “melodie” – Nicholas’s singing and playing, Absolon’s singing and playing, and the “melodie” (l 466) of Nicholas and Alisoun’s love-making; in The Reeve’s Tale all we hear are the sounds of wild horses and the drunken snoring of the miller and his family. Even from these simple differences we may be able to detect a totally different view of the potentialities of human life as presented in both tales.
But the major difference lies in the difference between Alisoun, John’s young wife whom he keeps “narwe in cage” and the wife of the miller. In The Reeve’s Tale the miller and his wife are obsessed with social status – all because she happens to have been the illegitimate child of the local priest and has been brought up in a nunnery. Brown argues that the pair have “an air of defensive superiority” (138) with the wife “parading at church with haughty manners, he ready to strike a blow at anyone who would besmirch her reputation.” (138)
A full fair sight was it upon hem two –
On holidays biforn hir wold he go
With his tippet wound about his heed,
And she came after in a gite of red,
And Simekin had hosen of the same.
There dorste no wight clepen her but “dame.”
Was none so hardy that went by the waye
That with hir dorste rage or ones playe,
But if he wold be slain of Simekin,
With panade, or knife or boidekin;
For jalous folk been perilous evermo –
Algate they wold hir wives wenden so.
And eek, for she was somedeel smoterlich,
She was as digne as water in a ditch,
And full of hoker and bisemare.
Hir thought that a lady sholde hire spare,
What for her kinred, and hir nortelrye
That she had lerned in the nonnerye. (Chaucer, The Reeve’s Tale, lines 31-48)
This whole passage drips with sarcasm and is, we shall see later, a complete contrast to Alisoun, not just in attitude but in the methodology of description. Here we are given one physical detail – she wore ‘a gite of red’: the rest of the passage is about her husband’s brutish behaviour and her attitude, not her physicality. In terms of giving us a physical impression of Simekin’s wife this passage is empty –as empty as their social pretentions. But in this Tale that is all they have – there are no private spaces, no places to aspire to, to dream about. The miller’s wife, from this description, has nothing tangible about her that is at all attractive – it is all to do with her background and manners.
So if each man in The Miller’s Tale has an imagined private world in which he possesses Alisoun, in The Reeve’s Tale only the public world has any importance. There is certainly no privacy in the miller’s house, thus allowing the bed-trick to take place, but also because Simekin and his wife have an over-weaning pride in her imagined higher social connections. The church is satirized mercilessly here as the narrator describes the priest’s plans for his granddaughter:
The person of the town, for she was fair,
In purpose was to maken hir his heir
Both of his cautel and his mesuage,
And strange he made it of hir marriage.
His purpose was for to bestow hir hye
Into some worthy blood of auncetrye,
Fro hooly chirches good moot been dispended
On hooly chirches blood that is descended;
Therefore he wold his hooly blood honoure,
Though that he holy chirche shold devoure. (Chaucer, The Reeve’s Tale, lines 57-66)
The way Chaucer repeats ‘hooly’ in each of these lines condemns the worldiness and corruption of the priest and exposes the public world of the village as meaningless. As Brown puts it:
The sexual profligacy, social ambition and corruption of the priest, which enabled their union and sustains their aspirations, are described in vituperative terms, and add further to the sense that Simekin’s belief in his own importance is illicit and an overstepping of boundaries. (139)
His overstepping of boundaries is clearly referring to his violent brutality and his theft of corn from all and sundry, protected only by his weapons and the threat of physical violence.
This dichotomy between the two tales works in almost every level. Nicholas, for all his ‘punishment’ at the end of the tale, is clever and sophisticated. Chaucer or the Miller as narrator take s a loving and affectionate view of his books and the tools of his study which are described in detail and with relish:
His Almageste, and bookes grete and smale,
His atrelable, longynge for his art,
His augrym stones layen layen faire apart,
On shelves couched at his beddes heed:
His presse ycovered with a falding reed;
And al above there lay a gay sautrie,
On which he made a-nyghtes melodie. (Chaucer, the Miller’s Tale, ll.22-28)
Here the detailed way the narrator describes the arcane and esoteric tools and instruments of astrology, and their careful arrangement – both in Chaucer’s verse and in Nicolas’s bedroom – present the objects as things to be revered and valued in themselves. We will see a similar physical enjoyment of the inherent value of material things, even material and quotidian things, in the narrator’s long description of Alisoun.
Similarly his elaborate plan to spend an entire night with Alison is highly detailed and clever, based on delusion and trickery and superb manipulation of John’s credulity – we and Nicolas seem to take as much pleasure from the plan as from its objective.
By contrast, the students in The Reeve’s Tale have nothing to set them apart from any other human being– no musical talent, no psychological understanding of the needs of women – just brute opportunistic revenge and comic Northern accents. They are easily duped by Simekin freeing their horse into the fen and their cuckolding of the miller is due to luck and happenstance, not careful planning and the intricate world of make-believe that Nicholas conjures up. The world of the reeve is a barbaric one with no redeeming features, whereas The Miller’s Tale is full, by contrast, of what we might go so far as to call finer feeling. Even Absolon’s pretentiousness and lack of self-knowledge, his preening vanity and his belief in his appeal to the ladies is at least an aspiration to rise above the limitations of what it is to be human – but there is no such aspiration in The Reeve’s Tale.
