The Question of Genre:
The Canterbury Tales as Dantean Epic
The nineteenth-century notion of The Canterbury Tales as an anthology or collection of miscellaneous tales is no longer widely accepted, yet there has been little discussion in modern times about the genre to which The Canterbury Tales ought to be assigned. Not one of the notable discussions of the poem to appear in recent years, so far as I am aware, devotes any space to the question. Donald R. Howard, for example, whose book is significantly entitled The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, begins like most Chaucerians today, with the premise that despite its variety Chaucer's poem has a conceptual unity. He argues persuasively that the "inner form" of The Canterbury Tales can be understood in terms of the metaphors of speculum and labyrinth, but aside from a reference to the "interlace" of medieval romance, he does not attempt to connect the poem to any of the recognized medieval literary genres.
One reason for the neglect of this topic in contemporary Chaucer studies has doubtless been a justifiable distrust of genre criticism, a distrust that could only be magnified in the case of a fragmentary text like The Canterbury Tales, which is itself already composed of a prolific variety of genres, from the fabliau to the sermon. How is one going to fit such variousness into a single generic category? For these and other reasons the reluctance to speculate about the genre of The Canterbury Tales seems understandable, and yet I believe that the attempt to establish a genre for the poem as a whole has value.
It can only help to clarify the "idea" of Chaucer's unfinished poem by suggesting its primary literary antecedents and the general shape it might have had when completed. Not that the genre I am proposing for The Canterbury Tales, that of the medieval epic as an extension of the classical, Greco-Roman epic, has a very clearly defined shape. Its narrative begins, or should begin, according to Horace's verse epistle, in "the middle of things" ("De Arte Poetica," l. 148), and it has a tendency to end there, with many loose strands and most questions unresolved. As a genre, indeed, the epic is perhaps the most perfect example of the way some recent theory views all genre: as a nonlimiting form in which heterogeneous conventions and narrative patterns compete with each other but are ultimately harmonized. At least since Virgil, the epic as a genre has been perhaps rather like a problem or project an author takes on involving history in a dual sense: political, dealing with the destiny of peoples, Horace's "res gestae regumque ducumque et tristia bella" (things done by kings and leaders and dire wars, "De Arte Poetica," 1. 73); and literary, the evocation of a past literature as providing a model to be imitated and revised.
The epic poet's self-imposed task as interpreter and mediator of this twofold past may well have prompted Virgil to begin the Aeneid with an uncharacteristic bit of literary "autobiography":
Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena
carmen, et egressus silvis vicina coegi
ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono,
gratum opus agricolis; at nunc horrentia Martis
arms virumque cano. . . .
(I am he who once tuned my song on a slender reed, then, leaving the
woodland, constrained the neighbouring fields to serve the
husbandmen, however grasping—a work welcome to farmers: but
now of Mars' bristling arms I sing and the man. . . .)
But it is scarcely surprising that the authenticity of the first four lines has often been questioned, for Virgil otherwise adheres strictly to the impersonality of classical epic. Nowhere else in the Aeneid does he draw attention to himself as a poet with a career, however symbolically idealized, of his own. In countless ways, however, the text
of the Aeneid shows a poet working in full awareness of his literary predecessors, epitomized for him by Homer. The poet is literally a textor, a weaver combining strands from the Iliad and the Odyssey to tell his story of Aeneas. This point has often been noted and has at times led to the judgment that Virgil was excessively dependent on his exemplary texts, allowing his project to be overwhelmed by them. It seems possible that Virgil's own reputed dissatisfaction with his poem sprang from similar doubts, but such a negative opinion surely ignores the extraordinary originality with which he forged his Homeric materials into a quite non- or post-Homeric vision of human destiny where men and gods are, as it were, "historicized," that is, seen to derive their being from their place in a historical continuum. This continuum is dominated by a succession of different ethe, now passionate, violent, unselfconscious, now detached, inward, cunning, and so forth. These do not, however, cancel each other out but in their mutual strife or competition constitute a kind of historical "deep structure" of which earthly events are the visible manifestation.
For all the sense of a ceaseless and mysterious process that the Aeneid presents, its reflective style implies a kind of superior vantage point from which the bewildering scene can be viewed and analyzed. It is this effect of the style, I suggest, that Dante personifies in the figure of Virgil in the Comedy, giving it the role of the Pilgrim's guide through hell and purgatory. "You are my master and my author" ("Tu se' lo mio maestro e'l mio autore," Inf. I.85), the Pilgrim tells him when he first meets Virgil, and the words reverberate throughout the Comedy . Now, the extensive medieval legend of Virgil the magus and proto-Christian undoubtedly contributed to the creation of Dante's fictional Virgil, yet the primary source was surely the authorial personality Dante inferred from the poems, particularly the Aeneid . In that sense, I would say, the Virgil of the Comedy is "textual," the result of a bold act of literary interpretation in which author and text are identified.
Dante thus makes explicit from the beginning of his poem what remains implicit throughout the Aeneid : his Comedy acknowledges one master-text and will engage in a form of dialogue with it. This
has the further effect of placing the Comedy in the epic tradition, a tradition Dante brings to a kind of life when the Pilgrim and Virgil join the shades of Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan in Limbo. Dante-the-poet-pilgrim is invited to be the sixth in this group of classical poets (Inf . IV.100–103), which constitutes what admittedly looks like a rather idiosyncratic line of epic descent. The presence of Horace, the one decidedly nonepic poet in the group, might be accounted for, I suggest, by the fact that like Ovid he was a contemporary of Virgil and thus underscores the centrality, in Dante's scheme, not just of Virgil but also of the Rome of Virgil's time.
The figure of Virgil is a major crux in the Comedy, full discussion of which is well beyond the scope of this chapter. It epitomizes the momentous transformation of the epic genre wrought by the Comedy ; thereafter, the personal role of the poet becomes absolutely central. At the same time Dante's Virgil foregrounds a problem that in the classical epic remains altogether submerged: the relation between individual, personal history and collective, "universal" history. In the classical epic the individual tends to be treated as part of the great historical scheme of things (whether as victim, victor, or mere bystander). Not so in Dante's epic. There the individual has his or her own history, and the question is how that fits into the pattern of a larger, global history. Thus Virgil, the poet who in the famous sixth book of his epic described his hero's visit to the underworld, is ideally qualified to serve as guide and model for the story of a pilgrimage through the otherworld. As a historical individual, however, born sub Iulio, "nel tempo de li dei false e bugiardi" ("in the time of the false and lying gods," Inf . I.72), he suffers from a fatal flaw or disability: he is eternally barred from entrance into the heavenly city, having been in life, as he affirms, a rebel to the heavenly emperor's law (Inf . I.124–26). The pagan poet is thus, in the perspective of the Christian scheme of history, a problematical, even paradoxical, guide in this Christian pilgrimage.
As such, Virgil also raises a personal question for the poet of the Comedy : Is Dante's ambition to be the author of a great Christian epic perhaps a terrible mistake or an anachronism? In other words, is the very idea of Christian literature a contradiction in terms? Virgil's paganism, and that of his fellow poets in Limbo, might suggest that in the perspective of a Christian dispensation the very pursuit of literature leads only to a dead end, to a way of condemning oneself
to a life of desire without hope. Or is there a specifically Christian kind of poetry that can escape this sense of futility? Perhaps that is what the Comedy is intended to figure forth. Giuseppe Mazzotta seems to believe that such is the case when he speaks of "the radical predicament of a Christian poet [like Dante] who seeks more than an esthetic humanistic redemption and less than to perform the supreme transgression of writing an appendix to the Bible." The dilemma represented by these alternatives undoubtedly played its part in the composition of the Comedy, but my hunch is that what the Comedy is concerned with in the first place is the redemption of poetry, or literature, as such, regardless of its doctrinal or other orientation. Let us not forget that Dante is proud to count himself as one of the select company of pagan poets in Limbo.
