I was just listening to this week's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! podcast and I learned that the name of the USA Patriot Act is actually a ridiculously long acronym: The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.
Now I hate it even more.
And if you haven't already, you should listen to the full episode of Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me to hear Kevin Smith kick serious booty in the "Not My Job" game.
Remember in the early nineties when guys would grow the hair on the top of their head long but shave everything else, so that their hair would hang like weeds over their shaved scalp? I have no idea what that haircut was called, but it was very popular at my school. And, as a ninth grader who cared very much about looking cool, I got this haircut, I must confess with embarrassment. It looked even worse on me than it did on most other people, because I have wavy hair that tends to flip out when it gets to a certain length. Fortunately all the pictures of me from that period have been either lost or destroyed, so you'll just have to take my word for me that my hair looked really, really bad.
This haircut drove my mom nuts and she would try daily to persuade me to get a normal haircut. Being a ninth grader, though, I was way to cool to listen to what my mom said, so I kept my hair the way it was. In fact, the more she bugged me to cut it the more I was determined to do the opposite. Eventually I started to grow sick of my hair because it was impossible to take care of and just looked hideous. By that point, though, I had committed myself to my rebellion and any change would be caving in to my mom's wishes, which is unthinkable for a ninth grader (if you're reading this, mom, I'm sorry for all of it). The only way out was for me to wait for a chance to cut my hair on my own terms, so it was clear I was not giving in to what my mom had wanted all along.
I bring this up because I think it's very clear this is exactly what is happening with the Iraq war. For the last several years the Bush administration has insisted that what was first advertised as a war of liberation must become a long-term presence in Iraq--a presence that has been planned since before Bush even came to power. The administration has been resolute in this position in the face all opposing voices.
We all now realize the war has not gone the way anybody hoped and opposition to it has grown to the point that it has become a major political threat to the party in charge. That become clear in last year's congressional races. I think it must have been sometime around then that the Bush administration realized we need to get out of Iraq. But like me with my ugly haircut they're committed to it. To simply pull out now would look like they are giving in to what the war opponents want. This they cannot do.
So in the last year we've been hearing more talk about the need to stay in Iraq, but with a few important variations. For one thing, there has been much more talk about benchmarks that Iraq's government must meet for a transfer of power. We're starting to focus on more specific goals in the war. Then there was England's withdrawal of troops from the area. Careful not to let this be seen as a sign of retreat, Bush administration officials announced it as a sign that Iraq is making progress and was part of the overall strategy in Iraq. I believe this was the beginning of a new political tactic: even as the administration was announcing plans for a troop increase, they were preparing for a new line of thinking that links withdrawal with victory. They are planning for withdrawal, but on their own terms.
And now another sign: President Bush has announced a slight decrease of forces in Iraq, again linking it with claims of success. But is it really a response to progress in the war? I would argue it is not. Reports on the effectiveness of the recent troop surge are conflicted at best.
I would argue this is the next step in the strategy to save face in Iraq. With a large majority of Americans now opposing the war, withdrawal is inevitable, and to avoid embarrassment the Bush administration is going to make sure that any withdrawal comes as the result of some measure of victory--real or imagined. It's important to note here that whether or not we actually achieve victory may be irrelevant. It's all about the public's perception of the war.
And while the Bush administration delays the inevitable in an attempt to save face, the war rages on.
Wow. I just found Wikipedia's list of fictional books, which reminds me once again that some people just have too much free time. And I love them for it.
These are books that have never been written, but have been mentioned by authors in other fictional works. Here are a few notable examples.
From J.R.R. Tolkien:
There and Back Again by Bilbo Baggins
Book of Mazarbul by Balin and other Dwarves
The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen by Barahir
From Bill Watterson:
Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie by Mabel Syrup
Commander Coriander Salamander and 'Er Singlehander Bellylander by Mabel Syrup
But my favorite fictional book titles of all time have to be Oolon Colluphid's controversial series of philosophical blockbusters (via Douglas Adams):
Where God Went Wrong
Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes
Who Is This God Person Anyway?
Well That About Wraps It Up for God
The setting: a nondescripts office space.
The characters: Rick and Carl, two ad men working on putting together a trailer for the new Iron Man movie.
Rick: Alright, I think the shots we've cut together here work pretty well. All we need now is some music to properly accentuate the excitement of the action scenes.
Carl: You know what would be awesome?
Rick: (Hesitates, then reluctantly responds) What?
Carl: We should play...Black Sab--
Carl: No, listen, hear me out here.
Carl: You haven't even heard my idea.
Rick: (Sighs) Fine. What's your idea?
Carl: We should play Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" during the trailer.
Carl: Why not?
Rick: Do I really have to answer that?
Carl: Come on! The movie's called Iron Man, the song's called Iron Man. That weird robot voice even says "I am Iron Man" in it. It's perfect!
Rick: There is no way in hell I'm going to put that song in the trailer. End of discussion. Now let's try to come up with some real ideas.
Carl: I'm going to call Richard. I bet he goes for it. (Picks up phone and begins dialing)
Rick: (Sighs despairingly, turns to computer, and types monster.com into web browser)
Danny has already written a very good review of the book, and I want to avoid treading a lot of the same ground he does (if you haven't already, you may want to read what he has to say first). Rather, I'm intending this post to be a both a response to Danny's criticisms and a collection of my own independent reactions to the book.
Lately I've been very interested in God and the origin of the universe, which has paradoxically led me to read the works of some very prominent atheists: namely, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. Although they don't believe in God I see in them an attitude of reverence and awe at the beauty of the universe which enhances my own religious experience. Sagan has even been quoted as saying that science is "informed worship." I was delighted to see Francis Collins begin his book with a commentary on a lot of what Hawking and Sagan write about: the Big Bang, the nearly impossible (statistically speaking) formation of elements, stars, planets, and everything that makes life possible. He even attributes a couple of quotes to Stephen Hawking that seem to suggest the existence of a supernatural God, which, though seemingly uncharacteristic of Hawking, are a refreshing addition. It's nice to see a Christian paying respect to the scientific expertise of atheists.
I think it's this wonder at the universe that best defines The Language of God. Collins goes on to discuss the theory of evolution, which he regards as scientific fact backed up by a huge body of evidence. But whereas some Christians view the idea of evolution as an affront to God, Collins sees it in the same way he sees the very existence of the universe: as an amazingly intricate and beautiful system that speaks to the wonder of God. It's not that these things necessarily prove God's existence, but that they inspire a sense of wonder that can be used as a form of worship.
That's not to say that Collins doesn't attempt to prove the existence of God--as Danny has pointed out he briefly falls into the same trap he criticizes in others, using God to explain what science currently does not. But I found these moments to be brief and not characteristic of the book as a whole. During his description of theistic evolution, the view he espouses, he acknowledges that
The theistic evolution perspective cannot, of course, prove that God is real, as no logical argument can fully achieve that.
Later he elaborates that this view
doesn't try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as "How did the universe get here" "What is the meaning of life?" "What happens to us after we die?"
In his description of the origin of the universe and the evolution of life, then, Collins isn't trying to conclusively prove the existence of God so much as he is showing that a scientific understanding of the universe can at least be compatible with a belief in God.
This then begs the question: Why believe in God? If His existence can never be proven and is not needed to understand how the universe works, why would anybody still hold onto a belief in God? I believe the answer to this question must always be a personal one.