I began by mentioning the the three part structure to John’s house and its possible equation with a Christian world view. Woods points out that the miller’s description of Alisoun is structured in a very similar way in that it starts at the middle (remember the middle of the house was earth but also Paradise). As Woods puts it
Alysoun’s portrait begins with her neat, slender body and its feral weasel’s energy. The description proceeds not from top to toe, but from mid-body, a body made accessible and promising by her clothing. The initial detail, a colourful silk belt, leads the the eye down to the milk-white apron over Alysoun’s loins. (Woods, 168)
The second half of her description associates her with the fecundity of nature – “the freshness and abundance of nature’s gifts”. (Woods, 169) At the centre of Alisoun and, appropriately, at the centre of the description of her is her purse:
And by hir girdle heng a purse of lether,
Tasselled with silk and perled with latoun. (lines 64-5)
Her purse is symbolic of her sex and what is so significant in her entire description is the association with real physical things - even through simile or metaphor. These things are ones that appeal to all the senses and emphasise the sheer physical appeal of Alisoun and the promise of her purse. Of course, they also indicate that John is happy to spend money on his wife. Everything about Alisoun is designed to suggest the plenitude of nature, the beneficence of the world and the desirability of Alisoun herself. Her apron is “as white as morne milk”; her smock and collar are embroidered with “col-black silk”; her head-band is also made of silk and her eye-brows are as “black as any slo.” (Lines 50-60) And in the second half of her description her associations with nature and luxurious objects recurs:
She was full more blissful on to see
Than is the newe perejonette tree,
And softer than the wool is of a wether.
And by hir girdle heng a purse of lether,
Tasselled with silk and perled with latoun.
In all this world, to seeken up and down,
Ther nis no man so wise that coude thence
So gay a popelote or swich a wench!
Full brighter was the shining of hir hewe
Than in the Tower the noble y-forged newe.
But of hir song, it was as loud and yerne
As any swallow sitting on a berne;
Therto she could skip and make game
As any kid or calf following his dame.
Hir mouth was sweet as bragot or the meeth,
Or hoord of apples laid in hay or heath.
Winsing she was as is a joly colt,
Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt.
A brooch she bare upon her low coller
As broad as is the boss of a buckeler.
Her shoes were laced on hir legges hye.
She was a primerole, a piggesnye. (Lines 61-84)
This is a very long quotation, but I hope it is justified: every reference to nature is underlined and every reference to something valuable is italicized. Note how every sense is engaged in this description, and also her height and uprightness – Alisoun is truly something to aspire to. Even the end of the description finishes at her middle: our eyes are drawn to the low collar and then we look up her legs which are laced high, drawing attention once again to what is at the top of her legs. This description suggests almost that Alisoun is a natural force and, more than that, it suggests a love and appreciation of all the things that are used as similes or metaphors to capture her essence. This is a description not only of a very sexually attractive woman, but also from a point of view that can appreciate the swallow’s song or the taste of “bragot or the meeth.” By contrast, we might note the lack of physical details from The Reeve’s Tale and its emphasis on social background and status.
If we take both tales together the narrators’ attitude to the materiality of life, and the quiddity of things is completely at odds with each other. The miller tells a story that enjoys the good things that life has to offer whether they are the pere-jonette tree that Alisoun is compared to or Nicolas’s astralabe or even Absolon’s somewhat ridiculous combing of his hair – his view of life is all encompassing and it is not without its romantic elements. There is a sense in The Miller’s Tale that the minutiae of ordinary life matter and are important in themselves. If Nicholas had wanted merely to make love to Alisoun he could have done so on John’s fist absence from the house when he goes to Oseneye; instead, part from his direct physical approach: “prively he caught hir by the queynte” (l 90), he also uses words
“Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (lines 91-2)
“Lemman, love me all atones,
Or I wol dien, also God me save.” (lines 94-5)
The point is simply this: the illicit coupling in The Reeve’s Tale is unaccompanied by any words of endearment or love – it is presented as crude and animalistic. Nicholas’s musical ability is another means of possible seduction. This is not to diminish the sheer desirability of Alisoun. As Woods puts it:
What that world is like, in The Miller’s Tale, is the courtship of Alisoun, held hard by the “haunchebones” while Nicholas makes his confession of love. This borrowed language of courtly love is less eloquent, however, than the “haunchebones” themselves, which tell us that in this tale, people’s bodies count... In The Miller’s Tale, Alysoun’s desirability and also her identity depend on her having loins and haunch bones. She has plenty of spirit, and, no doubt, ‘a spirit’, but her presence in the story derives from her physical form, the acts it performs, and the physical needs that drive them. (Woods, 170)
Even John, when faced with the ‘news’ about the Flood is to worry about his wife:
‘Allas, my wyf!
And shal she drenche? Allas, myn Alisoun!’
For sorrow of this he fil almost adoon.
And said, ‘Is ther no remedy in this cas?’ (lines 336-9)
Now John’s feelings for Alisoun may be mis-guided, his concern misdirected, given her plans for the night with Nicholas, but there is a human reaction here, an identifiable human emotive response. There is no counterpart to this in The Reeve’s Tale. I find there something equally touching (despite its obvious irony) in Nicholas’s vision of their post-deluge meeting:
Than shaltou swim as murry, I undertake,
As doth the white duck after her drake!
Then wol I clepe, ‘How Alisoun? How John?
Be murry for the flood will pass anon!’
And thou wilt say ‘Hail, maister Nicholay!
Good morrwe, I see thee well, for it is day!’ (lines 389-394)
This imaginative invention demonstrates a sheer joy in the act of duping the carpenter and, although it is duplicitous, is an imaginative act that simply cannot take place in the narrow, flat, reduced world of The Reeve’s Tale.
Even Absolon with his bizarre and, as it turns out, insincere adoption of the language of courtly love is attempting a transformation of himself:
‘What do ye, honey-combe, sweet Alisoun,
My faire brid, my sweet cinnamome?
Awaketh, lemman mine, and speketh to me.’ (lines 512-4)
Misguided and self-deluded he may be, but at least Absolon can communicate unlike the silent coupling of the students in The Reeve’s Tale.
Word and communication are celebrated in The Miller’s Tale even when they are a means of duping someone or satirizing courtly love or committing adultery with your landlord’s wife. The Miller’s Tale, we might say, is a poem that celebrates ordinary life.
By contrast, words in The Reeve’s Tale do not seek to transform life or make it better in any way – they are purely transactional. When the two students sleep first with Simekin’s daughter and then his wife (not through some carefully rehearsed and plotted plan requiring the use of forethought and brains), but through spontaneous action wholly dependent on the positioning of the beds in the same room, not a single word is spoken. This is animality or human animality at its basest. The students’ horse is clearly meant be seen as a metaphor for the students themselves – uncontrollable in its animalistic urges.