The figure of Statius, which appears in Purgatorio XXI–XXVII, illustrates the complexity of the problem and simultaneously, I believe, hints at a resolution. Statius attributes both his becoming a poet and his becoming a Christian to Virgil's influence—"Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano," "Through you I was a poet and, through you, / a Christian" (Purg . XXII.73)—but though by Dante's historical fiction Statius was a Christian before he finished his first epic, neither the Thebaid nor the unfinished Achilleid was explicitly Christian in content. There is thus a certain irony in his enthusiastic tribute to the Aeneid :
Al mio ardor fuor seme le faville,
che mi scaldar, della divine flamma
onde sono allumati più di mille;
dell'Eneida dico, la qual mamma
fummi e fummi nutrice poetando:
sanz'essa no fermai peso di dramma.
( Purg . XXI.94–99)
(The sparks that warmed me, the seeds of my ardor,
were from the holy fire—the same that gave
more than a thousand poets light and flame.
I speak of the Aeneid; when I wrote
verse, it was mother to me, it was nurse:
my work without it, would not weigh an ounce.)
The words recall Dante-the-pilgrim's passionate acknowledgment of his debt to Virgil (Inf . I.79ff.) and remind us that Statius is yet another "mirror" for the Pilgrim. The implied judgment on Statius as a poet, however, is that he represents a weak or an inadequate link in the heroic tradition. This is not primarily a matter of his self-confessed cowardice in refusing to declare himself openly a Christian in his poems; that merely obscures, I believe, what is in reality to be seen as his imaginative failure. As his wonderfully hyperbolic language intimates—mamma / fummi e fummi nutrice poetando —he had a childlike dependence on the Aeneid, drew too much of his poetic sustenance from it, so that when it came to writing his own poems he was unable to move beyond the Virgilian model. His lukewarm Christianity, it could almost be said, results from his failure to take his poetry seriously enough, to see it as a vital and integral part of his existence. Had he taken it more seriously, he might have gained the courage to write an overtly Christian epic. As it is, not he but Dante is the next in line of succession from Homer.
Statius, or rather the myth Dante has fashioned of him in the Purgatorio, thus provides in the first instance a negative answer to the question concerning a specifically Christian poetry. For Statius, even though he was converted to Christianity by the reading of a poem—Virgil's fourth Eclogue (Purg . XXII.70ff.)—Christianity and poetry exist in separate compartments; in his mind there is clearly no connection between them. This is, I believe, one of a number of reasons that Statius does not replace Virgil as the Pilgrim's guide, despite the fact that he now reveals himself as somewhat of an authority on theological matters. Poetry plus theology is not what the Pilgrim—or the poet of the Comedy —is after. Instead, he continues to be guided by the pagan poet ignorant of the mysteries of Christian revelation. The implication, as I see it, is that any poetry, if pursued seriously, so far from being antagonistic to religious truth, is integral
to it. And one further conclusion I should like to draw from the foregoing considerations is that there is no specifically Christian poetry. There is only poetry written by Christian, Jew, Muslim, "pagan" . . .
Virgil's sudden and wordless disappearance once the Pilgrim has entered the Earthly Paradise seems to accord with this conclusion. Here is no violent rupture, like the earthquake signaling that Statius has been cleansed of his sin (Purg . XX and XXI.58ff.), but a natural progression. The Pilgrim was about to speak to Virgil—who by now is a fellow traveler rather than a guide or master—and he has already formed the sentences in his head, but Virgil, he discovers, is no longer by his side (Purg . XXX.43ff.). The dialogue with Virgil, in other words, is not concluded, indeed, cannot be concluded, because Virgil and all that that name stands for has been fully internalized by the Pilgrim-poet, who is now ready to move on to the next stage of his pilgrimage, his encounter with Beatrice.
In the preceding paragraphs I have tried to sketch in rough outline what I believe may have been Dante's understanding of the epic tradition and of his poem's place in it, from the evidence of the Comedy itself. My emphasis has been on Dante because I start from the premise that for his epic project Chaucer chose his Italian predecessor for a guide as Dante had chosen Virgil for his. In two poems composed before The Canterbury Tales, we can observe Chaucer looking ahead to and meditating upon his project. In both he has Dante in mind and alludes to the group of poets assembled in Dante's Limbo. First, there is the envoy to Troilus and Criseyde :
Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make in some comedye!
But litel book, no makyng thow n'envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.
That last line does not, of course, refer to Chaucer's "sources," for which he has already created the fiction of "Lollius" (I.394)—notoriously, he nowhere in his works mentions Boccaccio. Rather, like Dante's poets in Limbo, Chaucer's are mentioned to place the book of Troilus in the line of epic that they created. That the list reflects Dante's group seems clear enough. It may also allude, as it has at times been suggested, to the end of the Filocolo, where Boccaccio addresses "mio libretto" and names the same authors, except that Chaucer puts Homer where Boccaccio had Dante!
There are other hints of Dante's presence in our passage. When Chaucer describes Troilus and Criseyde as "litel myn tragedye" and expresses the hope that before he dies he will "make in some comedye" he may well be echoing Dante's references to his poem as "questa comedìa" (Inf . XVI.128) and "la mia comedìa" (Inf . XXI.2) over against Virgil's reference to his poem as "l'alta mia tragedìa" (XX.113). In his characteristically understated, self-deprecatory way Chaucer could here be insinuating an extraordinary ambition that matches Virgil in tragedy, Dante in his comedy.
The idea of the Troilus as somehow modeled on the Aeneid is not as farfetched as it might at first appear to be. It would require, in the first place, a focus on the early books of the Aeneid dealing with the destruction of Troy and Dido's love tragedy as the real center of the epic. That is precisely the focus we get in the dream-vision summary of the Aeneid at the beginning of the House of Fame : 290 lines for the first four books, 33 for the rest. I mention this because I believe that the House of Fame is Chaucer's fullest meditation on the nature and meaning of epic and the second of the two poems in which he most clearly looks ahead to The Canterbury Tales with Dante in mind. The connections between fame and the epic are clear enough: traditionally, they may be said to depend or "feed" upon each other. Fame supplies the motives and the materials that inspire
the epic poet, but in this poem, which Alfred David has aptly characterized as a mock-epic, fame is also scrutinized for what it is and how it operates. In the course of the scrutiny there is a hint of a possible redefinition of the idea of fame and thus of the traditional focus of epic. All this fits very well, of course, with Dante's Comedy, but what makes the House of Fame most obviously an exploration of Dante's epic manner in the mode of parody is the fact that the poet-figure is made the dramatic center of his narrative. The poem as a whole, we might say, serves as Chaucer's announcement or preparation for the new departure that is to be The Canterbury Tales, in which Chaucer will, in effect, manifest himself as "Dante in Inglissh," to use Lydgate's characterization of the House of Fame .
The seed of the idea developed in the House of Fame derives from Dante's Limbo (Inf . IV). There, it will be remembered, the Pilgrim and his guide encounter crowds of the unbaptized and the great poets and sages, as well as heroes and heroines of antiquity, all, in a manner of speaking, at home there. Who, the Pilgrim wants to know, are those so honored that they are segregated from the others (974–75)? Virgil answers, in words pregnant with implications for the House of Fame :
che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita,
grazïa acquista in ciel che sì li avanza.
( Inf . IV.76–78)
(The honor of their name,
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven's grace, and that advances them.)
The assumption in Virgil's speech of a correlative between earthly fame and divine grace comes in for extended mockery in the House of Fame, whose lady seems to hold the key to one of the central jokes in that work: the name that "resounds" (suona ) on earth receives its reward in Fame's "heaven" by being amplified as sound, noise, moving air, wind.
The Proem of the House of Fame —whose narrator, as I said, is Dante's histrionic "I" that typically makes itself the center of a drama
of writing—begins with a discussion (anticipating the Nun's Priest's Tale) of dreams, which retrospectively we can recognize as a veiled if lighthearted inquiry into the sources, value, and authority of poetic visions like Dante's. In the Invocation this inquiry is extended to the problem of communicating the vision when the poet prays to Morpheus for help "my sweven for to telle aryght" (80). The same problem occupies Dante at the very opening of the Paradiso, which the Invocation may well echo with its reference to "he that mover ys of al" (81; cf. "La gloria di colui che tutto move" [Par . I.1]). There follows the Story of the actual dream, which takes place inside Venus's glass temple containing, as in the Knight's Tale, "portreytures." Somewhat anticlimactically, however, these merely retell in slightly garbled fashion the familiar story of the Aeneid . Why? Is this Chaucer's humorous and half-ironic comment on his lack of visionary powers? Or on the tyrannical hold the Virgilian model has on the poet's very unconscious? Whatever the answer, the "reading" of this miniature version of the Aeneid leaves the dreamer thoroughly disoriented: he knows not "where I am, ne in what contree" (475).