Near the end of the book Collins tells about an experience he had serving at a hospital in Africa. After seeing the poor living conditions that caused people to suffer horrible diseases that would be easily preventable in any developed country, Collins began to feel like his presence was not doing any lasting good there. He tells about performing an emergency operation to save one farmer's life, only to realize that he would most likely die of another affliction very soon, simply given his living conditions. Collins says:
With those discouraging thoughts in my head, I approached his bedside the next morning, finding him reading his Bible. He looked at me quizzically, and asked whether I had worked at the hospital for a long time. I admitted that I was new, feeling somewhat irritated and embarrassed that it had been so easy for him to figure that out. But then this young Nigerian farmer, just about as different from me in culture, experience, and ancestry as any two humans could be, spoke the words that will forever be emblazoned in my mind: "I get the sense you are wondering why you came here," he said. "I have an answer for you. You came here for one reason. You came here for me."
I was stunned. Stunned that he could see so clearly into my heart, but even more stunned at the words he was speaking. I had plunged a needle close to his heart; he had directly impaled mine. With a few simple words he had put my grandiose dreams of being the great white doctor, healing the African millions, to shame. He was right. We are each called to reach out to others. On rare occasions that can happen on a grand scale. But most of the time it happens in simple acts of kindness of one person to another. Those are the events that really matter. The tears of relief that blurred my vision as I digested his words stemmed from indescribable reassurance--reassurance that there in that strange place for just that one moment, I was in harmony with God's will, bonded together with this young man in a most unlikely but marvelous way.
It's moments like this that create belief in God. It certainly won't satisfy anyone looking for conclusive proof that God exists, but that's not really the kind of question it's meant to answer.
Think Progress, a liberal blog that reports on daily political developments, has found that its site is now banned by the US military network, so that soldiers serving in Iraq cannot access it.
Furthermore, they claim that the ban went into effect "sometime shortly after Aug. 22," when they published an op-ed from retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste that criticizes US involvement in the war.
No comments from me this time. Just...interesting.
A couple of years ago I read Seamus Heaney's modern English translation of Beowulf. In his introduction Heaney writes about his attempts to imitate the poetic forms and style of the original language. As I read the translation, I really felt that Heaney's linguistic and poetic considerations helped me to form more of a connection with the text. It felt organic and alive, and I enjoyed reading Beowulf in a way that I hadn't before.
It occurred to me then that much of the Hebrew bible is also poetry from an ancient culture. The English translations used in most Christian churches, however, seem to pay little attention to the poetry of it, and frankly, most of it is pretty boring to read. After seeing what Seamus Heaney did with Beowulf, I began to wonder what it would be like to read a translation of Psalms that is sensitive to the poetry and certain linguistic characteristics of the original text. I know, for example, that Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem, in which the initial lines of each stanza begin with the same letter, with one stanza devoted to each letter of the alphabet (the lines of the first stanza begin with aleph, the lines of the second stanza begin with bet, etc)--yet I have never seen a translation of the Psalm that attempts to duplicate this form. And this is really the only example I've heard about. I would love to know what kinds of poetic devices are used in the other Psalms, to say nothing of Job, Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Isaiah, and the rest.
So I decided to look for a translation that looks at the bible in perhaps more of an aesthetic way than merely a straightforward conveyance of information...and I found nothing. Well, almost nothing.
One thing my search did turn up is Ancient Hebrew Poetry, the blog of John Hobbins, a very knowledgeable pastor and Hebrew scholar. He writes very interesting commentary on scripture and contemporary issues in the church (check out his Screwtape Letters-inspired thoughts on faith and science).
My favorite thing about his blog, though, is a series of posts he's started in which he gives a traditional translation of a particular passage, than provides his own translation, explaining why it better reflects the Hebrew language. Here are his posts for Psalm 19:2, 19:4, 19:5, and 19:5c-7. The translations are lovely and the explanations are very insightful.
My appetite for well-translated Hebrew poetry whetted by these posts, I asked him in the comments where I can find more, to which Hobbins graciously made a few suggestions, including some nice pieces he hosts on his own site.
Yes, I know I haven't posted in a while. Things have been a little busy with school starting up again. Here's a brief post, though, to let you know about some music I've really been digging lately.
Gogol Bordello claim the label "gypsy punk," although I have a feeling there's more to their music than just that. Unfortunately, I don't really know enough about Eastern European music to really attempt any description of their style. What I do know is that it's wild, energetic, and completely awesome.
Listen (and see) for yourself:
That's "Ultimate," off their newest release, Super Taranta! There's really not a weak track on the whole album.
This is it. We've finally reached the end of my little stroll through The Canterbury Tales. For those who have stuck along for the whole ride, I hope you've enjoyed what has really been for me a very selfish and self-indulgent look at one of my favorite works of literature. There's enough material in Chaucer's work to fill volumes and volumes of analysis, so I've been focusing on the things that are most interesting to me: specifically, the ways The Canterbury Tales was centuries ahead of its time. Even though I haven't said so directly, my overall view of the work is that Chaucer is a proto-postmodernist (to invent an unnecessary high-falutin' label). In other words, his writing contains elements of literature that we see in the most inventive fiction writers of the 20th century.
The writing of tales to suit the personalities of their fictional storytellers; the use of (and possible parody of) various story styles; the inclusion of an intentionally bad tale in the case of the Reeve; the nonlinear story structure and feminist views of the Wife of Bath; a straightforward morality tale that takes on layers of irony when told by the hypocritical Pardoner: all of these, in their own ways, contain traces of postmodernism. If this were all there was to The Canterbury Tales, it would still be, as I have claimed, a fascinating work of literature and centuries ahead of its time.
Fortunately, Chaucer takes it a step farther, into a particular style of postmodernist writing that we call metafiction (again with the labels, I know). What I am talking about is...
Reason #10: Chaucer's Tales of Sir Topas and Melibee.
Before we get to Chaucer, though, a little more background. Metafiction, broadly defined, is fiction about fiction. More specifically, it is self-conscious writing that calls attention to its own status as fiction. In metafiction, writers may break the fourth wall by addressing the reader directly or interacting with their own characters.
For example, Kurt Vonnegut begins Slaughterhouse-Five by speaking to the reader about the writing of the book the reader is currently holding in his or her hands. The main story of the novel is a fictional character whose life is based partly on Vonnegut's own personal experiences in World War II. Several times during the narrative this character has a chance encounter with a random bystander, about whom Vonnegut interjects, "That was I. That was me," thus transporting himself into the fictional world of the novel.
In his next novel, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut inserts himself into the story even more directly. Again, the book is an entirely fictional story with characters of Vonnegut's invention. At the climax of the book, Vonnegut says he could not simply stand back and observe what's happening, so he writes himself into the scene, even having a conversation with the main character, in which Vonnegut behaves as a god-like figure who has created the entire world of the novel.
One more example: The film Adaptation is about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt the book The Orchid Thief into a movie. He can't figure out an interesting way to do it, and he ultimately comes up with the idea of making the film about his own attempt at writing the script. It's a wonderfully self-referential film in which the main character is the real-life screenwriter and his fictional twin brother, who shares a writing credit on the film.
What does all of this have to do with The Canterbury Tales? In the General Prologue Chaucer writes in the first person, telling about himself meeting the company of pilgrims. For the rest of the book he is along for the ride, listening to their tales and relaying them to us. Of course, this is a fictional construct: Chaucer is merely pretending to be an observer in his own book. For most of The Canterbury Tales the fictional Chaucer takes a very passive role, listening to the tales, passing them on to us, and inserting occasional comments.
Eventually, though, the Host turns to Chaucer and criticizes him for his non-participation. He gently teases him for being overweight and calls on him to tell a tale. Chaucer agrees to tell one, but he also offers a disclaimer (modern translation borrowed from here):
"Mine host," said I, "don't be, I beg, too stern,
For of good tales, indeed, sir, have I none,
Except a long rhyme I learned in years agone."