Woods’ notion of each man in The Miller’s Tale imagining his own private Eden with Alisoun is not matched by anything within The Reeve’s Tale – where no-one, it seems, is capable of such an imaginative leap. Woods also points out that the three men in The Miller’s Tale spend a long time looking at things: John gazes at Nicholas in a trance in his room and then gazes into the future with his post-flood Eden image of life with Alisoun; Nicholas supposedly gazes into the future and literally gazes for days at the walls to ensure his trick works, but cannot see Absolon’s hot coulter heading for him; Absolon gazes into the darkness of John’s house, hoping to discern Alisoun. In a way the fact that they are all deluded is besides the point – at least they can imagine a future. By contrast, no-one in The Reeve’s Tale is capable of imagining a future – they all act like animals as is clear from the description:
Within a while this John the clerke up leep,
And on this good wife he laith on sore.
So murry a fit ne had she not full yore:
He pricketh hard and deep as he were mad.
This jolly life han thise two clerkes lad
Until the thridde cock began to singe. (Lines 308-13)
The reader is unlikely to feel any sympathy for the miller. He has placed all his faith in the public world and has been duped within the privacy of his own home; he and his wife’s social pretensions have also been harmed since the priest’s plan of marrying his grand-daughter to someone of a higher class has been destroyed by the loss of her virginity.
There is one moment of humanity in The Reeve’s Tale which I have deliberately not mentioned until now. As dawn breaks, Malin says to Alain:
“Nowe dere lemman” quod she, “go, farewell.
But ere thou go, oon thing I wol thee telle.
Whan that thou wendest homeward by the melle,
Right at the entree of the door behind
Thou shalt a cake of half a bushel finde,
That was y-maked of thine owne mele,
Which that I help my sire for to stele.
And goode lemman, God save thee and keepe.”
And with that word almost she gan to weepe. (lines 320 -328)
Malin’s honesty, her enjoyment of sex with Alain coupled with the knowledge of how her violent father may act when he finds out the truth and her revelation of the whereabouts of the loaf constitute the single act of human kindness in the reduced world of The Reeve’s Tale. All the other actions in the tale demonstrate only low cunning, a desire to get the better of others by exploiting them or the pursuit of the vanity of public appearances. Of course, it then becomes ironic that the miller is struck down by his own wife – he who was so violently inclined himself – and it is significant that at the end of the tale no-one can see: at least, in The Miller’s Tale the characters had a clear vision of the future - even if it was wrong or deluded or sheer fantasy. All is darkness at the end of The Reeve’s Tale – although the miller has been humiliated and his false public status – based on violence, stealing and social pretension – will have been damaged.
In conclusion, it can be seen that these two tales are almost mirror images of each other. Although superficially dealing with the same subject matter – cuckoldry, trickery, deceit – and involving similar characters – students, women, husbands – we have poems that take a completely different attitude to life: one that celebrates and loves its detail and seems to love human beings, even with their faults; and one that is reductive, narrow, violent and spiteful.
Woods’ notion of each man in The Miller’s Tale having his own vision of a private world with Alisoun can be seen as an act of transformation and the poem, despite the humiliation at the end for all three men, demonstrates and celebrates the human ability to transform and change reality either through words, or through the imagination expressed in words, and human ingenuity, whether it is Nicholas’s careful trickery of John; or Absolon’s careful preparation for his night of bliss; or even John’s building of the three tubs and their careful positioning in the rafters, complete with provisions, all show the human capacity for hard work, imagination and seeing into the future – even when it is all so comically misguided.
Beidler, Peter G. Masculinities in Chaucer. New York: Baydell & Brewer Ltd.1998.
Blandeau, Agnes. Pasolini, Chaucer and Boccaccio – Two Medieval Texts and Their Translation into Film. New York: McFarland. 2006.
Brown, Peter. Chaucer and the Making of Optical Space. New York: Peter Lang. 2007.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Miller’s Tale. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1978.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Reeve’s Tale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1979.
Delaney, Sheila. Medieval Literary Politics: Shapes of Ideology. Manchester: Manchester University Press.1990.
Gallagher, Patrick J. ‘Perception and Reality in The Miller’s Tale’. Chaucer Review. Vol. 18. No. i. 1983.
Robbins, Russell Hope. Chaucer at Albany. Ayer Publishing. 1975. Print.
Rowland, Beryl B. ‘The Play of The Miller’s Tale: A Game within a Game’. Chaucer Review, Vol. 5. No. 2. 1970. Print.
Woods, William F. ‘Private and Public Space in The Miller’s Tale’. The Chaucer Review. Vol. 29. No. 2. 1994. Print.
Chaucer and the Church
Chaucer’s attitude to the Church was ambivalent: it depended on the individual employed by the church. For example, in The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, he displays enormous admiration for the piety and Christian lifestyle of the poor Parson who will do anything for his parishioners. Chaucer is full of praise for his personal qualities:
Benign he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversitee ful pacient,
And swich he was ypreved ofte sithes. (lines 485 – 487)
Chaucer makes clear that he does not merely preach Christ’s words about how to lead a good, moral life – he lives the words of the gospel:
This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf,
That first he wroghte, and afterwards he taught. (lines 498 – 499)
Chaucer, in praising the parish priest, implies that not all of them are as good as he is; he says that this priest feels that the behavior of priests must be perfect so that they set a good example to their parishioners.
This character is an exception, however. In his portraits of the Monk, the Prioress and the Friar, Chaucer mocks them for their failure to lead a Christian lifestyle, fitting to their role in society. The monk is harmless enough, but is more interested in hunting than in doing God’s work. He takes more interest in his horses and his greyhounds than he does in his religious duties. The fact that the jingling of his horse’s bridle is as loud as the bells of the chapel, tells us that his priorities all completely wrong for a monk. Monks were supposed to live a cloistered life, isolated from the world, but this monk is always outside the monastery hunting. The Prioress demonstrates more pity for small dogs than she does for human beings. (146 – 150) Chaucer presents her as vain and pretentious – proud of her awful French and very fastidious about her appearance. She wears a bracelet which has the inscription “Amor vincit omnia” (Love conquers everything) and there is a hint form Chaucer that she is more interested in human than divine love – which is against her vows because nuns were meant to be married to Christ. The Friar clearly breaks his vows because Chaucer implies he sleeps with women – which is clearly against his vows of chastity. We are told that he was “wel beloved and famulier” (215) with “worthy women of the toun.” (217). It was the duty of friars to do good, Christian work in the community, but this friar prefers to spend his time in the taverns, rather than mix with lepers as he should have done (240 – 245).