Such disorientation is not uncommon in the Comedy, and Chaucer's parody seems aimed in part at the "autobiographical" cast of Dante's vision, the idea that it will serve as a way of resolving the poet-pilgrim's existential dilemma. In the House of Fame the vision inside the temple has obviously had the contrary effect, but when he leaves the temple to look for someone "that may telle me where I am" (479), he begins, in effect, that quest for "authority" which comes to such an ambiguous conclusion in the last line of the poem. Once outside the temple, he finds himself in a deserted field reminiscent of the Libyan desert and of the "gran diserto" of Inferno I.64, where Virgil suddenly appears to rescue a Dante terrified by the beasts on the hillside. An eagle comes to save the Chaucerian dreamer from his terror (492ff.), but it also may be said to have
flown out of one of Dante's dreams, the one in Purgatorio IX, where it carried the pilgrim aloft to the sphere of fire below the moon (IX.30). Like Virgil (and Beatrice) in the Comedy, the eagle was sent down, as he tells the dreamer, by Jupiter, not to give him a vision of heaven, to be sure, but to bear him to the House of Fame and so compensate him for his seemingly fruitless devotion to Cupid, Venus, and his books.
In the guise of the eagle, so I would interpret the "dark conceit" of Chaucer's parody here, Dante carries or guides the English poet away from his dependence on learned and aristocratic models toward the contemporary world buzzing with everyday speech that Dante incorporated so triumphantly into his poem. A perfect example of this speech is the dialogue between the eagle and the dreamer, which echoes so many of the dialogues that make up a major portion of the Comedy . "A ha!" says the eagle, as if he had just discovered a new form of discourse, "lo, so I can, / Lewedly to a lewed man / Speke" (865–67). Indeed, there may be a hint here that Chaucer, who had demonstrated his artistry in this kind of dialogue ever since the Book of the Duchess, has nothing much to learn from his master in this area, except perhaps for the idea of an essentially theatrical poem that incorporates various kinds of speech and stylistic levels of everyday life.
Books II and III of the House of Fame parody Dante's otherworld fiction with their description of the house and the companies of people who come there for favors from its lady. The "afterlife" here is chaotic and as seemingly capricious as the life we know; despite the eagle's energetic flight we seem not to have left earth at all. Chaucer's otherworld, unlike Dante's, never really pretends to the "otherness" of visionary experience, and it contains nothing that seems designed to help our poet-dreamer to orient himself. There is, of course, the house—variously also called a castle or palace (1090; 1114; 1294; 1310)—but it is built on a rock of ice, "a feble fundament / To bilden on a place hye" (1132–33), and what is inside it has no apparent bearing on the dreamer's concerns. Its "hall of fame" contains statues of authors among whom there are again four of the five poets who in Limbo welcome Dante into their company (Inf . IV.102), a scene that underlines the contrast between the two castles of fame, because in the Chaucerian one the dreamer is never
more than an awestruck spectator and outsider among the statues. These, furthermore, include a representation of "Lollius," Chaucer's playful invention in the Troilus and a perfect exemplum of the questionableness that must attach to all of Fame's institutions. How far, after all, is the revered name of Homer from "Lollius"?
Does Dante's Limbo guarantee its distinguished residents a more substantial immortality than Fame's hall? Not necessarily. True, the elaborate structure of the Comedy suggests that in the Dantean universe, as in God's, all is purposeful, nothing and nobody is ultimately overlooked. The significance of the structure can, however, be over-emphasized, and often has been, in Dante criticism. At least as important, and certainly more mysterious, is the temporal dimension in Dante's poetic scheme, and it is this, obviously, that bears crucially on the question of poetic, or generally intellectual, posthumous fame. It seems to me we get a clue regarding an answer to the question very early in the Comedy when the Pilgrim first sees Virgil as one "chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco" (Inf . I.63). The interpretation of this line has aroused controversy that shows no sign of flagging and which I am not competent to resolve even if such were possible. Ignoring all the difficulties, including the fact that the Italian has no explicit reference to "voice," I accept Sinclair's translation: Virgil first appeared to the Pilgrim as "one whose voice seemed weak from long silence." A possible interpretation of the line, then, seems to me that Virgil was silent until he got back his voice through Dante when he wrote the Comedy .
The obvious implication with respect to immortality is that a poet depends upon succeeding generations of poets—and commentators—to be heard, to remain alive after he has died. After death, in other words, a poet becomes identified with the texts he produced: they are his potential voice because, until brought back to life by one of the living, the poet-text is a mute shade languishing in Limbo. In light of what I said earlier about the epic poet's master project being the creative reinterpretation and renewal of the past, it follows that he is both aspirant to fame and the one peculiarly responsible for preserving the fame of others. Through him the ghosts in Limbo
can hope to live again, momentarily. Through Virgil, who is the Aeneid, Homer speaks again, even for those who have never read Homer; through Dante, Virgil speaks once again, after how long a silence?
Now, the House of Fame, I have argued, shows us Chaucer aspiring to carry on the epic tradition as redefined by Dante—to make Dante speak "in Inglissh"—and at the same time, as befits a true continuator, detaching himself from some central aspects of Dantean epic. Detachment here does not mean repudiation, of course, but skepticism or at least a refusal to accept at face value. That would apply, as was already indicated, to the visionary element so central to Dante, and here also belongs the idea of poetic authority. It is, I believe, no accident that the House of Fame breaks off at the point when the dreamer sees a man who "seemed for to be / A man of great auctorite." Who this might be has been the subject of considerable scholarly speculation, but the prior point I would insist on concerns the inherent unlikelihood that a person of actual, let alone great, authority would make his appearance in this context. It is true, as I argued earlier, that the dreamer leaves Venus's temple looking for someone with sufficient authority to set him straight, that is, to tell him "where I am." This is assuredly part of the poem's parody of Dante, and it seems entirely appropriate to this parody that the poem would stop abruptly at the apparent culmination of the quest (whose point the dreamer has meanwhile characteristically forgotten). As a culmination turned into anticlimax, it is meant, I think, to be seen in relation to the moment at the beginning of the Comedy when the Pilgrim saw a man "whose voice seemed weak from long silence," and the slightly later occasion when the six poets in Limbo are in a meadow below the castle, "where there were people with grave and slow-moving eyes and looks of great authority" (S) ("Genti v'eran con occhi tardi e gravi / Di grande autorità ne' lor sembianti," Inf . IV.112–13).
Looking once again past or through the parody, we can say that Chaucer, too, is searching for a "Virgil figure," has in fact found it, but simultaneously hesitates or refuses to commit himself to one. Indeed, in The Canterbury Tales such a figure is notable for its absence. Where we might look for a "man of gret auctorite" to lead the pilgrimage, we find only—the Host! Paradoxically, however, the Host proves to be a not altogether inappropriate surrogate for the absent authority figure, as we shall see. The reason is that the concept
of poetic—as of religious—authority is not, as we might expect, vested in an individual, an institution (like the court), or a text (like the Aeneid ), but belongs instead to a group, any group, that has gathered for the purpose of telling and listening to tales. In The Canterbury Tales the fictive representatives of this group are of course the twenty-nine persons gathered in Southwark "from every shires ende," for whom the Host decides to act as master of ceremonies. This group very quickly evolves into a "felaweshipe" (General Prologue, ll. 26, 32) that spontaneously gathers to itself its own authority.