At first it seems Chaucer is merely feigning humility, considering what a great writer he obviously is. But this Chaucer is a fictional construct within the story, and is not merely being modest: he really is a terrible storyteller.
The tale he tells is a silly little fairy tale about a knight named Sir Topas. It's a ridiculous story, told in simple and vapid verse, and is best understood as a parody of some of the popular poetry of Chaucer's time. In fact, for many years audiences considered the Tale of Sir Topas to be a great story that is unfairly cut short before it is finished. It wasn't until later that scholars began to recognize the satirical nature of the writing.
The true quality of the tale ought to be obvious from the pilgrims' opinion of it. Before Chaucer has gone very far in the story he is interrupted:
"No more of this, for God's high dignity!"
Exclaimed our host, "For you, sir, do make me
So weary with your vulgar foolishness
That, as may God so truly my soul bless,
My two ears ache from all your worthless speech;
Now may such rhymes the devil have, and each!
This sort of thing is doggerel," said he.
"Why so?" I asked, "Why will you hinder me
In telling tales more than another man,
Since I have told the best rhyme that I can?"
"By God!" cried he, "now plainly, in a word,
Your dirty rhyming is not worth a turd;
You do nothing but waste and fritter time.
Sir, in one word, you shall no longer rhyme.
Let's see if you can use the country verse,
Or tell a tale in prose -you might do worse-
Wherein there's mirth or doctrine good and plain."
So Chaucer agrees to abandon the Tale of Sir Topas and tell instead a moral prose story, as requested. He then begins the Tale of Melibee, which is the longest and most agonizingly boring section of The Canterbury Tales. How bad is it? It's so bad that most modern translators don't even bother including it, opting instead for a brief plot summary. I must admit I don't even know what the story is about, because I've never bothered to read it.
Chaucer's Tale of Melibee can be seen either as a prank pulled by the fictional Chaucer as revenge for the Host interrupting his first tale, or merely a continuation of the real-life Chaucer's humorous depiction of himself as a lousy storyteller. Either way, the Tale of Melibee is an elaborate joke on the reader. I love it!
This more or less wraps up my tour through The Canterbury Tales. I'd like to close with a few lines that may or may not go along with the tales mentioned above. The Canterbury Tales ends with a retraction by the author, in which he confesses before Christ the many sinful stories he has written, including the work at hand. It's not entirely clear what Chaucer's intent is here. There certainly was a tradition at the time of writers forsaking their secular works at the end of their lives. However, considering the exhaustive list of works he mentions by name and Chaucer's self-deprecating humor throughout the rest of The Canterbury Tales, the retraction could also be a clever and ironic advertisement for his other works. I naturally prefer the latter explanation. Here it is, in all its Middle English glory, just as Chaucer wrote it:
Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thynge in it that liketh hem, that therof they thanken oure lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. And if ther be any thyng that displese hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge, and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnynge. For oure book seith, al that is writen is writen for our doctrine, and that is myn entente. Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy of God, that ye preye for me that Crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my retracciouns: as is the book of Troilus; the book also of Fame; the book of the XXV. Ladies; the book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes; the tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sownen into synne; the book of the Leoun; and many another book. If they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a leccherous lay; that Crist for his grete mercy foryeve me the synne.
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
http://brendoman.com/kyle/2007/06/14/ten_reasons_to_love_chaucer_s_canterbury_3">Reason #2: The Pilgrims and Reason #3: The Knight's Tale
This is a picture of an actual round of Boggle Erika and I played a couple of nights ago.
If you have a timer nearby, set it for 3 minutes and try to spell as many words as you can before time runs out (if you need a refresher on the rules, go here). After you finish, add up your score and then click Read More to see what I got.
A couple of explanatory notes:
The light on the door is sunlight reflected off Erika's watch (not pictured).
The growling is our other dog, Bailey, who has been trapped on the stairs behind the closed baby gate (also not pictured).
I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself - The White Stripes
No Hero - The Offspring
It Doesn't Matter - The Chemical Brothers
Sweetest Perfection - Depeche Mode
Pry, To - Pearl Jam
Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia) - The Flaming Lips
Angels Go Bald, Too - Howie B
What More Can I Say - DJ Danger Mouse
Communist Daughter - Neutral Milk Hotel
Mexico - Beck
VHS tapes may be long obsolete, but this is still the coolest movie premise I have seen in a very long time. Watch the trailer on YouTube...
...or download a high quality version here.
Over a year ago I linked to a story in the Guardian about a play adaptation of The Canterbury Tales that was barred from being performed in a monastery. This shouldn't really be surprising. In my periodic stroll through The Canterbury Tales I've revealed a number of very subversive and controversial elements in the tales, from dirty jokes to serious criticism of church authority. Heck, The Miller's Tale alone ought to be enough to get the book banned from most religious venues.
I suspect, though, that the monastery's objections run a little deeper than that. Of all of the targets of Chaucer's criticism and satire, the Catholic church takes the most hits. If you just read through the list of storytellers you'll find a very high representation of people affiliated with the church (it is a religious pilgrimage they're supposed to be on, after all). Of them all, there are maybe one or two pilgrims who can be considered genuinely devout and faithful. The rest are a bunch of hypocrites, crooks, and con artists. And when Chaucer begins attributing tales to them they get even worse. Today I would like to highlight just two such tales.
Reason #8: The Summoner's Tale
There's a great rivalry between the Summoner and the Friar, born of an apparently long-standing hatred. Like the Miller and the Reeve, these two religious men let their rivalry play out in the tales they tell, which makes things a lot of fun for the reader.
The Friar tells his tale first. It's an okay tale, but not really worth going into in detail here. Suffice it to say that the tale is filled with harsh criticisms of summoners, claiming they use their duty of calling sinners to appear in church as leverage to extort bribes. Chaucer's Summoner is incensed at the accusation, perhaps because it hits too close to the mark, and he fires back with his own satire of greedy friars.
While the Friar's Tale is a pretty serious and straightforward tale of a corrupt man receiving his comeuppance, the Summoner's Tale is a clever and extremely funny work of satire. He begins with a friar who travels from church to church, preaching and begging for payment. It's obvious what the man's motivation is, for as soon as he receives his payment he leaves a place to go on to the next. He would also write down the names of his benefactors, promising to pray for them, but after leaving he would plane the tablet, erasing the people's names.
In the tale the friar visits the home of a wealthy man who is sick in bed. The friar speaks with the wife first, telling her he had a vision of her recently deceased child ascending to heaven. Then he tells her the reason God reveals such things to him is because he has chosen a life of poverty (This and all other quotes come from Harvard's interlinear translations):
We live in poverty and in abstinence,
And secular folk in riches and expenditures
Of food and drink, and in their foul delight.
We hold this world's lust all in scorn.
Lazar and Dives lived diversely,
And diverse rewards had they thereby.
Whoever will pray, he must fast and be pure,
And fatten his soul, and make his body lean.
We fare as says the apostle; cloth and food
Suffice us, though they are not full good.
The purity and the fasting of us friars
Makes that Christ accepts our prayers.
He carries on this way for some time and his speech is just dripping with irony, considering how well he lives on people's donations. He even goes on to tell the sick man that he has not recovered because he does not give enough money to the friar. After a long and very personal sermon about the danger of anger and much more talk about the importance of giving money, this sick man has had enough. He tell the friar that he does have something to give him, but that he must swear to divide it evenly with all the other friars, which he agrees to do. Then comes the punchline:
"Now then, put in thy hand down by my back,"
Said this man, "and grope well behind.
Beneath my buttock where shalt thou find
A thing that I have hidden in private."
"Ah!" thought this friar, "That shall go with me!"