Chaucer reserves real venom and hatred for this description of the Summoner and the Pardoner – two men who were not priests, but whose work depended on the existence of the church. The Summoner’s appearance is off-putting – “Of his visage children were aferd” (630) – and he clearly uses his position for corrupt practices, letting people off their punishments if they pay him enough money and taking advantage of “The yonge girls of the diocese” (666). Chaucer’s narrative voice drips with sarcasm when he declares “A better fellawe sholde men noght finde.” (650). The Summoner travels with the Pardoner is just a con-man tricking ordinary people out of their money by exploiting their faith in God: Chaucer, the narrator of the General Prologue, is disgusted by the Pardoner’s actions. The Pardoner travels with fake religious relics which he sells to gullible and superstitious people. He is manipulative and corrupt and Chaucer comments that he “made the person and the people his apes.” (708).
If everyone in the Church were like the parish priest, then Chaucer would be quite happy with the church because the priest leads a truly Christian life. Chaucer is indulgent towards some less-than-perfect ecclesiastical characters, but his condemnation of the corruption of the Summoner and the Pardoner is clear.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. 1965. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Opening of the General Prologue
Chaucer’s opening 12 lines are a celebration of spring and new life, so we might expect the Tales which follow to show the variety and sheer vitality of different human experiences.
Am important aspect of English society at the time was the class system and this is shown in The General Prologue. Chaucer begins his descriptions of his fellow pilgrims with a description of the Knight (because he is the pilgrim with the highest social status) and then proceeds to describe all the other pilgrims roughly in a descending order of the social hierarchy of the day. There is a strict social hierarchy which shows us that the class system in English society was fairly rigid.
Of the thirty pilgrims on the pilgrimage ten are employed either directly or indirectly by the Church and this demonstrates the importance of the Church as an institution in Chaucer’s society and Christianity as a belief system. We might also expect many of the Tales which follow to have some religious content. Some of the ecclesiastical pilgrims are also clearly corrupt, which demonstrates that the corruption of the Church in English society was widely known about. For example, The Friar and the Summoner, we are told, help to arrange the marriages of young pregnant women. Chaucer reports this, but it is left to the reader to guess that these young women have been seduced by the Friar and the Summoner. He says of the Friar
He hadde made ful many a marriage
Of yonge wommen at his owene cost. (Chaucer p.57, lines 212-213)
And that phrase “at his owene cost” alerts us to his reason for having to find these young women husbands,
Chaucer criticises the corrupt characters of the Church, but does so to different degrees. His portraits of the Prioress, the Monk and the Friar are satirical but very gentle in tone. However, his comments on the Summoner and the Pardoner are much more scathing and critical.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1965.
Admiration & Contempt in The General Prologue
Chaucer was writing at a time when English life and society were dominated by the Church, and it is no surprise that many of the pilgrims described in The General Prologue were employed by the Church in some capacity or that Chaucer defines them and reacts to them according to their religious beliefs and practices.
The description of the pilgrims starts with the Knight – the person with the highest social status. The knight is one of Chaucer’s most admired pilgrims – but not because of this social status. The reader is expected to admire the knight because of his service to Christianity in Crusades all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Chaucer calls him a “worthy man” (43) and lists the battles and sieges the knight has taken part in: his courage and integrity are strongly implied. Moreover, he is modest, having come straight from the ship that brought him home to England. He has not bothered to change his clothes – a sign of his devotion, not his untidiness:
Al bismotered with his habergeon. (76)
The poor parish priest and his brother, the Ploughman, are both admired for the steadfastness of their characters, the simplicity of their lives and their devotion to genuine Christianity. In The General Prologue Chaucer presents other members of the church who are vain and corrupt, but the parish priest is a genuine Christian who cares for his parishioners, and does everything he can to help them. Chaucer admires him without reservation because he
... Cristes lore and his apostles twelve
He taught, but first he followed it hinselve. (529-530)
His brother, the Ploughman –
A trewe swinkere and a good was he,
Living in pees and perfect charity. (533-534) –
is admired too for his good, hard-working and honest lifestyle.
Chaucer is slightly critical of figures like the Friar, the Monk and the Prioress, none of whom quite live up to the ideals of Christianity; he treats them with good-humoured irony. The characters Chaucer likes least come right at the end. The Summoner is corrupt, horrible to look at and frightens small children with his disfigured face. He encourages people to commit the very crimes they then are tried for at the church courts. His companion, the Pardoner, is even worse. He is a con-man and a trickster, and the most corrupt of all the pilgrims. Chaucer’s dislike of him becomes clear when he questions his sexuality:
I trowe he were a gelding or a mare. (693)
He exists merely to trick people in to giving him their money:
... with feyned flatterie and japes,
He made the person and the peple his apes. (707-708)
Chaucer makes his own moral position clear through his descriptions of the pilgrims.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. (1965). The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Problem of Lancelot in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur
There are many problematic paradoxes at the heart of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and the most curious paradox of all is Lancelot and Malory’s presentation of him. His problematic presentation and the whole question of his adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere casts a long shadow over the whole text and has obsessed readers and critics. Malory is keen to stress Lancelot’s attractiveness to the opposite sex: “And whan Sir Launcelot was so arrayed lyke a knight, he was the semelyste man in all the courte, amd none so well made.” (Malory 483). Scala (385) maintains that, “Throughout Malory’s Morte, Lancelot maintains a consistent position as the “best knyght of the worlde” and the “floure of knyghthode.” But his adultery contradicts this description. Indeed, Edwards (89) argues that Malory has a problem which he cannot solve:
There is substantial critical agreement that Malory is altering sources in this tale to evade or obfuscate the question of adultery, and that the adulterous relationship is so much part of the traditional material of the sources that such an evasion is not quite possible.