My suggestion of a poetic authority that is collective but also temporary and provisional is based on the Turners' idea of the religious, social, and political community formed by groups of people—like pilgrims—whose common pursuit has somehow placed them outside the boundaries of their customary social structure. The crucial feature of such a community is its "liminality," the fact that it is on the threshold (limen ) between an established community temporarily left behind and a new one that springs from the spontaneous collaboration of people pursuing a common goal. Authority in this kind of community will itself be "liminoid," strictly provisional, and the collective expression of its individual members, like Bakhtin's "carnival spirit." In the tale-telling community the authority that I have called poetic, but that is of course also "critical," in a sense will be redefined with every tale that is told, but as a group the pilgrims and their tales also establish their collective authority.
The idea of a collective poetic authority paralleling that of the pilgrimage fellowship is based on the fiction that the Canterbury pilgrims in their dual role as tale-tellers and audience somehow mirror or stand in for the author-audience relationship that is projected in The Canterbury Tales . What I am saying is that Chaucer the narrator treats his readers as if they were an audience for whose collective benefit and approbation he is not simply reporting but also reenacting in its various roles the tale-telling game of the Canterbury pilgrimage. I shall return to this point when I come to discuss the
whole idea of epic theater. Meanwhile, the distinction I suggested between Dante's and Chaucer's concepts of authority is tied in, as will be evident, with the different ways in which they treat the pilgrimage idea, the structural backbone of their respective poems. In the Comedy, the pilgrimage is essentially metaphorical, an individual's ascent (starting with his apparent descent) to heavenly vision. In The Canterbury Tales it is literal and collective, moving horizontally over familiar ground to Canterbury and (in principle) back to its starting point. Dante's Pilgrim, furthermore, journeys through a precisely articulated tripartite setting, which simultaneously orders and mirrors the stages of moral instruction and spiritual reformation through which he must go. Chaucer's pilgrims, on the contrary, pass through a landscape that remains almost totally indistinct and unvisualized and thus neither imposes nor reflects a moral-spiritual structure.
Like his counterpart in the Comedy, the poet of The Canterbury Tales is inside his poem as a pilgrim, but he remains peripheral, a mere member of the group, never, like Dante, the virtual center of the drama. Dante, after all, casts his poem in the form of "spiritual autobiography," where he looks back on his past self from the vantage point of his present self as epic poet reborn in faith. Chaucer, too, casts his poem in the form of a record of a past event in which he participated "with ful devout corage" (I.22); for him The Canterbury Tales is also an account of personal spiritual experience, but that experience is presented no longer, as in Dante's case, as somehow outside or separate from the poem, but as an integral part of the poem's fiction. And this point has a number of interesting implications.
It means, in the first place, that with the vivid sense of theater it creates, the poem always insists on its own fictiveness, on the fact that it is after all a transaction, complex but playful, between poet and reader. In The Canterbury Tales, that is, Chaucer the pilgrim and Chaucer the poet-narrator, roles usually kept distinct in the Comedy, are one. And just as Chaucer the poet does not attempt to distance himself from his pilgrim persona, so in the final analysis he does not distance himself from the other pilgrims either. Particularly in their role as tale-tellers, these are so many masks for him, and that is an important reason why we can say that for all its fundamental differences from the Comedy, The Canterbury Tales is still
a "spiritual autobiography," a record not so much of the author's past self as of his selfhood imagined in and through others.
A second implication of the idea that it is the fiction which is the autobiography in The Canterbury Tales involves our view of the pilgrimage it describes. In theory this pilgrimage, like Dante's, is a past event now completed. In practice, however, it is not completed at all. I am not referring to the unfinished state in which we have the poem, though that undoubtedly contributes to the effect I have in mind. This is the sense we develop as readers that the pilgrimage is still going on, in the "now" of reading and contemplating the text, and that, in contrast to the apparently perfect closure of Dante's pilgrimage, it will never and can never be completed, for the simple reason that there is always more to be said, further impressions to be revised . . . In short, I would argue that the fragmentary and unfinished state of The Canterbury Tales might well be regarded as the outward and visible sign of the poem's "inward" condition as "work-in-progress."
Here once again the House of Fame in quite remarkable fashion prepares for The Canterbury Tales even as it defines how that poem will differ from Dante's. Is it entirely accidental, I wonder, that the earlier poem mimics the tripartite organization of the Comedy and still breaks off abruptly, anticipating the seemingly contingent chaos of The Canterbury Tales ? More significant, perhaps, we have seen how the dreamer-poet of the House of Fame begins like a typically Dantean persona only to turn into a peripheral figure, listening, observing, giving others, like the eagle, center stage on which to reveal themselves. As visionary poet, furthermore, he has trouble keeping the account of his vision straight; the same apparently applies to his quest, though it is possible that it is the dreamer who can never quite make up his mind or remember what it is he is looking for. Unlike his Dantean counterpart, he experiences no visionary transport but wants to hear "tidings" in a labyrinthine house (1920–21) full of a motley assortment of people, shipmen, pilgrims, pardoners (2121 ff.). These are surely an anticipation of the Canterbury pilgrims, and the whirling house, which stops whirling once the dreamer is inside (2031–32), is perhaps really an inn.
As J. A. W. Bennett suggested a number of years ago, furthermore, what the dreamer is waiting to hear at the house of "Aventure, / That is the moder of tydynges" (1982), are in effect the tales to be heard on the way to Canterbury. And in the perspective of the House of Fame, these tales are somehow analogous to the goal of the Pilgrim's quest in the Comedy . In the final cantos of the Paradiso, that is to say, the Christian message, a kind of "tidings," is revealed in the form of symbolic images that have a transfiguring effect on the Pilgrim, so that within the rainbow circles of the Trinity his concluding vision is of the human image, nostra effige (Par . XXXIII.131). Like the imagery of the Paradiso, the tales of the Canterbury pilgrims—the tidings awaited by Chaucer's dreamer—will have a revealing and transfiguring power whose ultimate message might well be, once again, the clarified human image.
In this sense, then, the message or "idea" of The Canterbury Tales I am proposing is close to Northrop Frye's idea of "the secular scripture," his collective term for "secular stories" forming "the epic of the creature," in contradistinction to the Bible, "the epic of the creator," whose hero is God. I am not claiming Frye's "secular scripture" as a perfect fit for The Canterbury Tales, but it does strike me as a useful characterization of the inspiration dramatized in the House of Fame, an inspiration combining epic, Dante's Comedy, and tale-telling. Following Dante, the new epic theme or project that Chaucer envisions will be, precisely, tale-telling, with the implication
that there is no tale, however humble or trivial-seeming, that does not deserve to be included because of its potential for illuminating the human condition. That, it seems to me, is the implication of the house of Aventure with its varied clientele and tidings. It is tempting to suggest that the house represents the realm of popular (and essentially oral) literature like the folktale, which Chaucer has discovered as a new source of inspiration, but such an interpretation would nonetheless be too narrow. Instead, I propose that the house signifies a new poetic inclusiveness open to the varied styles, themes, and genres of the oral and popular as well as the learned tradition, and above all open to a varied audience ranging over the entire social spectrum, as implied by the occupants of the house, who, like the Canterbury pilgrims, are at once tellers and audience of the tidings.
By way of summarizing my conclusions about the House of Fame, I can say that it implies two stages in the poet's career, the first associated with the house of Fame, the second with the house of Aventure. In one of its aspects Lady Fame's palace (1090) is a satirical portrait of court with its countless attendants and endless crowds of courtiers pressing for royal favor(s). The scene must have been familiar to the younger Chaucer, the poet of the first stage, who, it is generally agreed, wrote the kind of poetry—learned, erotic, French-inspired—calculated to appeal to a court audience, a poetry, furthermore, whose ancestry is on display in Fame's hall of statues. The house of Aventure, contrariwise, is not familiar to the mature Chaucer, the poet of the second stage, judging by its name, his unorthodox entry by a window with the help of the eagle (2030–33), and his repeated stress on his reclusive, book-centered existence. As was already indicated, the precise way in which the poetry of this second stage differs from that of the first is not so easy to pinpoint. Looking at the house of Aventure, we can infer that the later poetry will be less conventional because prepared to venture outside the closed world and status quo ante of the house of Fame and into the greater world beyond the court, and the really crucial difference will have to do with the idea of a new audience for which the poet is now writing.