And down his hand he thrusts to the cleft
In hope to find there a gift.
And when this sick man felt this friar
About his anus grope there and here,
Amid his hand he let the friar a fart.
The tale could very well end here, with the man farting on the friar's hand, and I'm sure many people both today and in Chaucer's time would find it a satisfying tale (is there anything for timeless and universal than a fart joke?), but I think the brilliance of The Summoner's Tale is that it keeps going. The friar goes away very angry and swearing revenge. When he confesses the incident to another man in the church, though, he reveals a very interesting fact: he is angry not just because he was humiliated by this man, but because he has been trapped in a holy promise he cannot keep. He swore he would divide the gift equally among his fellow friars, but he doesn't know how he can divide a fart.
It seems that the friar is more than just a greedy swindler. He truly is a man of faith, albeit a very narrow and legalistic faith, and he takes his promise to share the gift very seriously, to the point that it makes him look like even more of a fool. There's some very funny dialogue as the friar and his confessor discuss the problem of dividing a fart, but the best bit comes at the end, when a young squire who has heard the men's problem offers a solution:
"My lord," said he, "when the weather is fair,
Without wind or disturbance of air,
Let a cartwheel be brought here into this hall;
But see that it has all its spokes --
Twelve spokes has a cartwheel commonly.
And bring me then twelve friars. Know you why?
For thirteen is a convent, as I believe.
Your confessor here, for his worthiness,
Shall complete the number of his convent.
Then shall they kneel down, all together,
And to every spoke's end, in this manner,
A friar shall very firmly lay his nose.
Your noble confessor -- may God him save! --
Shall hold his nose upright under the nave.
Then shall this churl, with belly stiff and taut
As any drum, hither be brought;
And set him right on the wheel of this cart,
Upon the nave, and make him let a fart.
And you shall see, on peril of my life (I swear),
By proof which is logical,
That equally the sound of it will go,
And also the stink, unto the spokes' ends,
Except that this worthy man, your confessor,
Because he is a man of greet honor,
Shall have the first fruit, as is reasonable.
The noble usage of friars yet is this,
The worthy men of them shall first be served;
And certainly he has it well deserved.
He has to-day taught us so much good
With preaching in the pulpit where he stood,
That I can affirm, I say for me,
He had the first smell of three farts;
And so would all his convent certainly (agree),
He bears him so faire and holily."
Now that's funny! I love the absurdity of the friars' very serious and shallow piety, which raises the joke above toilet humor to very clever satire. Chaucer can be a very witty guy when he wants to be. Sometimes, though, his satire takes a darker, subtler, and more serious tone, as in...
Reason #9: The Pardoner's Tale
To start with, the Pardoner is much different from the rest of the religious people in the company. As I mentioned above, these people (with just a couple of exceptions) are a bunch of hypocrites, swindlers, and thieves. But most of them, despite their shortcomings, are in some ways sincere about the things they teach and in the faith they profess. We saw that even though the friar shamelessly takes people's money to line his own fat pockets, takes his duties very seriously, to the point of distributing a fart evenly amongst his fellow friars. I'm not sure if this fact redeems his character or makes him even worse.
The Pardoner, though, seems to have no such illusions about the cause he serves. In his prologue he describes to the rest of the pilgrims his usual style of sermonizing. He says he always preaches the same message, that greed is the root of all evil. He tells how when his sermon is done he drags out a bunch of relics that he promises will heal the people's sufferings (for a fee). And then, in a moment of candid and brutal honesty:
My hands and my tongue go so quickly
That it is joy to see my business.
Of avarice and of such cursedness
Is all my preaching, to make them generous
To give their pennies, and namely unto me.
For my intention is only to make a profit,
And not at all for correction of sin.
I care not a bit, when they are buried,
Though their souls go picking blackberries!
This would seem to make him the very lowest kind of preacher, but at the same time it's oddly refreshing to hear a preacher who is so open about his hypocrisy. In fact, the Pardoner even considers himself better than other preachers because his intentions are better than theirs. The way he sees it, all these other religious people preach to flatter their audience, obtain glory or greater social standing, or simply out of hate. Compared to these, the Pardoner thinks merely preaching for money is a virtue. He even goes so far as to say that he is right to preach against his own personal vice (greed), for in the process he is able to truly help others turn away from their sin. But he is quick to emphasize that this is not why he does it. He's only in it for the money.
I would hardly hold this guy up as a model preacher, but I've got to at least respect the guy's honesty about himself. Plus, I think that he really is more likable than the other religious hypocrites, if only because he doesn't claim any kind of moral superiority. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's a fascinating paradox.
After revealing himself as an unabashed and amazingly self-aware hypocrite, the Pardoner begins his tale. The pilgrims have requested a moral tale from him, and he does not disappoint them. He begins with a traditional pulpit sermon condemning a wide range of sins: drinking, gambling, swearing falsely, etc. It all serves to fulfill the formula the Pardoner has already laid out in his prologue, but it also leads into the main tale about three sinners who are guilty of all the above offenses, but most of all the Pardoner's own favorite vice: greed.
These three men are drinking in a tavern one night when they see a dead man's body being carried out. The men decide to seek out and slay Death so that nobody else will have to die. On their way to find Death they come across a very old man (perhaps the legendary Wandering Jew) who claims he cannot die. The three men ask where they can find Death, and the old man rather cryptically says they will find him under a particular tree in a nearby grove.
The three men follow the directions, but instead of finding the Grim Reaper under the three they discover a great amount of gold. They are afraid to carry the gold home by daylight for fear of being seen and accused of thievery, so they resolve to wait until nightfall. In the meantime they agree that one man should go to town to get bread and wine while the other two guard the horde.
While the man is away, the remaining two realize that if they kill the third they will have more gold for themselves. So they plan to stab their friend as soon as he comes back with the food. While the third man is on his way to town, though, he gets the same idea and poisons the wine. The tale ends predictably: when the men gets back his friends stab him to death. Then they sit down to the bread and wine, and soon die themselves.
What fascinates me is that this is a very straightforward and moral tale, just like the pilgrims ask. If Chaucer had attributed it to one of the other characters it would be a fine tale, but perhaps not all that noteworthy. But he didn't attribute it to anyone else. He gave this tale to the Pardoner, and the nature of the storyteller changes it completely. The pilgrims know it's all a scam, and the Pardoner knows they know, because he told them as much himself. It's as if he's putting on an act not because he thinks he's fooling anybody, but because he wants them to appreciate his skill as a performer. And then, again reminding his audience of his true intentions, he closes his tale with this:
But, sirs, one word I forgot in my tale:
I have relics and pardons in my bag,
As fine as any man in England,
Which were given to me by the pope's hand.
If any of you will, of devotion,
Offer and have my absolution,
Come forth straightway, and kneel down here,
And meekly receive my pardon;
Or else take pardon as you travel,
All new and fresh at every mile's end,
Providing that you offer, again and again,
Gold coins or silver pennies, which are good and true.
It is an honor to every one that is here
That you may have a pardoner with sufficient power
To absolve you in the countryside as you ride,
For accidents that may happen.
Perhaps there may fall one or two
Down off his horse and break his neck in two.
Look what a safeguard is it to you all
That I happen to be in your fellowship,
Who can absolve you, both more and less (every one),
When the soul shall from the body pass.
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
http://brendoman.com/kyle/2007/06/14/ten_reasons_to_love_chaucer_s_canterbury_3">Reason #2: The Pilgrims and Reason #3: The Knight's Tale
When I went to see Ratatouille in the theaters several weeks back (easily the best movie of the summer), I saw the trailer for the next Pixar film: Wall-E. It sounded interesting, but it's hard to tell what it's really about.
