Monday, November 17, 2014

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.  

“THE KNIGHT’S TALE” by Geoffrey Chaucer (written probably some time in the 1380s)

It is odd how you come to some great works of literature.
As an undergraduate taking English in the early 1970s, I of course had to read some of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. We read the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales and the delightful Nuns’ Priest’s Tale of Chaunticleer and the fox; and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (the prologue being far more fun than the tale); and The Clerk’s Tale of patient Griselda, which nowadays angers not only militant feminists; and my favourite, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale about misbehaving alchemists. Some of us, on our own initiative, also read The Miller’s Tale just for the fun of a good fart joke. Then, as an honours student, I remember being dragged through Chaucer’s epic-length Troilus and Criseyde by a professor whose idea of a lecture was simply to read the text and offer us footnotes by way of commentary. Most of us preferred simply to read the text and the footnotes on our own, from the scholarly editions that we had anyway. If the lectures weren’t very edifying, at least I can say that I found Troilus and Criseyde a more satisfactory work of art than Bill Shakespeare’s wonky, satirical handling of the same story as Troilus and Cressida, even if Bill does give us some great lines and speeches (especially Ulysses’ “alms for oblivion” speech).
But, while I had ploughed through these works in the original Middle English, it always niggled with me that I had never read the whole of The Canterbury Tales in the original. Instead, when I made a dash through Chaucer’s unfinished masterpiece, I relied on the jokey modernised version by Nevill Coghill in the Penguin Classics.
So, years later, in an idle moment, I decided to amend at least some of this defect.
I approached it obliquely.
First I read John Dryden’s Palamon and Arcite, his “translation” of Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale published in 1700 – almost exactly midway between Chaucer’s time and ours. I read through its 50-odd pages, enjoying its subtly-varied rhythms in the rhyming couplet form. I appreciated the general courtliness of the whole thing. But on occasion I was surprised by some of the theological reflections, which, in their vocabulary, seemed more of the 17th century than of the 14th century.
Next evening, therefore, I sat down and read The Knight’s Tale in the original. To my surprise I discovered that in some ways the original is more easy to read than Dryden’s much more recent version. I found Chaucer’s vocabulary more restricted, more direct and simpler – although occasionally not having the nobler rhetorical effects that Dryden had added. And, by reading Chaucer’s original, I found that Dryden had sometimes elaborated on, or paraphrased, the original, so that what he had produced was more a “version” than a true translation. Indeed, in Dryden’s (circa 1700) version, there was much post-Reformation language about predestination and sundry other matters that were discussed quite differently in the late Middle Ages.
The basic story (in both Chaucer’s and Dryden’s words) is a very simple one. Palamon and Arcite are two knights, who have been imprisoned by Theseus. (Here – as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Theseus is the wise and benevolent ruler of Athens, seen in distinctly medieval terms, rather than the hero of Greek legend.) As the two imprisoned knights gaze through the bars of their prison, they both fall in love with Theseus’s kinswoman Emyle (Emily). Theseus, after some complications, permits a tournament in which the two young knights will fight for Emyle’s hand. Before battle, Arcite dedicates himself to Mars. Palamon dedicates himself to Venus. Arcite, devotee of Mars, wins the joust – but then dies by accident. After a suitable time, Palamon is allowed to marry Emyle. During the conflict between the two knights, Emyle prays to Diana to preserve her virgin state, but eventually she happily accepts noble marriage to Palamon.
In this simple, chivalric tale, the poet’s real attention is directed to the elaborate descriptions of the bowers of the different gods – Mars and Venus – and the rival lovers’ prayers to them; the tourney area that Theseus sets up; the funeral rites of Arcite; and the sententious wisdom of Theseus.
In short, the story’s characters and plot are like something seen on a tapestry, and are very fitting for the “verray parfit gentil knyghte” (“truly perfect noble knight”) who tells the tale as the first story-teller in The Canterbury Tales.
Having read the story in these two versions, I agree with the critics who say that the poem, while presenting two equally noble and admirable rivals, is contrasting desire and devotion as the mechanisms of love. Arcite desires Emyle, and would have her by conquest. Hence his dedication to Mars. Palamon is devoted to Emyle, approaching love as a religious cult. Hence his dedication to Venus. We cannot read too much psychological complexity into the poem, but it does say that love is different things to different people. For the record – Chaucer (who borrowed the story from Boccaccio) has made some concessions to the fact that the tale takes place in pre-Christian times, even if it drips with medieval courtly love and chivalry. Saturn plays the role of malicious fortune, deciding between the rivals and striking down Arcite when he appears to have won his bride.