This is the implied or dramatized audience of inn and road in
The Canterbury Tales . For all that it is a part of the poet's fiction, it has a decisive effect on the very notion of what a poem is and does. Negatively speaking, this audience makes impossible a "pure" poetry whose intelligibility depends on a knowledge of esoteric symbols or interpretive techniques (as in the case of certain types of allegory). Nor can an author with such an audience in mind rely on stock responses, a favorite recourse, if we follow C. S. Lewis, of the epic poet's style. Given a nonselect, culturally diverse audience, every feature of the poet's literary stock-in-trade is bound to fall under critical scrutiny: one and the same text, line, or word will call forth a whole gamut of interpretations and responses. And this also means that within the context of such an imagined audience must be envisaged the constant possibility of misunderstanding, of the wrong or the altogether irrelevant response, which will somehow insist on its rightness and relevance.
In the heterogeneous audience it postulates for itself and the style it develops as a result, The Canterbury Tales looks ahead to the Elizabethan drama of the public theater and the mass-circulation book once the printing press and widespread literacy have established themselves. The style is what Bakhtin calls "dialogical," always conscious of and responsive to other viewpoints; its frequently artless, innocent appearance allows for, perhaps even invites, the interpretive free-for-all Plato associates with the written word (and that is presumably even more characteristic of the printed word). It is, to adapt Derrida's entertaining paraphrase of Plato's argument,
the phantom, the phantasm, the simulacrum . . . of living discourse. . . . This signifier of little, this discourse that doesn't amount to much, is like all ghosts: errant . . . wandering in the streets, he doesn't even know who he is, what his identity—if he has one—might be, what his name is, what his father's name is. . . . Uprooted, anonymous, unattached to any house or country, this almost insignificant signifier is at everyone's disposal, can be picked up by both the competent and the incompetent, by those who understand and know what to do with it . . . , and by those who are completely unconcerned with it, and who, knowing nothing, can inflict all manner of impertinence upon it.
In some ways that also seems a wonderfully apt description of Chaucer's poetic persona.
It fits the bewildered, wandering dreamer of the House of Fame, twice unceremoniously picked up and transported by the eagle, who also speaks to him with condescension, not to say impertinence. But the dreamer does know his own name, as does the eagle, a "Dante figure," as I suggested earlier, who addresses him as "Geffrey" (729; cf. 558), just as Beatrice calls Dante by his name (Purg . XXX.55). In The Canterbury Tales the poet-persona is no longer the slightly dazed dreamer of the House of Fame, or of the Book of the Duchess, for that matter, but a wanderer with a purpose, a pilgrim among pilgrims. Yet he still has the self-effacing, seemingly unfocused manner that tends to elicit an attitude of superiority and impertinence in others. Alongside this persona, evidently anonymous to his fellow pilgrims, Chaucer is, however, careful to inscribe both his name and his career as a poet in The Canterbury Tales . The shape of that career, furthermore, corresponds perfectly, as we shall see, to that outlined in the House of Fame . I conclude from the foregoing observations that Chaucer, though no post-structuralist, may well have accepted the Nominalist or Ockhamite position that the word, like the poet who uses and depends upon it, is very nearly an "insignificant signifier," almost no more than a breath of air. The word has no inherent authority, no inherently authoritative meaning. Whatever authority and persuasive power it possesses must therefore come from the personality somehow inscribed in it, from the reader's or listener's sense that it is indeed the expression of a person seeking communication, seeking understanding, of his "semblable." For that reason, though not for that reason alone, Chaucer followed Dante in making the poet's self-presentation an integral part of his epic design.
In this connection let us consider the moment (II.45ff.) when Chaucer's name is, so to speak, inscribed in The Canterbury Tales by one of the pilgrims, who at the same time provides an ironic and humorous anticipation of what a poet can expect from posterity. In his Introduction the Man of Law cites Chaucer as obviously a well-known writer of love stories who, despite his old-fashioned English and defective craftsmanship, is worthy of comparison with Ovid and significant enough to warrant a brief survey of his career. But when the Man of Law summarizes what he calls the "Seintes Legende of Cupide," his list of heroines is so wildly inaccurate—he mentions
eight heroines not even dealt with in the Legend—as to convey the impression that his knowledge of the work is based essentially on hearsay. The degree of his literary sophistication, finally, is indicated by his complaint that he has no story to tell, because Chaucer has already told them all. If posthumous—as well as contemporary—fame depends upon people like this, the poet might well ask himself, who needs it?
Despite such ironies, the Man of Law's opinions deserve our attention, in part because they echo what Chaucer says or implies about his career elsewhere in his poetry. His notion, however simplistic, of Chaucer as an Ovidian love poet from the start corresponds perfectly with Chaucer's self-presentation in the House of Fame as one who has served Venus and Cupid and whose dream about the Aeneid turns that poem almost entirely into a love tragedy. That dream, or rather, the amusingly eccentric synopsis of the Aeneid it gives rise to, could be, as I suggested earlier, a highly indirect allusion to Troilus and Criseyde, another love tragedy with a Trojan setting (which that of the Aeneid is only by extension). Similarly, there would seem to be another possible (and indirect) allusion to Troilus and Criseyde when the Man of Law mentions "Brixseyde" (71) as one of love's victims in the Legend of Good Women . There is of course no Brixseyde in the Legend, but since she bears the name of the heroine in Benoît de Ste. Maure's Roman de Troie (twelfth century), she almost inevitably brings to mind Boccaccio's Criseida and Chaucer's Criseyde. And these oblique references to the Troilus, I suggest, draw attention to the fact that the "middle" stage of Chaucer's career is absent from the Man of Law's retrospect and from the House of Fame, "middle" not in an exclusively chronological sense but primarily to refer to Troilus and Criseyde as the poetic monument "nel mezzo del cammin" between the early Chaucer of the love visions and the late Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales .
By any standards, Troilus and Criseyde is a masterful achievement. It has been truly said that in it "Chaucer reached the height of his powers," and we saw earlier how in his envoy the poet with proud humility placed it in the line of Virgilian epic. So why, we may ask, is it absent from both the House of Fame and the Introduction to
the Man of Law's Tale? Especially since its theme is still love? The reason, I speculate, is that from the perspective of the House of Fame and The Canterbury Tales, the Troilus does not represent the new departure, the epic "breakthrough," that at one time it must have seemed to Chaucer. In spite of its magnificent achievement it looks in retrospect like a continuation of the earlier Ovidian mode, its extension, let us say, into serious tragedy. What I am implying, in other words, is that by the time he was finishing the Troilus and looking ahead to the next project, Chaucer underwent a kind of poetic conversion. That may be a rather hyperbolic, and to some a contradictory, phrase, but poetry is an analogue of religion, and I think that when Chaucer had at length fully absorbed the Dantean poetic it did amount to a real transvaluation of values for him.
The first effect of this transvaluation was the rejection of what might be called Boccaccian antiquarianism, Boccaccio's habit, particularly in the Filostrato and the Teseida, of creating an "antique" world that would serve as a more or less self-contained, edifying object of the reader's contemplation. The Troilus is not an antiquarian poem in that sense, but I believe that in composing it Chaucer became conscious of the risks—of escapism, moralism, excessive irony—that the antiquarian poetic can involve. Certain parallels between Pandarus and Chaucer's own role as poet-narrator, for instance, might recall Francesca's indictment of the romance she and Paolo were reading together: "A Gallehault indeed, that book and he / who wrote it, too" ("Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse," Inf . V.137). Perhaps the most explicit indication of Chaucer's disenchantment with the antiquarian poetic is the awkward, jarring, and yet immensely vigorous recantation that concludes the Troilus . There is something a trifle absurd in the spectacle of a poet who has to the best of his ability created the sense of a "pagan" past and then recants his fiction because it does not conform ex hypothesi to "Christian" truth. To put it slightly differently, the Boccaccian or antiquarian poet-persona keeps out of his poem, stays in his own world, which is sealed off from the fictive world, except in the theatrical sense that he is its spectator and, Pandarus-or Galeotto-fashion, its "presenter." Once he leaves his pagan theater, how can he do other than acknowledge that, like his readers, he lives under a Christian sky and a Christian sun?