The blog Cooked Art has a few more details now, including the story:
What if humans left earth and forgot to turn the last robot off?
Ben Burtt (the legendary sound designer) then went on to talk about how there is no dialogue in the film in a normal sense, showing a great featurette using pastels and digital paintings and sound to evoke the moods that would be felt while watching Wall-E.
A feature-length animated film with no dialogue? The idea is bold, original, and intriguing: in short, just what you'd expect from Pixar.
I can't wait.
(By the way, I'm sorry for the long periods of silence on this blog. This summer I've been doing a little traveling, spending some quality time with the family, and, in the last few days, reading the final Harry Potter book (I finished yesterday). Once the regular school year schedule resumes I hope to write more)
In my last installment I suggested that Chaucer was centuries ahead of his time because he goes beyond using fictional narrators simply as story-telling devices, and actually uses the stories to reveal the characters of the tellers themselves. I specifically highlighted the intentional use of the badly told Reeve's Tale as particularly clever. And later I'll discuss an even funnier and more prominent example of the same device that's downright postmodern (I told myself I wasn't going to go labeling things, but the heck with it).
For me the next tale is even more fascinating because in it Chaucer shows a side of himself that's even more modern and more surprising, considering the culture he was writing in. It's unlike any of the other tales in the book and it's probably my favorite of them all.
Reason #6: The Wife of Bath's Prologue
The first unusual thing about the Wife of Bath is the length of her prologue. The pattern Chaucer has established up to this point is that each pilgrim introduces his or her (actually, make that just his) tale with a short prologue that explains his purpose in telling it. Then everything he has to say is told through the tale. The Wife of Bath breaks this pattern by giving a very long prologue--much longer than her actual tale. At one point Chaucer even inserts a discussion between the Friar and the Summoner who are anxious for the Wife of Bath to get to the point. But here's the thing: the prologue IS the point. If you like, you can think of it in terms of feminist literature (there I go with the labels again).
According to some, traditionally male literature is linear: it has a clear beginning, middle and end; rising and falling action; all the conventional story structures we're used to. And most importantly it all moves toward a definite point. Characteristically female literature, for some, tends to be more circular and fluid, arriving at multiple points from multiple directions. It may not have a climax. It may not even be about a story: it may just be about the people and relationships. Of course, this does not characterize all writing by women, or even all literature that can be considered feminist. It's merely an idea I have heard put forth that seems to fit well with the Wife of Bath's Prologue. Like I said, the tale is not the point. The point is the prologue, in which the Wife lays out her view of marriage. And she has plenty to say. She begins (This and all other modern English translations come from here):
Experience, though no authority
Were in this world, were good enough for me,
To speak of woe that is in all marriage;
For, masters, since I was twelve years of age,
Thanks be to God who is forever alive,
Of husbands at church door have I had five;
For men so many times have married me;
And all were worthy men in their degree.
The Wife of Bath opens by pointing out that she has been married five times, and she claims this experience as her own authority on the subject of marriage. This is in direct opposition to the prevailing view at the time--that authority comes from scholarly wisdom, passed on through religious texts. She’s essentially asserting that she knows as much, if not more, about marriage than any religious authority. This alone is a pretty bold claim for a woman to make, but it’s only the beginning.
Having established her authority the Wife of Bath begins to outline some of her radical views, including that marriage is just as noble a calling as chastity; that God made people for sex; that women should not hide their beauty in austerity; and that women should exercise power over their husbands (including the power of sex). The Wife comes across perhaps a little too forcefully with this last point, and scholars disagree on whether Chaucer intended her to be seen in a positive or a negative way. On the whole, though, I think she comes across as a very likable and reasonable woman. And for all her talk about controlling her husbands she expresses genuine love and sincere desire to make them happy. Even if the reader has any lingering misgivings about the Wife’s attitude toward men, they should be laid to rest when she finally gets around to illustrating her views in...
Reason #7: The Wife of Bath’s Tale
The tale begins with a knight who rapes a young woman and is to be sentenced to death. The queen steps in, though, and convinces the king to delay the punishment. She sends the knight on a quest to discover what women want more than anything else. He has a year to find the answer, and the reward for failure is death.
The knight begins immediately, and soon realizes the difficulty of his quest. He receives plenty of responses—money, beauty, fame, sex, fine clothes—but no two answers are the same. He is just about ready to give up when he comes across an old woman in the forest. This crone offers to tell him the answer to his question, but in return he must promise to do one thing she asks of him, no matter what it is. The knight agrees, and the woman whispers the solution in his ear before going with him to the court of the queen, where the knight reveals the answer:
"My liege lady, generally," said he,
"Women desire to have the sovereignty
As well upon their husband as their love,
And to have mastery their man above;
This thing you most desire, though me you kill
Do as you please, I am here at your will."
The story tells us that every woman in the court agrees with his answer, and it is decided the knight should keep his life. At this moment the old woman announces that she is the one who revealed the answer to the knight in return for his promise. She ten reveals her request: that the man will take her for his wife. The knight keeps his promise, but on the night of his wedding he cannot bring himself to go to bed with the old woman, citing her ugliness as well as her low station.
Here the woman delivers a lecture about gentility. The traditional view in the story (and in Chaucer’s culture) is that gentility is a status one gains through birth, passed along with a family name and estate. It’s this prejudice the knight reveals in complaining about the woman’s low status, as if it would be better if she were a wealthy old woman. But this hag rebukes him and lectures him on true gentility, which comes from a person’s moral virtues. It’s a wonderful criticism of Chaucer’s society that seems almost as radical as the Wife of Bath’s views on women.
After the lecture the old woman comes to the punchline of the story. She reveals that she has magical powers and can make herself beautiful, but she warns the knight that she will not be faithful to him if she can attract other men. So she lets him have his choice: she will be either an old, ugly, but faithful wife; or she will be very beautiful and unfaithful.
When I read this story with students I like to stop here and ask the boys in the room what they would choose. Being teenagers, most of them pick the beautiful wife. A few of them, sensing what they think is the correct answer, may say the ugly wife, but nobody comes up with the same answer as the knight.
The whole point of the knight’s quest was to teach him the right way to treat a woman, and at the end of the story he shows that he has learned well:
This knight considered, and did sorely sigh,
But at the last replied as you shall hear:
"My lady and my love, and wife so dear,
I put myself in your wise governing;
Do you choose which may be the more pleasing,
And bring most honour to you, and me also.
I care not which it be of these things two;
For if you like it, that suffices me."
Right answer! Because he has learned to let his wife control her own fate, she gives him the greatest reward of all: she will be both beautiful and faithful to him. And they lived happily ever after.
I think the message of this tale—that women should have control of their own lives—is powerful in any age. Even in our modern and enlightened era, people may not see for themselves the solution the knight arrives at. But I think the story is particularly remarkable given the culture it comes from. In Chaucer’s time, 500 years before women’s rights movements took hold in the West, women were little more than property, and were certainly not worthy of serious thought. For Chaucer to create the character of the Wife of Bath—a strong, intelligent, complex woman—is unusual. To use her character to challenge traditional views on women, gentility, and the Church is nothing short of extraordinary.
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
http://brendoman.com/kyle/2007/06/14/ten_reasons_to_love_chaucer_s_canterbury_3">Reason #2: The Pilgrims and Reason #3: The Knight's Tale
I agree with most of Michael Moore's opinions, and I think he makes some great arguments in support of them. I even enjoy his movies, even though he relies a little too heavily on his outrageous publicity stunts. I think he's played an important role in calling attention to problems with the Iraq war and the American health care system.