However, Lumiansky (86) does not see this as an evasion at all: “Four of the five references to the Lancelot-Guinevere relationship [before Book 18] are Malory’s original additions,” which hardly suggests an evasion on Malory’s part. In my essay I will argue that Lancelot’s popularity for being “the best knight of the worlde” when it concerns Queen Guinevere, he suddenly falls from his pedestal to become no more, no less – simply a human.
Before we come to Book 18 there are several references to the love that exists between Lancelot and Guinevere, but it is clearly not consummated. As Lumiansky writes:
Lancelot loves the queen and he orders the individuals he conquers to report to her in order to show that he performs such deeds for her sake; she, because of his knightly eminence, holds him in “grete favoure above all other knyghtes”, but she has as yet given him no indication that she will grant him her love; he therefore can maintain stoutly to the four queens that Guinevere is completely true to Arthur.
Indeed, very early in the text “Merlin warns Arthur that Lancelot and Guinevere will love each other, but Arthur disregards this warning and weds her.” (Lumiansky 90) In order for Malory to present Lancelot as “the best knyghte of the world” and to excuse his adultery, there are moments in the text when Lancelot is not himself, when he is enchanted or tricked into doing something which he later regrets. As Scala (384) puts it
For example, while Lancelot cannot, by definition as “best knight of the worlde,” be unarmed (i.e. defeated) by another knight, there are important moments in his narrative when he is disarmed, moments in which Lancelot wears no armour, carries no arms and is significantly overcome.
But if we put aside the whole question of Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere for a moment, it is clear that Malory’s presentation of him is ambivalent anyway. Because of his status and reputation, no-one wants to fight or joust with him, so he cannot be himself (and therefore maintain his status and reputation) without, throughout the text, pretending to be someone else. Therefore, there are innumerable times when Lancelot puts on a disguise in order to be able to fight and challenge other knights. This question of “disguise” raises doubts about his moral probity, but, as Scala (385) argues
Disguise, therefore, cannot simply be read as as a covering over who Lancelot “is” but an endeavour to establish, confirm and experience that identity. In other words, he can prove he is Lancelot only by temporarily denying that he is Lancelot in order to perform and therefore assume his identity as Lancelot.
This element of disguise is similar to the episodes when he is also not himself because he has been tricked or enchanted. The problematic nature of the text here surely is partly the nature of courtly love – which was intended to be chaste and remains so in Malory’s text until Book 18. The nature of war is also problematic. As Lynch (2000, 24) points out:
Military violence is obviously necessary to the establishment and maintenance of Arthur’s new world order, yet “myschevous warre” is also recognized as both cause and symptom of Camelot’s downfall.
So Lancelot’s problematic presentation is part of a questioning of courtly love and military prowess – both of which are essential parts of the chivalric world. Malory’s intention, rather than the “evasion” that Edwards claims it to be, is to show the humanity and vulnerability of Lancelot and to show that in the end his sin of adultery is part of the destruction of Camelot, but also part of its redemption.
The Castle of Case episode shows Lancelot at his worst, but also at his most human. He is informed that Queen Guinevere is nearby and he impulsively rushes to be with her only to fall into a trap.
Where is my lady- said Sir Launcelot. In the castle of Case, said the messenger, but five myle hens. Than thought Sir Lancelot to be there the same night. (Malory 465)
When he arrives he is taken into a bed chamber and gladly sleeps, so he believes, with Queen Guinevere: “Sir Launcelot was lad into hir chamber. And then Dame Brusen brought Sir Launcelot a kuppe of wine; and anone as he had drunken that wyne, he was so asoted and madde that he might make no delay, but without ony lette he wente to bedde. And so he wente that mayden Elayne hed bene Quene Gwenyver – and qyte you well that Sir Lancelot was glad – and so was that Lady Elayne, that she had gotyn Sir Launcelot in her armys.” (Malory 465)
It is through this episode that Malory reveals Lancelot’s obsession with Guinevere. He thinks he is sleeping with the Queen and loses all sense of self-possession, but it is important to note, as Lumiansky (89) writes, “But for Lancelot, the affair with Elaine is not a conscious act at all, and it is followed by his extreme outrage.” Malory uses enchantment here as the subconscious longing for what is forbidden to Lancelot by his status and reputation. Lynch (1997, 6) argues that “Lancelot’s amazing resilience shows how a ‘name’, once gained, strongly resists alteration in the eyes of others.” But it does much more than that if we see the night in bed with Elayne in its full context. It is certainly true that Lancelot has been tricked, because, Malory (464) tells us, “Dame Brusen was one of the grettyst enchaunters that was that tyme in the worlde.” In addition, his desire for the Queen has already been signalled just before this episode when he found a naked lady in a room and, again through enchantment, thought she was Guinevere:
And there Sir Launcelot toke the fayryst lady by the honed that ever he sawe – and she was nakyd as a neydyll. And by enchauntemente... Sir Launcelot thought she was the fayryst lady that ever he sawe, but yf it were Quene Gwenyver. (Malory 463)
But Lancelot is not simply being naive here. In a way he is sacrificing his virtue for the greatest of causes, allowing his humanity to overcome him, so that, paradoxically, his humanity may be redeemed, because as King Pelles knows, but Lancelot does not
The kynge knew ell that Sir Launcelot sholde gete a pusyll upon his doughtier, whyche sholde be called Sir Galahad, the good knight by whom all the forayne cuntrey sholde be brought out of daunger; and by him the Holy Grail sholde be encheved. (Malory 464)
It is significant too that just before he rushes off to Castle Case he sees a vision of the Holy Grail. The vision shows us that Lancelot has the potential to achieve the Grail, but his fallen, sinful humanity, which includes his love for Queen Guinevere, prevents him from achieving it. Malory’s timing of this vision is surely deliberate and as readers we can see this; Lancelot cannot because he is enchanted. It is interesting to note exactly what King Pelles says when he explains to Lancelot that he has seen the Holy Grail:
“This is the richest thynge that ony man hath lyvynge; and whan this thynge gothe abrode, the Round Table shall be brokyn for a season. And wyte you well... this is the Holy Sankgreall that ye have here seyne.” (Malory 464)
Why will the Round Table be broken? Traditionally, one might argue that it is Lancelot’s treachery to Arthur and his adultery that breaks the Round Table and means the fall of Camelot, but King Pelles gives us another perspective: the Round Table will be broken because the values on which it rests – courtly love and fighting – are as nothing compared with the Holy Grail and the values it represents.