The revolution Dante introduces in this "Boccaccian" scheme will
already be apparent to the reader. In the Comedy antiquarianism is, as it were, set on its head, because the past, whether real or fictive, political or literary, is seen entirely in relation to the contemporary world. It is seen through the medium of the poet, who is inside the poem, not as spectator and presenter, but primarily as an active participant who represents or embodies the vital aspects and concerns of the contemporary world. In the Dantean epic, accordingly, there are no areas that are "off limits": sacred and profane, Christian and pagan, Bible and "secular scripture" mingle and clash from the start, because Dante's poem is both polemical and contemporary from start to finish. Dante's Virgil, once more, can serve as a perfect illustration of this twofold character of the Comedy, which begins with a man in almost complete despair rescued by a poet and a pagan who leads him, furthermore, not back to a real or an imagined past but forward to an understanding of the world as it is and may be.
By this detour we arrive at the second and crucial moment of Chaucer's self-presentation in The Canterbury Tales, when the poet-pilgrim himself takes center stage. "What man artow?" the Host demands to know (VII.695), underlining once again the anonymity of the pilgrim and the fact that he inspires anything but awe. Like Derrida's "almost insignificant signifier . . . at everyone's disposal," this man, in the Host's humorous words, "were a popet in an arm t'enbrace / For any womman, smal and fair of face" (701–2). And when he steps forward to tell his tale it becomes quite simply a distillate of The Canterbury Tales, the phantasm, to quote Derrida's paraphrase of Plato once more, "of living discourse, . . . signifier of little . . . [it] can be picked up by those who understand and know what to do with it, and who, knowing nothing, can inflict all manner of impertinence upon it."
As a parody, indeed, the Tale of Sir Thopas could be called the phantasm of a phantasm, so that the Host, not characterized as the possessor of a subtle mind, can perhaps be excused for inflicting his gruff impertinence upon it. He interrupts Chaucer in the middle of a line—"Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee" (919)—not, as we might think, out of sheer ignorance or unconcern, but precisely because he has some call to consider himself an expert on the genre Chaucer is parodying. According to various scholars who have written on the late-fourteenth-century "popular" romance, this genre evolved when professional minstrels took romances out of their aristocratic milieu and adapted them for recitation to audiences in such
places as the courtyards of inns. Though he seems a bit unsure of his terminology—" 'This may wel be rym dogerel,' quod he" (925)—we must for once allow that on his own grounds the Host's critical judgment is justified.
At the point, then, of the Host's interruption, Chaucer's covert poetic autobiography, the trajectory of his career as prophetically adumbrated in the House of Fame, reaches a characteristic climax. With the never-to-be-completed Thopas, Chaucer has triumphantly established the place of The Canterbury Tales in the context of his own poetic development. Together with the Man of Law's retrospect it is his equivalent of the Aeneid 's opening "Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena . . . " ("I am he who once turned my song on a slender reed . . . "). The slender reed is now represented by the Ovidian beginnings at court, which he has left to forge a popular epic for a popular audience such as might be found at the Tabard Inn ready for pilgrimage. This audience encompasses, as was already indicated, high and low, Virgil's men-at-arms as well as his shepherds and farmers, so that "popular" here does not mean quite what it often means in literary histories. There the term is often used as an antonym of "aristocratic" in the sense of "adapted to the understanding, taste, or means of the (common) people." Or, where it is not used in a condescending fashion, the term may carry the opposite implications, derived from nineteenth-century Romantic notions of the folk, of something authentic, real, the "unconscious wisdom of the race." Unavoidable as some of these implications doubtless are, in calling The Canterbury Tales a "popular" epic I intend the idea that its fiction embraces the different social classes of Chaucer's day, plays their perspectives off against one another, and never allows one to emerge as the ultimate or "true" perspective.
The idea of the popular epic is thus connected with the pilgrimage communitas discussed earlier, which, it will be recalled, involves a temporary abandonment of the accustomed social structure and the spontaneous emergence of a new sense of community. In The Canterbury Tales, correspondingly, the pilgrims come to us first like
representatives of fourteenth-century society, stamped with names indicating their place and function in that society. But as they start to become individualized in the General Prologue portraits, their names tend to lose force as class or type designations, and as a consequence the whole idea of social structure with its various stratifications insensibly gives way to the fellowship of persons beginning to evolve at the Tabard Inn. With characteristic indirection the poet draws attention to this development near the end of the General Prologue when he concludes his "apologia" to the reader with the request that he may be forgiven for not having "set folk in hir degree / Here in this tale, as they that sholde stonde. / My wit is short, ye may wel understonde" (744–46). The reader who believes in "degree" is herewith warned to be prepared for surprises.
Once the pilgrimage is under way, it is the tale-telling game that displaces notions of "degree" and social decorum whenever they threaten to obtrude themselves. The important signal here is the "defeat" suffered, near the very beginning of the pilgrimage, by the Host in his role as self-appointed master of ceremonies. Like a typical innkeeper, he is scrupulous about observing the rules of social precedence, so that when he eventually yields to the Miller, who insists on telling his tale next, it can be said without exaggeration that the spirit of play triumphs over principles of social propriety. The triumph is never perfect, but its actuality is shown precisely on those occasions when the pilgrims show themselves anxious to preserve the spirit of play and fellowship in the face of what would disrupt it.
It is in the spirit of play that we must understand Thopas and the role Chaucer the pilgrim adopts in telling it. If that spirit is also, or even preeminently, the spirit of parody in The Canterbury Tales, this should not dismay us. As the House of Fame shows, Chaucerian parody is no simple debunking but the exploration of a style, a mannerism, an attitude, by a process of assimilation that constantly threatens to become total. What saves it as parody, in other words, is the realization that style is not just the expression of an individual consciousness but also a matter of choice; in short, of play. Now, we do not know just what kind of minstrel Chaucer had in mind as
the target of his parody in Thopas . Are we to think of him as a simpleminded hack who caters to his audience's taste for aristocratic entertainment and in the process, out of carelessness or ignorance, gets most of it wrong? Or should we think of him as a shrewd professional who is quite conscious of what he is about in adapting his material to a nonaristocratic audience? Perhaps it does not matter just how we imagine this minstrel. What seems important is that he represents in various possible forms a composite of the author of The Canterbury Tales .
With this we have reached the final stage of Chaucer's self-presentation, beginning with the dreamer in the House of Fame and concluding with the "minstrel" of Thopas as the epic poet. The latter has a recognizable continuity with the past in the form of the pixieish blunderer who is the Chaucerian persona from the very start. The new and "epic" element is less easy to define because in some ways it is no more than an affirmation of his lifelong career as "entertainer" to audiences that never take him quite seriously, never quite accept him as one of them. To this we should add, however, that like the minstrel, the epic poet is also preeminently a transmitter of traditional materials that he has refashioned, and with that, it seems, we have a satisfactory explanation of Chaucer's virtual identification of the roles of epic poet and minstrel in The Canterbury Tales . And that identification, it is somewhat startling to realize, means that the parodist and the target of his parody have become one, as we noted they have a tendency to do. By way of support for this idea we might cite J. A. Burrow's observation that a number of the striking stylistic features parodied in Thopas are in fact Chaucer's own.
Thopas, then, acts as a mirror or speculum in the dual sense current in the Middle Ages of a model and a reflector. What it reflects is an image of some kind of its teller, and in this respect Thopas serves as a model for the rest of the Canterbury tales, all of which, I shall argue later, are mirrors in which the pilgrim-tellers may, but need not, see themselves. At the same time we are bound to recognize that the case of Thopas is rather more complex than the others for the reason that, as I have argued, its narrator brings with him a whole past history demanding to be seen in relation to this tale. Until now our focus has therefore been on the act as well as the manner of its
telling, as the climax of that history. But now we must penetrate beyond these "externals" of the presentation to the interior of the tale itself.