But it's still painful to watch him in interviews like this. Wolf Blitzer and his colleagues at CNN probably deserves to get told off a little bit, but after about two minutes of Moore's ranting I just wanted him to shut up. If he would just calm down and talk reasonably about the health care system I think he would win a lot more people over to his point of view.
Fortunately there are other places to go for a rational perspective. Like Fresh Air, for example. For yesterday's show Terry Gross interviewed a professor who has spent twenty years researching health care systems in the US and around the world. Naturally he has some great insights into the current state of American health care. Whatever your opinion on universal or private health care, you must listen to it.
While you're at it, you might as well subscribe to their podcast, because Fresh Air is simply the best serious interview show on radio or television.
Kind of generic, I know, but then we are a pretty average couple.
Make your own caricature here.
It's too bad she has to work with such idiots.
Hat tip This Modern World
Recently a report was published that shows talk radio is dominated almost exclusively by conservative points of view. Big shock, I know. Now, as this NPR story points out, a few people are starting to talk about re-instating something called the Fairness Doctrine.
Basically, the idea is that the airwaves are owned by the public and should be used in the public interest. This is why we have the FCC. Apparently, at one time the FCC mandated that broadcasters not just avoid objectionable content, but that they give equal time to multiple views on political issues. It's important to note that NO legislation is being considered to reinstate this doctrine, and only a few people are even suggesting there should be. Still, this is creating a stink among some people and is worth at least discussing.
I think this Fairness Doctrine sounds like a terrible idea. First of all, the idea of creating "balance" by giving voice to "both sides" of any given debate is exactly what's wrong with the media today. For starters, the very idea of there being two sides to every issue is a false one, created by the two-party system that has developed in our government. Until very recently, people in the broadcast media talked as if the only courses of action available to the army in Iraq were to Stay the Course or Cut and Run. Only now that it's become impossible to deny what a horrible mess the operation has become are other options being discussed publicly.
Another problem is the fact that sometimes there are not two points of view that are equally valid. This has been the problem with the global warming debate. On the one hand we have the undeniable facts that average temperatures across the planet have been steadily increasing, in direct correlation with increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There's also a near-unanimous consensus among experts that the increase in temperature and CO2 is due to emissions caused by humans. Whenever the commercial media report on global warning, though, in the interest of "balance" they give voice to detractors with no credibility who deny the findings of the entire scientific community. Both of these sides are given equal airtime, and the result is that something that should be undeniable fact has been turned into a point of contention. While people on TV and the radio continue to debate what has already been conclusively proven, the important details of what we can do to curb global warming go unaddressed.
Clearly there are problems with the broadcast media, but the last thing we need to fix them is more of this artificially imposed "balance." As Bill Moyers said, "Splitting the difference between two opinions does not get you to the truth. It gets you to another opinion." What we need is a return to quality reporting that cares more about informing people than about getting ratings or meeting certain ideological requirements. The FCC can't do this for us. It's up to us consumers to make a change.
To this end I propose the following:
1: Stop listening to commercial talk radio and stop watching commercial news on TV. Clear Channel, CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, CNN, and the rest are equally as bad. If they sell news for profit then they can't be trusted. For American broadcast media that pretty much leaves us with NPR and PBS. But many people have claimed these are the most liberal news outlets in America, which brings me to the next step...
2: Forget the "Liberal Media" myth. The truth is that the people at NPR and PBS are the most responsible, ethical, and informative journalists in America. They don't use scandal, controversy, and sensationalism to sell their news because they don't work for profit. Their priority is to responsibly inform people of what's happening in the world.
That's actually pretty much it. Sorry, I thought the list was going to be longer, but this is a very simple plan. The commercial media sell whatever people want, so if people start seeking out quality journalism then that's what the TV and radio stations will be forced to offer. This may sound impossible considering the kind of culture we live in, but that's no reason to not try. I guess I'm just an eternal optimist.
Warning: The following discussion of 14th century literature may contain material that is not suitable for all audiences. Parental guidance is strongly suggested.
Reason #4: The Miller's Tale
As I mentioned in my last installment, the pilgrims' contest begins with the Knight telling a classic story of chivalry, romance, nobility, and all those other lofty ideals that good people are supposed to aspire to. The tale receives the praise of the whole company and the Host asks the Monk to tell another tale that can match it. Instead the Miller, who is so drunk he's almost falling off his horse, announces that he has a story, which he begins to tell over the host's protests.
Before the Miller begins, though, Chaucer inserts his own tongue-in-cheek disclaimer (as always, the Modern English translation comes from Harvard):
What more should I say, but this Miller
He would not refrain from speaking for any man,
But told his churl's tale in his manner.
I regret that I must repeat it here.
And therefore every respectable person I pray,
For God's love, think not that I speak
Out of evil intention, but because I must repeat
All their tales, be they better or worse,
Or else (I must) falsify some of my material.
And therefore, whoever does not want to hear it,
Turn over the leaf and choose another tale;
For he shall find enough, of every sort,
Of historical matter that concerns nobility,
And also morality and holiness.
Blame not me if you choose amiss.
The Miller is a churl; you know this well.
So was the Reeve also and many others,
And ribaldry they told, both of the two.
Think about this, and don't blame me;
And also people should not take a joke too seriously.
I think Chaucer is extremely funny when he writes this way. We know that he composed every word of The Canterbury Tales, but he has invented this clever construction in which he is a character in his
own story and is merely recording the words and actions of the people in his company. Thus Chaucer essentially beats any critics to the punch by disparaging his own writing. Later he even more directly mocks the fictional version of himself, but that's a post for another day.
For now, let's take a look at what, exactly, is so filthy that it merits a disclaimer from the author.
In some ways The Miller's Tale is a parody of The Knight's Tale: a story of two men in pursuit of the same woman. But while the Knight's Tale, would be comparable to the film Ben Hur in our culture, the Miller's is more like Porky's (or, if you prefer, American Pie). The tale tells about John, an old carpenter, who has taken a very young and very beautiful wife, Alison. John is past his prime and cannot...um...satisfy his wife. He suspects that Alison is cheating on him, and with good reason. There is a third person living in the house: Nicholas, a poor student, who rents a room from the carpenter (you can probably see where this is going).
On the day this tale begins Nicholas is flirting with Alison:
And intimately he caught her by her crotch,
And said, "Indeed, unless I have my will,
For secret love of thee, sweetheart, I die."
I'm going to stop for a second because this is one of the things that bugs me about modern English translations of The Canterbury Tales. The word crotch here, I believe, is a polite substitute chosen by the translator, and fails to capture the coarseness of the original language. Here's what Chaucer wrote:
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, "Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille."
The word is queynte, which is Chaucer's version of a word that is still used in English today and is considered very offensive. I bring this up not because love gratuitously offensive language, but because it has a lot to do with the style of the story, the type of language it is told in, and the character of the Miller (remember, Chaucer reveals the characters of the pilgrims through the stories they tell). Already we can see a huge contrast just between the first two tales: The Knight's Tale is an edifying story of romantic love amongst the noble classes, filled with lofty language. The Miller's Tale is a coarsely humorous tale of sex amongst the lower classes, filled with offensive language.
Anyway, back to the story. Nicholas has just sworn to Alison that if he doesn't sleep with her right away he will die. Alison plays hard-to-get for about eight lines before giving in. But, she says, she cannot do it right away: she says they must wait for the right opportunity so her husband won't find out about it. Nicholas agrees to wait and he begins to plan a way to trick the carpenter. At this time Chauc--I mean, the Miller introduces the fourth character in his story: Absalon, another young man who believes he is in love with Alison. He is the clown of the story, a loser who dresses in ridiculously elegant and ill-suited clothes in an attempt to attract women. He sits under Alison's window with his guitar and attempts to serenade her.