Lancelot’s extreme reaction the next morning to what he has done makes clear his conscious mind’s revulsion towards what he has done in the darkness of the night, in the secrecy of his heart, his innermost desires:
“Alas that I have lyved so longe, for now am I shamed. Thou traytoures! Waht arte thou that I have layne bye all this night? Thou shalt dye right here of myne hondys.” (Malory 465)
Elayne duly gives birth to Galahad and rumour and gossip soon make their way back to Camelot:
And so the noyse sprange in King Arthurs court that Sir Launcelot had gotyn a chylde upon Elayne, the daughter of Kynge Pelles – wherefore Quene Gwenyver was wrothe, and she gaff many rebukes to Sir Launcelot and called hym false knight. (Malory 470)
Lancelot’s fathering of a child by Elayne makes Guinevere reveal her true feelings and, we might feel, brings closer the physical fulfilment of their love.
Dame Brusen tricks him again at Camelot in very similar circumstances. Once again she tells him that Guinevere is waiting for him. He has promised to do anything for her in response to her jealousy about the conception of Galahad, but once again, it is Elayne who is waiting for him:
And then Dame Brusen toke hym by the fyngir and lad hymme to her ladyes bedde, Dame Elayne, and than she was departed and leaffte them there in bedde togyders. And wyte you well this aldy was glad – and so was Sir Launcelot, for he wende that he had has another in hys armes. (Malory 471)
Again Lancelot’s reaction the following morning is one of utter revulsion:
And whan Sir Launcelot awoke out of his swoghe, he lepte oute at a bay window into a gardyne – and there with thornys he was to-cracched of his visage and hys body – and so he ranne forth he knew nat whothir, and was as wylde as ever was man; and so he ran two yere, and never man had grace to know him. (Malory 472)
Thus begins a two year period in which Lancelot is mad and lives away from the court. Malory flirts with a misogynistic interpretation of this episode when he allows Sir Bors to say, “Now, alas,” seyde Sir Bors, “betwixt you bothe ye have destroyed a good knight.” (Malory 473)
However, it is at the start of Book18 that Lancelot and Guinevere’s relationship is public and no longer kept a secret. Scala (386-387) writes:
If readers have long recognized that Lancelot functions as a problematic hero of this world, nowhere is he more so than in “The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere,” where the romance of Lancelot and Arthur’s queen becomes a public rather than a private matter. In this book Lancelot remains the greatest of knights and best of lovers, the model by which all others should be judged, but his relationship with Guinevere threatens anew to compromise his reputation.
There is a tone of the inevitable in which Malory (588) tells us at the start of Book 18: “Sir Launcelot began to resorte unto Quene Gwenyver agayne.” And Malory (588) makes explicit Lancelot’s short-comings in the pursuit of the Holy Grail:
Had Sir Launcelot bene in his prevy thoughts and in hys myndis so sette inwardly to the Quene as he was in semynge outward to God, ther had no knyghte passed hym in the Queste of of the Sankgreall.
However, Lancelot is too human, too sinful to prevent his obsession with Guinevere:
But ever his thughtis prevvyly were on the Quene, and so they loved togydirs more hotter than they dud toforehonde; and had many such prevy draughtis togydir that many in the courte spake of hit – and in especiall Sir Aggravayne, Sir Gawaynes brother, for he was ever opynne-mowthed. (Malory588)
Thus, what Edwards calls “evasion” and this essay began by calling a “paradox” can now be seen as a necessary condition of the attaining of the Holy Grail. In one sense, Lancelot has to acknowledge his humanity in order to father Galahad who does reach the Grail:
... Lancelot participates vicariously – even necessarily in its successful achievement. For the most holy Grail knight, Sir Galahad, is Lancelot’s son, the product of a deceptive sexual union with Elaine, King Pelles’s daughter. (Scala 392)
This is still potentially a paradox: the achievement of something valuable and holy through sinful means. Scala (393) sums up the paradox very well:
Thus, although Lancelot cannot achieve the Grail because of his love for Guinevere, the grail is ultimately achieved as a result of his love for Guinevere. Like a kind of fortunate fall, their relationship is simultaneously posed as a problem and the only means of its solution.
This conclusion may seem rather esoteric to the general reader, but if it is paradoxical, then so is Malory’s view of humanity – striving to live up to high ideals but constantly “disarmed,” like Lancelot, by the power of desire and the instinctive and incessant calling of our humanity. Lanecelot’s humanity – shown in his love for the Queen and also in the episodes where he thinks he is sleeping with Guinevere – means that he is unable to achieve the Holy Grail: like all humanity his sinful nature prevents him from doing so. But, unwittingly, through his fathering of Galahad by Elaine is the means that the Grail is achieved: King Pelles knows that Lancelot must fall in order for humanity to be redeemed. The terrible paradox that Lancelot finds himself in is part of Malory’s presentation of Camelot and its values. Courtly love and martial prowess are the value-systems on which Camelot rests, but they are ultimately empty when faced with the power of the Grail and the values it represents. Malory, therefore, presents Lancelot’s adultery as necessary for the achievement of the Grail, since Lancelot, although he is “the best knyghte of all the world,” it is the spiritual world which matters most here.
Edwards, Elizabeth. The Genesis of Narrative in Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’. Cambridge: Brewer. 2001.