That last sentence is misleading to the extent that it implies a discontinuity between narrative and plot. If we focus for a moment on the tale's hero, "Child" Thopas, it soon becomes apparent that he has a great deal in common with the narrator, whether we think of him as the would-be minstrel or as the pilgrim described by the Host as a "popet" who "semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce" (703). Doll-like, otherworldly, elfin, faintly epicene, the picture conjured up by the Host is a perfect fit for the incongruous Flemish knight "with sydes smale" (836) who rides into fairyland in quest of the elf-queen, with whom he declares himself to have fallen in love in a dream vision.
Sir Thopas is yet another incarnation of the poet, particularly as the world perceives him: a dreamer who boasts of his allegiance to a world beyond the one his fellow human beings can see or inhabit, and who dashes off into this otherworld of his invention at every opportunity, returning with wild stories of exploits like encounters with giants. At the same time this dreamer constantly demonstrates his incompetence in the simplest everyday tasks . . . We have no difficulty recognizing here numerous features of the Chaucerian persona this chapter has examined. But if we left matters there we would be doing scant justice to Thopas, which, precisely because of the simplicity of its basic plot, seems able to cast a peculiar spell.
Shorn of the comic excesses of its style, Thopas might well stand as an archetype or urtext of Frye's "secular scripture." Its hero in combat with a giant who proves to have three heads could be a god or a semidivine being waging eternal war against the forces of darkness; he could be a fairytale hero destined to marry the queen of fairyland once he has overcome the various obstacles placed in his way; he could be, and in some ways obviously is, the knight of chivalric romance on a quest in the course of which he must prove himself worthy of the ideal represented by the woman he has seen
in his dream. Indeed, it seems possible to match Thopas with the protagonists in many of the genres and modes mapped out, say, in Frye's Anatomy of Criticism . Our main concern, though, is with the genre of the epic, and here it gives me considerable satisfaction to recall that Chaucer's most important follower and interpreter among English poets—the true continuator of the Chaucerian epic tradition!—derived from Thopas the seminal plot for his own encyclopedic-allegoric epic of chivalry. Spenser's appropriation of Thopas for the Arthurian plot of his Faerie Queene points at the same time to his understanding that Thopas is likewise at the very basis of Chaucer's epic project.
Rather than attempt to show how Thopas serves as sub- or pretext for the pilgrimage plot of the other Canterbury tales—"endlesse work," indeed, in Spenser's words—I want to approach the matter once more by way of our Dantean theme. Sir Thopas is, I suggest, Chaucer's fictive mirror in the specific sense that he is the poet as hero as he appears above all in the Comedy : inside the otherworld of his poem but always aware of the world beyond that otherworld, this world, an active quester guided by (his love of) the lady of his dream-visions and prepared to encounter, though not without fear and trembling, the monsters in his path. I hope the reader is prepared for yet another parody version of the Comedy, because it seems to me that for all its lighthearted foolery Thopas represents Chaucer's affirmation of his commitment as an epic poet to Dante's example.
In this connection let us examine the episode of Thopas and the giant Olifaunt, who appears to block Thopas's progress into fairyland and calls out to him:
"Child, by Termagaunt!
But if thou prike out of myn haunt,
Anon I sle thy steede
Heere is the queene of Fayerye,
With harpe and pipe and symphonye,
Dwellynge in this place."
In response, Thopas promises to return the next day with his armor and to pierce the giant's "maw" as though he were a dragon or a similar monster (823ff.). When the giant throws stones at him "out of a fel staf-slynge" (829), like David fighting Goliath, Thopas escapes, "and al it was thurgh Goddes gras, / And thurgh his fair berynge" (831–32). Back in town Thopas tells his men he must fight "a geaunt with hevedes three, / For paramour and jolitee / Of oon that shoon ful brighte" (842–44).
In a curious way this entire episode manages to re-create some of the grotesque humor and dreamlike atmosphere of the final cantos of Dante's Inferno . There the travelers' passage through hell seems to be blocked at one point by a whole congregation of giants, though the pilgrim Dante at first mistakes them for the towers of a city (Inf . XXX.20–21). His error sets the tone for a kind of Swiftian comedy in which the reader is simultaneously impressed with the terror experienced by the Pilgrim and with the narrator's knowledge of the harmlessness of these monsters, the fact that they are, as it were, dinosaurs or extinct volcanoes. The scene increasingly takes on the air of a visit to the zoo where prehistoric animals are kept. The narrator speaks as we might imagine a medieval zookeeper who browsed in the Church Fathers might speak, as when he comments on Nimrod:
Natura certo, quando lasciò l'arte
di sí fatti animali, assai fa bene
per torre tali essecutori a Marte.
E s'ella d'elefanti e di balene
non si pente, chi guarda sottilmente
più giusta e più discreta la ne tene;
chè dove l'argomento della mente
s'aggiunge al mal volere ed alla possa,
nessun riparo vi può far la gente.
( Inf . XXXI.49–57)
(Surely when she gave up the art of making
such creatures, Nature acted well indeed,
depriving Mars of instruments like these.
And if she still produces elephants
and whales, whoever sees with subtlety
holds her—for this—to be more just and prudent;
for where the mind's acutest reasoning
is joined to evil will and evil power,
there human beings can't defend themselves.)
In other words, it is a good thing that elephants (ME olifaunts ) are just elephants! And Olifaunt just Olifaunt, thinking he needs a giant-killer's slingshot to fight a puny mortal.
Canto XXXI ends with the comic anticlimax of the giant called Antaeus serving as the pilgrim's conveyance down to the lowest circle of hell (130ff.), a scene that looks ahead to their final escape from hell when they climb along Satan's hairy sides and legs. Indeed, the giants of canto XXXI are clearly a prologue to the "emperor of the dolorous kingdom" himself, who is, like them, a combination of terrifying supergiant and absurd impotence, stuck as he is up to his waist in ice and flailing his three sets of wings about like some colossal windmill (Inf . XXXIV. 28–30; 46ff.). Satan's most startling feature, his three faces, is shared by Olifaunt, at least if we go by Thopas's casual but also startling reference to "a geaunt with hevedes three."
Even as parody, then, Thopas seems remarkably faithful to what I take to be Dante's meaning: What passes for the darkest evil in this—or the other—world is frequently no more than the projection of our fears and feelings of impotence. Accordingly, what at one moment inspired terror can in a flash take on a harmless or even benign aspect. We saw this happening with the giants in the Inferno, who are initially terrifying, at least to the pilgrim hero, but eventually become the means by which he and his companion advance toward their goal of paradise. And so, too, in the comically compressed style of Thopas, the battle with the giant is presented as almost identical with the attainment of the beloved object.
His myrie men comanded he
To make hym bothe game and
For nedes moste he fighte
With a geaunt with hevedes
For paramour and jolitee
Of oon that shoon ful brighte.
This is not to imply that there is no real evil in the world. Such a view would hardly be compatible with the general tenor of the Inferno . But I think it is a basic implication of the Inferno and of the Comedy generally that at the basis of evil there is what might be called unreality, absence, nothingness, and that this chimerical element must be mastered before the actual evil can be attacked.
The charmed life Sir Thopas leads likewise seems to me in complete harmony with the way we perceive the Pilgrim of the Comedy . The latter, far from being passive, actively explores, questions, and reacts to what is around him, but he is also repeatedly rescued from difficult situations by a timely swoon or the intervention of a benign helper, so that it can also be said about him what was said about Thopas's escape from the giant, "And al it was thurgh Goddes gras / And thurgh his fair berynge" (831–32). Strictly, the two parts of that statement are incompatible, but in what might be called the dimension of faith they are surely reconciled.
Along with Aeneas, St. Paul, and others, the Pilgrim of the Comedy is doubtless a knight of faith in whose career "Goddes gras" is somehow interchangeable with "his berynge." And Sir Thopas, it need hardly be said, is another such knight, as is all but spelled out just before his story breaks off when we are told that
Hymself drank water of the well,
As dide the knyght sire Percyvell
So worly under wede. . . .