This goes on for quite some time:
From day to day this elegant Absolon
So woos her that he is in a sorry state.
He stays awake all the night and all the day;
He combs his flowing locks, and dressed himself elegantly;
He woos her by go-betweens and agents,
And swore he would be her own servant;
On more thing: Absalon is, for some unexplained reason, very squeamish about farting (this detail becomes very important later).
Meanwhile, Nicholas has devised an elaborate scheme to occupy the carpenter: he convinces the simple man that God is sending a flood. So John sleeps in a bathtub suspended from the ceiling, which frees up Nicholas and Alison for the entire night. Early the next morning Absalon comes calling outside the window, looking for a kiss. He won't take no for an answer, and Alison finally agrees to give him a smooch to make him go away. The next part I'll let you read for yourself:
This Absolon wiped his mouth very dry.
Dark was the night as pitch, or as the coal,
And at the window out she put her hole,
And Absolon, to him it happened no better nor worse,
But with his mouth he kissed her naked ass
With great relish, before he was aware of this.
Back he jumped, and thought it was amiss,
For well he knew a woman has no beard.
He felt a thing all rough and long haired,
And said, "Fie! alas! what have I done?"
Humiliated, Absalon runs off plotting revenge. He obtains a red-hot poker and returns to Alison's window. This time he says he has a ring which he will give her in return for a kiss. Nicholas decides he wants in on the action:
This Nicholas was risen to piss,
And thought he would make the joke even better;
He should kiss his ass before he escapes.
And he opened up the window hastily,
And he puts out his ass stealthily
Over the buttock, to the thigh;
And then spoke this clerk, this Absolon,
"Speak, sweet bird, I know not where thou art."
This Nicholas immediately let fly a fart
As great as if it had been a thunder-bolt,
So that with the stroke he was almost blinded;
And he was ready with his hot iron,
And he smote Nicholas in the middle of the ass.
Off goes the skin a hand's breadth about,
The hot plough blade so burned his rump
And for the pain he thought he would die.
As if he were crazy, for woe he began to cry,
"Help! Water! Water! Help, for God's heart!"
This carpenter woke suddenly out of his slumber,
And heard someone cry "water!" as if he were crazy,
And thought, "Alas, now comes Nowell's flood!"
He sits up without more words,
And with his ax he smote the cord in two,
And down goes all; he found nothing to sell (wasted no time),
Neither bread nor ale, until he came to the pavement
Upon the floor, and there he lay in a swoon.
At this point I can imagine a 14th century audience rolling in the aisles. People's sense of humor doesn't change as much as we think, and it seems that fart jokes are more or less timeless. Indeed, Chaucer tells us that after the Miller is finished with his tale the pilgrims all, more or less, laughed and enjoyed themselves...except for one man.
Reason #5: The Reeve's Tale
Sometimes, in large group settings, when a bunch of people are laughing and having a good time (perhaps at someone else's expense, but in an innocent and good-natured way), there will be one person who doesn't really have a good sense of humor. He wants in on the fun, though, and attempts a similar joke, but goes way over the line. Instead of laughing the other people react in horror or disgust at the guy's dismal attempt at humor (I know you've seen this before).
The Reeve is that guy.
From the beginning of The Miller's Tale the Reeve, being a carpenter himself, believes that the story is supposed to be about him, so he takes great offense at the telling of it. To get back he follows it with his own story that is supposed to similarly embarrass the Miller. In his tale a dishonest miller is patronized by two college students needing their wheat ground. They try to watch the miller do it to make sure he doesn't steal any of the flour, but the miller cuts the men's horses loose so they have to run after them. By the time the students catch the horses it is late and they must stay the night at the miller's house...in the same room as the miller, his wife, and his 20-year-old daughter (again, I'm sure you can see where this is going). The two men, as repayment for their stolen flour, decide to swyve the miller's wife and daughter (here also the most appropriate translation for swyve is a four-letter word I'd rather not use myself). The means by which they accomplish this is a crude and simple one involving moving a crib from one bed to another so that the wife forgets which is hers.
The Reeve is clearly not as good a storyteller as the Miller, lacking and kind of cleverness or comedic timing. All his attempts at humor fall flat. Not only that, but when you think about the actual story it's rather disturbing. While Nicholas and Alison from The Miller's Tale are consenting adults and co-conspirators, the wife and daughter in The Reeve's Tale are mostly innocent parties who essentially become victims of rape. Of course, the Reeve doesn't see it this way--he thinks his tale is a hilarious story about a miller getting what's coming to him.
The contrast between the two tales and the personal conflict that plays out between the storytellers are what I enjoy most about this part of the book. Many people have objected to these two tales on the grounds of their indecency, and it's interesting that Chaucer's stories can still stir up trouble over 600 years after they written--and with good reason. These are very dirty stories. But I think that dismissing them on such grounds does a great discredit to the cleverness of Chaucer's writing, especially with The Reeve's Tale. The Miller's Tale is actually fairly well-written, but The Reeve's Tale is bad, and intentionally so. Remember Chaucer's disclaimer: he wants us to believe that these stories are coming from the fictional storytellers, not him. So when the Reeve tells a dreadfully unfunny tale it's a reflection on his character, not Chaucer's writing. The intentionally and painfully bad is a much more sophisticated kind of satire that we may be used to seeing in contemporary art and literature (think along the lines of Spinal Tap or The Office), but it's something I'm not used to seeing in the classics. To me, this puts Chaucer literally centuries ahead of his time. I would argue that literature has only recently caught up with him.
I don't want to overstate the point right now (I'll have much more to say about it later). So I'll just end things here by repeating Chaucer's disclaimer:
Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame;
And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game.
(Think about this, and don't blame me;
And also people should not take a joke too seriously.)
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
There are several names being thrown around in connection with Zack Snyder's Watchmen film. Here's a roundup, with my reactions.
Rorschach: Jackie Earle Haley.
I saw him in Little Children lately, and I was impressed with his acting. At least we know he's got the creepy part of the character down. This may be the best news I've heard about the Watchmen film in a long time (aside from learning that Keanu Reeves turned down the part of Dr. Manhattan).
Nite Owl: Patrick Wilson.
I saw him also in the aforementioned Little Children. I wasn't impressed with how he did, but it may have been partially because of the lousy script. All I know is that if he's going to be playing a middle-aged Dan Dreiberg he's going to need to put on a lot of weight (and maybe look less pretty).
Dr. Manhattan: Jason Patric and The Comedian: Thomas Jane
I don't really know anything about either of these actors, so I have no opinion as to their credentials. Anyway, this just sounds like a rumor right now, so maybe neither actor will even be in the film.
I'm still not getting my hopes up for this movie. From what I've seen of Zack Snyder's films he tends toward sensational, over-the-top filmmaking. Even if he tries to make it look gritty and dark, I have a feeling it will turn out as a glamorous Hollywood version of gritty and dark, rather than the truly understated realism it needs. I'm afraid that our only chance for a really great adaptation left with Paul Greengrass.
Reason #2: The Pilgrims
The concept behind The Canterbury Tales is that a group of people are making a religious pilgrimage from Southwark, England to Canterbury. At the onset of their journey they agree to a contest in which they all tell tales to pass the time and the winner has his or her lodgings and food paid for by the rest of the company. It's a simple frame device, but it's also much more than that. To me, the pilgrims themselves are the most interesting part of the book. They represent nearly all levels of society in 14th century England, from a noble knight to a simple miller, to various religious clergy, to a wealthy widow of several husbands, and a host of others in between.