Lumiansky, R. M. ‘The Relationship of Lancelot and Guenevere in Malory’s “Tale of Lancelot.”’ Modern Language Notes. 68, 2 (February 1953): 86-91.
Lynch, Andrew. Malory’s Book of Arms: The Narrative of Combat in ‘Le Morte Darthur’. Cambridge: Brewer. 1997.
Lynch. Andrew. ‘“Thou woll never have done”: Ideology, Context and Excess in Malory’s War.’ The Social and Literary Contexts of Malory’s Morte Darthur. Eds. D.Thomas Hanks Jr and Jessica G. Brodgon. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. 2000. 24-41.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur or the Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and His Nobel Knyghtes of the Rounde Table. 1485. Le Morte Darthur: A Norton Critical Edition. ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: W. W. Norton. 1995.
Scala,Elizabeth. ‘Disarming Lancelot.’ Studies in Philology. 99, 4 (Autumn 2002): 380-403.
The Courtly Love Tradition
The medieval world conceived of itself and its universe as “a great chain of being” which was bound together by “love, also called caritas or charity.” This was a spiritualized sense of love, and was distinguished from amor – “the love of things of this world.” When human romantic love was presented in literature it appeared in medieval romances, which came to exemplify ‘courtly love’ – a term not used until the 19th century.
The origins of the word ‘romance’ are interesting. It referred to works written in ‘romanz’ or French – the language which had developed in France from Latin, the language spoken by the Romans. ‘Real’ literature was still written in Latin, so ‘romance’ originally meant literature written in French. However, it came to mean something more precise because of the type of literature favoured in the French and French-speaking English medieval courts - stories of knights and their adventures and their love for their ladies. Eleanor of Aquitaine became Queen of England and she helped spread the popularity of these knightly romances, as did her daughter, Marie, Countess of Champagne.
Courtly love “reflects one of the most far-reaching revolutions in social sensibility in Western culture” and depended on the man expressing his love as a form of worship for an ideal woman, which resulted in love being presented as “ennobling and refining” so that the experience of being in love revealed the “fine and elevated in human nature.” The lover in the courtly love tradition was expected to worship his lover from afar, perform deeds of service for her sake and obey her commands with total loyalty and unbending perseverance. The imagery of courtly love was borrowed from religion and feudalism: the woman was above her male lover – he was her vassal, her servant – and, in terms of religion, she was worshipped in elevated language often expressed in offerings of poems. The woman occupied a superior position in relation to her knightly lover. In response to his devotion it was accepted that the woman would be “remote and haughty, imperious and difficult to please.” She expected to be served loyally, and unswervingly, with little hope for any response from her. In the classic courtly love scenario the woman was married, so the relation had to be conducted in great “secrecy and danger.” The lady’s honor had to be preserved at all costs, so that she was not socially embarrassed. Physical consummation of the love was unnecessary – what mattered more was years of devotion and service to the lady, and her adoration and exaltation by her secret lover. Indeed, the religious connotations of courtly love actually served to discourage adultery, but obviously in any triangular relationship involving a married couple the potential, the possibility of adultery is ever-present. It is perhaps symptomatic that two of the most famous, most celebrated and written about relationships in medieval romance involved Tristan and Isolt, and Lancelot and Guinevere – relationships which were openly adulterous with disastrous effects.
Social historians are agreed that no immediate changes to women’s roles in society can be attributed to the courtly love tradition. However, if we take a longer view, it is possible to argue that courtly love had two long-lasting effects. Firstly, it gave European literature “a refined and elevated language” for writing about love. Secondly, it gave women central importance in the human activity of courtship and love.
Romeo & Juliet – the Isolation of Desire
It is not uncommon for tragic characters to become isolated through circumstances, through their own actions or through the actions or attitudes of other characters. Macbeth isolates himself through his murderous deeds. Hamlet is already isolated at the start of that play because he cannot join in the general merriment about his mother’s re-marriage. Romeo and Juliet, it could be argued, are isolated from the moment they fall in love at the Capulet party, because they come from the prominent feuding families of the Montagues and the Capulets. As the play proceeds we see the spectacle of the characters whom Juliet should trust the most gradually abandon her and isolate her until, by the final scene of the play, with the dead body of her husband by her side, she faces the ultimate isolation of death, isolated by everyone.
Her parents do not seem very close at all to Juliet and are not sympathetic from the very start of the play. Even before the Capulet party where she meets and falls in love with Romeo, her parents have been considering marrying her off. Both seem to see marriage as a business arrangement, although initially Juliet’s father seems slightly more protective of her and feels that Juliet is too young to marry. He says to Paris:
Let two more summers wither in their pride
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride. (Act 1, scene 2, lines 10-11)
Her mother is much more keen to see Juliet married and tells her in Act One, scene three that girls younger than her have got married in Verona. Her father’s attitude changes completely after the death of Tybalt and in the end he angrily orders her to get married to Paris or he will disown her as his daughter. This isolates Juliet even further.
Juliet’s nurse is initially very supportive of Juliet in her relationship with Romeo. She acts as a messenger between the two and it could be argued that without her help and assistance, Romeo and Juliet would never have been able to make the arrangement to get married. In the early part of the play Shakespeare establishes the emotional closeness between the Nurse and Juliet (after all, the Nurse had clearly been Juliet’s wet nurse when she was a baby), and their emotional closeness (as well as the Nurse’s garrulous tendency to talk openly about sexual matters) is a distinct contrast to the distance that seems to exist between Juliet and her own mother. Having helped arrange the marriage she looks forward to it and its consummation with undisguised and excited anticipation:
Hie you to church; I must another way
To fetch a ladder, by the which your love
Must climb a bird’s nest soon when it is dark.
I am the drudge and toil in your delight;
But you shall bear the burden soon at night. (Act 2, scene 5 lines 72-76)
However, Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment to Mantua show the nurse in her true colors and, even though she has arranged for the marriage to be consummated, once Lord Capulet has decided that Juliet should marry Paris, the Nurse’s reaction serves to isolate Juliet. Ignoring the fact that Juliet is already married she says to Juliet:
I think it best you married with the County!
O, he’s a lovely gentleman!
