Friday, July 18, 2008

Let's Hear It for the Old Couple

Thinking about Chaucer in the twenty-first century is for me more than an act of keeping alive within me a respect for a man and his works long, long dead but as well of an awareness that the reading of him revealed itself to me. I speak of the relationship between the teller and the tale, a relationship that can influence the manner in which both teller and tale are recalled long after the reading is done.

I speak admiringly of The Pardoner's Tale, which in its dark, Chaucerian way, snaps me six hundred years away, into episodes of The Wire. The Pardoner's Tale is not for everyone, indeed not for the pilgrims for whom it is intended. When the eponymous narrator begins his prologue at the urging of the host, Harry Bayley, his fellow pilgrims don't want to hear it, because of the ambiguous nature of the man:
A voice he had as small as hath a goat.
No beard had he, nor ever one should have.
As smooth it was as it were new y-shave;
I trow he were a gelding or a mare...

which is to say, his sexuality is certainly called into account and in addition because of his profession of selling religious relics of doubtful provenance and effect. The Pardoner is a fraud in many ways although to his credit, he is forthcoming to a high degree, undercutting our own tendency to regard him with the same disdain shown by his fellow travelers. At first he demonstrates for them the sales pitch he uses on prospective customers, but then, after a moment of reflection, he acknowledges that he has just given forth nothing but cynical insincerity his , further confessing "myn entente is nat but for to wynne,/ And nothynge for correccioun of synne" (My intent is merely to win [make money], and not at all for the correction of sin). Hearing his confession, offered without apology and under no duress, aren't our feelings for him more complex and positive?

Now on to that splendid Wife of Bath. Her prologue, like The Pardoner's, is a partial confession/revelation, partly a defense. Her curriculum vitae includes having had five husbands, which gives her leave to speak of the "wo that is marriage."

A good WIF was ther OF biside BATHE,
But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe.
Of clooth makyng she hadde swich an haunt,
She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt.
In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she
That she was out of alle charitee.
Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground.
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.
Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.
She was a worthy womman al hir lyve.
Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,
Withouten oother compaignye in youthe--
But therof nedeth nat to speke as nowthe.

Ah, look at the game old gal, in charge and bigger than life from the very get-go. My personal preference is for the Prologue to her tale, rather than the tale she tells of the court of King Arthur which, although revelatory of a side of her character, seems less exuberant and dimensional than the Prologue. I love it when she rips the equivalent of a girlie magazine from the hands of her present husband and instructs him to admire her--and he does. Or so she says. With all that dynamism and self-assurance she displays, there is just the right touch of ambiguity about her to make us wonder and remember.

These two characters, holding fast to our imaginations over the years represent ways to build characters we can regard as timeless and timelessly human, filled with foible, self-interest, and yet guided by a moral compass where the needle rests not on magnetic north but on the place in the psyche where the truth of self-knowledge dwells.

1 comment:

Wild Iris said...

I still prefer Twain.