Scholars have speculated that the variety of people represented in the group of pilgrims is a direct result of Chaucer's own firsthand experiences. Throughout his life he was a soldier, a diplomat, a civil servant, a messenger, a comptroller, and a foreman. It is believed that these experiences familiarized Chaucer with the full range of social classes, which uniquely qualified him to write a work of literature that creates interaction between characters who would otherwise never associate with one another.
The mix of upper and lower classes of people on the trip is by itself interesting, but Chaucer spices things up a bit in his depictions of the individual characters, which he begins in the General Prologue. Chaucer has a way of talking about them in a way that can seem complimentary but hints at scandalous acts and character flaws, and he is particularly hard on those in the employ of the church. Here are a few lines from his description of the Friar (in Modern English, borrowed from the side-by-side translation here):
Highly liked by all and intimate was he
With franklins everywhere in his country,
And with the worthy women living in the city:
For his power of confession met no equality
That's what he said, in the confession to a curate,
For his order he was a licentiate.
He heard confession gently, it was said,
Gently absolved too, leaving no dread.
He was an easy man in penance-giving
He knew how to gain a fair living;
For to a begging friar, money given
Is sign that any man has been well shriven.
For if one gave, he dared to boast bluntly,
He took the man's repentance not lightly.
For many a man there is so hard of heart
He cannot weep however pains may smart.
Therefore, instead of weeping and of prayers,
Men should give silver to the poor friars.
In towns he knew the taverns, every one,
And every good host and each barmaid too -
Better than needy lepers and beggars, these he knew.
For unto no such a worthy man as he
It's unsuitable, as far as he could see,
To have sick lepers for acquaintances.
There is no honest advantageousness
In dealing with such poor beggars;
It's with the rich victual-buyers and sellers.
Perhaps I have a warped view of what was acceptable in Chaucer's time, but passages like this are a little shocking to me. From the beginning we see the pilgrims as people who feign devout faith or nobility, but are corrupt beneath, and the clergy are the worst of them. The General Prologue deals mostly with superficial qualities, though. The pilgrims' characters are developed more fully through the tales they tell, which is one of the most interesting things Chaucer does. See, the pilgrims are not merely mouthpieces for Chaucer's storytelling. The stories vary in style, content, and quality, depending on who is telling them, and some are even intentionally bad. For the rest of this series of posts I will discuss some of the more interesting ones, beginning with...
Reason #3: The Knight's Tale
Of the Knight, Chaucer says, "He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght" (he was a truly perfect, gentle knight), who is the portrait of medieval nobility. He is cultured and refined, but also a formidable fighter, as evidenced by his experience on the battlefield. This knight kicks off the pilgrimage with a high-minded tale that incorporates old-fashioned nobility with Greek Mythology and Medieval Philosophy.
The Knight's Tale tells about two young knights, Arcite and Palamon, who are captured by an enemy king and imprisoned for life. While locked in a tower they see Emelye, the king's daughter, walk by, and they both fall instantly in love with her. In time Arcite is freed at the request of a friend, but is cast into exile, while Palamon remains imprisoned. Each one envies the other's position: Arcite has his freedom, Palamon remains geographically close to Emelye.
Eventually, Arcite disguises himself and gains a position in the king's court, while Palamon escapes from his prison. The two meet by chance one day and begin to fight over Emelye. The king stops their fight then, but he arranges a contest between the two. They are each to raise an army of 100 men to fight on a predetermined day, and the winner is awarded the hand of Emelye in marriage. The men raise their forces and on the night before the battle they each pray to the god of their choice, who proceed to argue amongst themselves the fate of the men and Emelye.
On the day of battle it is agreed that no man shall suffer a mortal blow: if a man is struck down he will be allowed to exit the battlefield. Ultimately Arcite wins, but Pluto sends an earthquake that causes Arcite to be thrown from his horse and die. There is much mourning and talk of the great man Arcite was. Emelye then marries Palamon and loves him for the rest of their lives.
The whole tale is told with lots of flowery language and extensive descriptions of the people's clothing, the arena of battle, and the greatness and vastness of the armies. The knight also interjects a liberal amount of philosophy, commenting on the wheel of fortune (it's not just a game show) that turns us all so that when we are at the top one moment, it's only a matter of time before we are once again at the bottom.
This tale is all so high-minded and romanticized that it seems completely over the top to me. The knights go from beloved kin to sworn enemies over their infatuation with Emelye, only to renew their love for each other in the moment of Arcite's death. Emelye at first prays to Diana to allow her to remain single, but she seems all too quick to pledge her love for whichever man wins the prize. And finally, the king who imprisoned the two knights in the first place ends up welcoming one as a son-in-law and honoring the other in his death.
I'm really not sure what Chaucer had in mind in writing this: Is it a sincerely written work of epic poetry or a subtle parody of the popular style? In the context of The Canterbury Tales I like to think it's a little of both, but I suppose it doesn't really matter. What matters is that the Knight takes the story very seriously, as do the rest of the pilgrims, who all consider it to be an illustration of the lofty ideals of chivalry and nobility. It was probably equally well-received by readers in Chaucer's time and has remained perhaps the most popular tale even to our modern age, a fact I find very interesting. It seems that old-fashioned notions of nobility prove enduring in every age, even up to the 20th century, when people began embracing more realistic depictions of people in literature.
It's tempting, then, to think that all literature of the past was as high-minded as The Knight's Tale, but that's simply not true, as we see from the rest of the tales.
Up next: Chaucer gets dirty.
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
At first I was going to title this "Ten Reasons The Canterbury Tales is the greatest work of literature ever written," but I thought it was a bit wordy for what is going to be a long series of posts. I truly believe that, though: I’ve never read anything so interesting, creative, and ahead of its time as Canterbury Tales, and in the coming days and weeks I hope to demonstrate why, beginning with...
Reason #1: The Language
I’ll be honest: The Canterbury Tales is not easy to read. Originally composed in the late 14th century, it was written in Middle English, which resembles our modern speech more closely than Beowulf, but not as much as Shakespeare. Most of the words are early forms of words we use today, but spelled and pronounced quite differently. Here are the opening lines from the General Prologue:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
I was very fortunate in college to have a professor who brought this antiquated language to life. He helped me to not just understand the words, but gain an appreciation for the beauty of Chaucer's language. He even had each students memorize the first 42 lines of the prologue, telling us it would come in handy as an impressive trick at cocktail parties. The process of memorizing, with the repeated recitation, also gave me an appreciation for the music of Chaucer's poetry.
As a result, the only way for me to read Chaucer is in the original language. For one thing, I have yet to find a modern English translation that can match the beauty of Chaucer's writing. In addition to that, though, is something I'll explain more later. It seems that modern scholars are much more prudish than Chaucer, and in translating the work they replace references to anatomy and body functions with either more polite terms or similarly antiquated words that most readers aren't familiar with. The result is that they smooth over the commonness and outright dirtiness that made audiences love The Canterbury Tales throughout history.
I understand, though, that not everyone has the resources, patience, or geeky fascination with language that is needed for an understanding of Middle English. So if you must read The Canterbury Tales in translation, I insist that you read a complete poetic translation. There are plenty of prose books that paraphrase some of the tales. These miss the point completely. As with Shakespeare, the greatness of the tales is not just in the stories, but in the way they are written. Of the modern English translations available, Nevill Coghill's seems the best. Here is his version of the passage quoted above:
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially, from every shire's end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.
Finally, since I've already revealed my geeky, stuck-up love for the original language of The Canterbury Tales, here's a link to a wonderful site where you can view full scans of William Caxton's 1476 and 1483 print editions of the book. They're a lot of fun to look at for Chaucer nerds.
In my next post I'll abandon talk of the language and get into the actual subject matter of the book, which will hopefully be more interesting for those who don't necessarily love Middle English poetry.
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.