Romeo’s a dishclout to him (Act 3, scene 5 lines 218-220)
The nurse’s inconsistency is of no practical use to Juliet and she proves useless to Juliet at this point in the play, when Juliet needs her most.
The Friar, Juliet’s own priest and confessor, is initially sceptical about the young lovers’ marriage, but agrees to perform the ceremony for the best of reasons: he sees it as a way to end, once and for all, the violent feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. He is loyal almost to the end, but eventually, through a mixture of circumstance and his own cowardice, he leaves Juliet isolated as we shall see. The Friar is well aware of the strength of Romeo’s passion, but has good motives in agreeing to marry the young lovers, as he makes clear to Romeo
For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love. (Act 2, scene 3 lines 91-92)
The Friar prevents Romeo from killing himself when Romeo hears the news that he is banished to Mantua, comes up with the plan to fake Juliet’s death and sends a messenger to Mantua. It is simply bad luck that the message to Romeo does not reach him. Where the Friar shows his disloyalty is towards the end of the play. In the tomb he realizes Romeo is dead and tries to get Juliet to leave, but he is not very persistent and is frightened of the consequences for himself:
Stay not to question, for the watch is coming;
Come, go, good Juliet. I dare no longer stay. (Act 5, scene 3 lines 158-159)
Had he stayed then he might have prevented Juliet’s own suicide, but he is too cowardly.
It is probably important at this point to remind ourselves that Juliet is only fourteen. In the play which spans just a few days she is transformed from a young girl to a married woman. A key turning point in the plot is the death of her cousin Tybalt. However, the decisions of her parents and the lack of support from the Nurse, lead her to fake her own death. When Romeo arrives from Mantua, not having received the message that Friar Laurence sent to him, he believes his wife is dead. His decision to poison himself is not a spontaneous one: he had bought the poison in Mantua before returning to Verona. It could be said that Romeo, like the others this essay has analyzed, isolates Juliet even more, but he is surely less culpable than the Nurse and the Friar – who both act as they do in full knowledge of the facts. Romeo acts consistently throughout the play: his behaviour is always rash and impetuous; his suicide, given his extreme love for Juliet, and his ignorance of the truth is presented by Shakespeare as part of the tragedy, part of the tragic inevitability of the play. The Nurse and the Friar could have done much more to avert the tragedy, but no blame should be attached to Romeo, and Juliet’s reaction too is presented by Shakespeare as frightening and pitiful, but also as an inevitable part of the tragedy.
Constancy in Coriolanus
While I remain above the ground you shall
Hear from me still, and never of me aught
But what is like me formerly. (Coriolanus, 4.1.51-3)
“I am constant,” Coriolanus (Caius Marcius at this point of the play) asserts during his first appearance on stage (1.1. 237), but is he?
Coriolanus, for all his physical power and bravery, is a lonely and tortured individual. Despite his many outbursts of anger and his switching of political allegiance in the course of the play, there is a sense in which he is wholly constant to the values that have been inculcated in him – but those values lead eventually to his death and, before that, certain internal dilemmas which his values and upbringing have not prepared him to deal with. In addition, it can be argued that he attempts to remain constant to contrary, conflicting ideals, and that the tension caused by trying to do so, causes intolerable tension in Coriolanus – which can only be resolved by his death,
The greatest influence on Coriolanus is his mother Volumnia. She has brought him up to be a warrior and to have unflinching loyalty to Rome. There is no doubt of his physical bravery. His personal valour acts as an inspiration to his army and his soldiers revere him and his fighting skills. However, the real conflict of the play has already been signalled in the opening scene: in the opening seconds of the play one of the citizens says of Coriolanus that he is “chief enemy to the people” (1.1. 7) and “he’s a dog to the commonality” (1.1. 26-7). The Rome that Coriolanus id constant to, is patrician Rome, and it could be argued that Coriolanus is constant throughout the play to his conception of what Rome is and what Rome should be like, but it is Rome that changes. Ironically in the light of later events, Coriolanus accuses the plebeians of being fickle and inconstant:
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. (1.1, 180-2)
In Act One the battle against Aufidius and the Volscian army allows Coriolanus to show both sides of his character. When the Roman troops retreat he berates them:
You shames of of Rome! Herd of – boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er that you may be abhorr’d
farther than seen , and one infect another
against the wind a mile! You souls of geese
that bear the shapes of men! (1.4, 31-5)
his own arrogance and valour make him wholly unsympathetic to the failings of others and here he is unable to use words to encourage his soldiers to fight. Therefore, he leads by example, and at great risk to hos own personal safety enters the gates of Corioles, the Volscian city, alone. His soldiers assume that he will be quickly killed, but his fighting skills and courage ensure his survival and he acts as a leader by example, despite the extremely disparaging tone of his remarks to his men.
Coriolanus (Caius Marcius) is given that name to honour his bravery at Corioles) is a superb warrior and, because of his social status, it seems natural in the world of Rome that he should seek political power – the sort of power that would reflect his military skill and fortitude. However, he does not like the ordinary citizens of Rome and he is so straightforward and honest that he is unaware that the tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, are scheming against him and plotting his downfall. At the start of Act two Coriolanus returns in triumph to Rome. Brutus and Sicinius take comfort in the inconstancy of the ordinary people who will soon forget Coriolanus’s recent military triumphs:
The commoners for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honours. (2.1, 216-9)
As Act Two develops we see the worst side of Coriolanus. Because of his military feats the Senate of Rome want to appoint him as a consul. In this he is also encouraged by his mother, Volumnia, and the tribune Memenius who seems almost like a surrogate father to Coriolanus. In this world it seems natural that political power should be entwined with the military glory that Coriolanus has achieved. His appointment, however, must be approved by the ordinary people of Rome; Coriolanus must appear dressed in robes of humility and answer their questions. In Act 2, scene 3 he exchanges angry words with Menenius: in this sense, Coriolanus is constant because he does not want to be hypocritical – he despises the ordinary poeple of Rome and does not want to abase himself in front of them. As he says to Menenius
What must I say?