Commentators generally regard this as a reference to the eponymous hero of the Middle English romance Sir Perceval of Galles, which deals with his upbringing by his widowed mother, in the woods, and his eventual knighting by King Arthur. But in fact, as Chaucer and at least some of his audience must have known, Perceval was
the one knight of Arthurian romance whose career bears a certain resemblance to that of the Pilgrim in the Comedy . In the earlier Arthurian literature he was the knight of Arthur's court who led the Grail quest and at the climactic conclusion received a vision of Christ.
To be sure, the lines quoted refer only to the simplicity and purity of Perceval's habits, but it is precisely these that set him apart from his fellow knights of the Round Table, making him not only the Grail knight par excellence, but also a type of the "holy fool." This is an important concept in the Middle Ages whose basis is at least partly biblical. In the first Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul describes apostles as "fools for Christ's sake" ("stulti propter Christum," Vulgate 4.10) and develops at length the theme that "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise" ("quae stulta sunt mundi elegit Deus, ut confundat sapientes," Vulgate 1.27). "Let no man deceive himself," Paul warns the Corinthians; "if any man among you seemeth wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise" (3.18). Starting from uncourtly, even uncouth, origins—in the Welsh woods and Flanders—Perceval and Thopas appear to the world as foolish knights and by the Pauline logic are therefore well qualified to confound the worldly-wise.
I am not, to be sure, suggesting any direct equation between Perceval and Thopas. The latter belongs, after all, to the realm of pure literary play, whereas Perceval in some ways demands to be taken seriously, even as a knight. The point seems to me, rather, that both characters imply a critique of the tradition of chivalry with its notions of adventure and heroic action, and in that respect, at least, Thopas may be said to represent the more radical perspective. For if, as a Fleming, he begins as that apparent contradiction in terms, a bourgeois knight, he ends by subverting both the chivalric and the bourgeois:
And for he was a knyght auntrous,
He nolde slepen in noon hous,
But liggen in his hoode;
His brighte helm was his wonger,
And by hym baiteth his dextrer
Of herbes fyne and goode.
Thopas's adventurous "houselessness" is altogether consistent, not just with Paul's apostolic "foolishness," but also with a type of unspectacular heroism that we might associate with a St. Francis of Assisi.
Our examination of Thopas leads us to the somewhat surprising conclusion that in the twofold sense mentioned earlier he serves as a mirror for Chaucer's epic persona: reflecting the image of the poet as unworldly bumbler and projecting an image of an individual who in his unlikely, quixotic way is yet prepared to face foes where more conventional heroes fear to tread. Thopas thus shows us Chaucer as a true follower of Dante, redefining the nature of heroism as involving, not the usual violence of the Homeric and chivalric epic, but a moral and intellectual struggle whose arena is social as well as "interior" and whose outcome is always uncertain, ambiguous. And in this context it is tempting to link Chaucer-Thopas with yet another exemplary figure of Western intellectual history, the ironic, self-mocking, erotically charged and yet supremely self-controlled Socrates, whose uncompromising quest for self-knowledge brought him into conflict with Athenian society. The connection is all the more tempting because from the start of his career Chaucer's persona bears a striking resemblance to the Socrates of such dialogues as the Phaedo, the Apology, the Phaedrus, and the Symposium . How much of this Socrates could Chaucer have been acquainted with, however? After all, until the fifteenth century, the only dialogues available in the West, in Latin translation, were the Meno, the Phaedo, and a portion of the Timaeus . Now, the first two do in fact provide a
very full portrait of the "Platonic" Socrates, and the Phaedo, since it deals with Socrates' final hours and execution, represents, perhaps better than any other single dialogue, a reflection on the meaning of his philosophic career in its personal and public, political dimensions.
Assuming he was acquainted with one or more of these dialogues, therefore, Chaucer would not have had to depend upon the considerable post-Platonic legend of Socrates to arrive at an image not as rich and varied as that afforded by the full range of the Platonic dialogues yet possessing many of their essential features. The chief significance of the surmise that Chaucer might have come to think of his persona in relation to Plato's Socrates would be that it provided him with a model for the view of life as an intellectual quest in which no questions are foreclosed, no answers final.
The persona of The Canterbury Tales differs from that of the earlier poems by the sense of the magnitude and seriousness of the epic quest. Irony and dialogic openness are now in the service of a moral passion that is to be found preeminently in the Platonic dialogues dealing with the collision between Socrates and the Athenian state. A preliminary indication of this moral seriousness, in suitably ironic form, comes from the second tale told by Chaucer the pilgrim after his tale of Thopas has been cut short by the Host. The Tale of Melibee follows its French source very closely, and it is usually assumed that Chaucer simply utilized "this litel tretys heere" (957) out of a habit of thrift, because it was available. Over against this assumption I
propose that Chaucer, in looking at Le livre de Mellibee et Prudence, or his translation of it, recognized its character as a dialogue, which at the same time touches upon the central issues of his poem as of Christian morality.
To call this dialogue Socratic or in the Socratic manner may seem like stretching a point, yet I contend that in the context of The Canterbury Tales, Melibee can be seen as dramatizing the victory of dialogue over monologue, of argument over exhortation and legislation. As with a number of Socratic dialogues, the discussion is triggered by an event or situation, in this case the beating of Melibee's wife and the near-killing of his daughter. The intellectual drama that develops is constantly in danger of being swamped by the sheer quantity of authorities cited and the often stilted rhetoric that accompanies the reliance on textual authority. All the same, we never quite forget that the disputants are man and wife who have more than an abstract interest in the issues they are arguing about, and their discussion is genuine in the sense that the conclusions are not given from the outset. However rudimentary the characterization, furthermore, it is by no means totally lacking in psychological interest. For example, Melibee's struggle with himself, at once comic and deeply serious, in gradually yielding to the arguments of his wife, is something the reader can hardly fail to recognize as universally human. And in this struggle we come face to face with what I take to be the real subject of Melibee, the forgiveness of those who have trespassed against us, not as dogma, an article of faith, or a command from on high, but as an intellectual and moral problem with which people must grapple, in Socratic fashion, by weighing and debating the alternatives.
My contention with respect to Melibee is that its character as dialogue is not so much given as realized or achieved by its place in Chaucer's poem, which itself has many of the characteristics of a vast
dialogue. In this dialogue, extending over the pilgrimage to Canterbury, entire tales can serve as arguments for their tellers. Accordingly, if we must find allegory in Melibee, I would relate it to the idea of dialogue and of intellectual quest. Chaucer provides an unobtrusive hint, it seems to me, in this direction by giving a name to Melibee's daughter, who in the sources remains anonymous. Her name, Sophie, might suggest the Socratic wisdom, sophia, that Melibee must recover with the help of his wife, Prudence. Melibee's name, Greek, Latin, and now ambiguously English as well, seems to imply that its possessor is a typical European, whereas his wife's name points squarely to the medieval Latin tradition, where prudentia stands for the chief or "mother" of the four cardinal virtues in the Thomistic scheme.
By himself, Melibee is that self-assertive, masculine, socially or tribally oriented spirit that has played such an important part in the Western tradition since Homeric times. Over against it there is the "Latin" spirit of the Church, with its tradition of self-abnegation and a moral and spiritual idealism that is always attentive to the common good. In the history of the West these two have often existed in separation or with one subordinated to the other. Their marriage, the marriage of Melibee and Prudence, is in one sense no more than a partnership in dialogue by which the Socratic sophia is, so to speak, spontaneously brought into being.
By way of conclusion to this chapter I want to suggest that much more emphatically than Dante's Beatricean inspiration,The Canterbury Tales contains a distinctively, and what would nowadays be
considered a conventional, marital ideal. This ideal, as Melibee suggests, runs the gamut from the metaphoric and metaphysical, the tension-within-harmony of male and female, "Which two great Sexes animate the World," in Milton's formulation (Paradise Lost VIII.151), to the down-to-earth literal partnership of man and woman. Hence the appropriateness of the Host's reaction to Melibee when he contrasts Prudence with his own violent and vengeful wife, ironically named Goodlief. Somewhere in all of this, I feel sure, there also lurks an ironic joke at the expense of Socrates (and his followers) who, as the Wife recalls from Jankyn's "book of wikked wyves," needed all his wisdom to endure the abuse of a shrewish wife or two.