I must settle one recent, and quite inane, controversy in discussing this stately work. In 1980 Terry Jones, ex-Monty Python, produced a singularly silly book called Chaucer’s Knight – The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, which argued that we should really see Chaucer’s knight as a devious, bloodthirsty hired killer because (in Jones’ view) this is what all medieval knights were anyway.
Now so long as we are prepared to use evidence very selectively, Jones’ view of historical medieval knights who really existed is possibly tenable. But, as most astute critics have already pointed out, you can only promote this view of Chaucer’s knight if you blithely ignore the words that Chaucer actually wrote. For there is no suggestion anywhere in either the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales, or in The Knight’s Tale itself, that Chaucer sees the knight as anything other than the “verray parfit gentil knyghte” which he calls him. Had Jones been prepared to weigh up the words on the page, rather than imposing his pre-existing ideas, he could not have been able to make his case at all. It’s one thing to say Chaucer’s view of knighthood is unrealistic. It is quite another to say, as Jones does, that we are meant to see the knight of The Canterbury Tales as anything other than noble.
Okay. Enough of the type of snide smart-arsery that ex-Monty Python members have tended to move into, once they abandoned pure comedy.
Getting back to Chaucer’s poem, there were some passages that stood out for me as still being highly resonant. Consider Arcite’s justification for ignoring Palamon’s prior claims to Emyle:
“Wostow nat wel the olde clerkes sawe
That ‘who shal yeve a lover any lawe?’
Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan
Than may be yeve to any erthly man.
And therefore positif lawe and swich decree
Is broke al-day for love, in ech degree.
A man moot nedes love, maugre his heed.
He may nat fleen it, thogh he sholde be deed
Al be she mayde, or widwe, or ells wyf.
And ekk it is nat lykly, al thy lyf,
To stond in his grace….”
Translation? “L’amour est enfant de Boheme, qui n’a jamais connu de loi”, as Carmen sang. This is the creed of those who think the stirring of their loins is a moral imperative.
There is also a strong predestination theme when Theseus just happens on the two knights when they are about to fight without any courtly preliminaries:
The destinee, ministre general,
That executeth in the world over-al
The purveyaunce, that God hath seyn biforn,
So strong it is, that, though the world had sworn
The contrarie of a thing, by ye or nay,
Yet somtyme it shal fallen on a day
That falleth nat eft with-inne a thousand yere.”
Later, equally fatalistic, Theseus’s father reacts to the accident that kills Arcite by saying:
This world nis but a thurghfare ful of wo
And we ben pilgrims, passinge to and fro;
Death is an ende of every worldly sore.”
It is intriguing that the description of the temple of Venus commences with an account of the woes of the lovers depicted:
First in the temple of Venus maystow see
wroght on the wal, ful piteous to beholde,
The broken slepes, and the sykes cold;
The sacred teres, and the waymenting;
The fyry strokes of the desiring,
That loves servaunts in this lyf endure.”
This is really “tears on my pillow and pain in my heart” territory.
It is equally intriguing to see how the acts of violence depicted in the temple of Mars include both overt and subtle ones:
The smyler with the knyf under the cloke;
The shepne brenning with the blacke smoke;
The treson of the mordring in the bedde;
The open were, with woundes al bibledde.”
The phrase “the smiler with the knife” leapt out at me, because I already knew that “Nicholas Blake” (pseudonym of donnish poet Cecil Day-Lewis) used the phrase as the title for one of his thrillers. More to the point, though, I thought what a wonderfully concise way Chaucer had of expressing himself. “The smiler with the knife under the cloak”. Doesn’t that say as much about the bland deceptions of the would-be violent as Shakespeare’s “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”? And, come to think of it, Shakespeare’s phrase occurs in the very play in which there is “the treson of the mordring in the bedde”.
The Knight’s Tale may be a long narrative poem, and it may be courtly and noble in ways that are quite alien to us. Whoever first organised Chaucer’s work presumably placed it first in The Canterbury Tales to signal that he was doing something serious, before he got to the crude tomfoolery of the miller and others. Elevated and lengthy though the poem may be, however, the language itself displays those key virtues of Chaucer that translations and “versions” often don’t catch. He is concise and pithy.

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