Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage 

Excerpts from the Introduction, Chapters III and IV


The Introduction gets us on stage for a real, fallible Chaucer.

Part of Chaucer’s idea is simply that no literary idea can approach
its full potential of ‘poetic truth’ unless it engages the reader’s
interest and enlists his participation. It demands of us an act of
will, for the truth of a poem is in our idea of it.
---Donald R. Howard, “Chaucer’s Idea of an Idea” (1976)

I: Introduction

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer as narrator is the first person we meet. Chaucer the penitent is the last one to speak. And, as V. A. Kolve has pointed out, Pilgrim Chaucer’s personal performance is called for at the mid-point between the curtain going up and his closing monologue. Chaucer is the beginning, the middle and the end. I take this to be more than a chance arrangement.

Some readers will have a problem with my lumping Chaucer the narrator, Chaucer the penitent and Chaucer the pilgrim-storyteller all together instead of cluttering the stage with bit-players. But consider this: When a man tells a joke, he doesn’t become a different person during the telling, does he? Or if Robert Redford acts a part in a film, we still recognize him as Robert Redford, don’t we? As narrator, as Pilgrim Chaucer, or as intrusive author, I see Chaucer as a lively constant behind these personalities and their actions.

A way of thinking that has always troubled me comes from the following kinds of statements: Chaucer will do the narrating “unbeknownst to the Host.” Or, when Pilgrim Chaucer’s story is halted, “the author thus is forced to come to the rescue” of the storyteller. A similar point of view gives credit to Pilgrim Chaucer (whose existence, in truth, is merely part of a printed page) for his “critical ability” in literature because, quite impossibly, it “had been developed by many hours spent with his books.” It has even been proposed that this parchment-and-ink character has a scheme to use his story “for the purpose of showing up” the Host’s lack of ability as a literary critic. These are statements a la Pirandello, a character from a printed page developing an independent life.

It brought me reassurance to find that Bertrand Bronson did not subscribe to the “schizoid notion” of two Chaucers with independent “attitudes and intelligences.” Now I know that I need not try to understand how other scholars pictured creative fantasy retaliating against reality, or acting independently without informing the author’s imagination. Chaucer, the man who was alive in the fourteenth century, is always in control of all aspects of his creation. The challenge in his creativity involves his audience, his readers, not his characters. Imagined actors cannot be pleased or offended by, nor cooperative with, what he portrays them doing. Chaucer presents the pilgrims as living beings, but we must never lose sight of their limitations. Though they had a life in his mind, their only reality now is as words on a page through which the poet still communicates with us.

So who is this Chaucer that I have asked to take center stage? He is the composite of all aspects of Chaucer; they are all making the pilgrimage. I am assuming that when the poet identifies a character as “Chaucer,” he wants us to know something about himself, about his personal thinking.

The first “Chaucer” we meet is the narrator. He has been called “ na´ve,” a “cheerful numbskull.” If we blithely go along with this thinking—by ignoring or disregarding his odd ideas, seeming misconceptions, or contradictions as being evidence of simple-mindedness—we could be blind to the author’s tricking us, misinforming us, concealing his intentions from us.

Though it is said that the narrator appears to lack mental skills, it is also said the he appears to be “strangely omniscient.” The author creates a fantasy of nested, remembered images. As the production begins “we pass through the looking-glass of the narrator’s mind into the remembered world of the pilgrimage; from it into the remembered worlds of the various pilgrims; and from these sometimes even into the remembered worlds of their characters.” And we cannot forget that this narrator’s mind is part of Chaucer’s mind, Chaucer’s creative genius. The poet had used this technique before. In The House of Fame he is explicit in saying that the action of the story takes place in his mind. (523-27; 1101-03)

Chaucer the poet, then is outside the poem. The narrator, Pilgrim Chaucer, and all the actions in the poem are made of the poet’s thoughts. As Donald Howard says, “given all the formalistic distinctions we can make between the man and the artist, or among the man, the pilgrim, and the poet, we never know positively which we are hearing, and are not meant to know.” I find this appraisal comfortable, straightforward. Chaucer the medieval poet uses his skills of construction to teach and delight his audience: How will my audience be most entertained? How can a point be most cleverly concealed to make the search stimulating? (The Middle Ages loved the search.) Shall my narrator give an indication ? Who shall express a helpful hint? How shall I demonstrate a change? What can I do that I’ve never done before? How to bring it to a conclusion? Have I remembered everything?

Though much of what Chaucer gave us was material garnered from his reading (books found or not yet found), his imagination deserves more credit than it is generally given. The stories are not what makes the Canterbury Tales so remarkable. It is Chaucer’s genius for creating the world of the pilgrimage that is unique and captivating. He adds a personal touch and complexity by having his alter ego perform as the actual teller of all the tales, and doubly significant (perhaps doubly challenging), he includes stories inspired from inside of himself.

We, his audience, are ready to begin our search for the “sentence,” that is, the concealed meaning—the “fascinating pursuit”—so precious to the medieval mind. We travel with the poet on his pilgrimage, as we listen at a deeper level to disclosures concerning his life.

Here’s a summary of what’s said about facts regarding his life.

from III: A Portrait of Chaucer

We are about to join Pilgrim Chaucer in his first-person presentation at center stage. Before we do, let’s take one last glance at the many features of his portrait we’ve been sketching.

In his fourteenth-century life, we see a man of medium height, perhaps just a bit plump. His family name is the French word for “hunter” (chasseur). From an early age he lived as a servant among nobility. In his late teens he traveled as part of the invading English army to Flanders and onward into the heart of France. The tactics of a “peaceful” war were abandoned within a few months, and the army was allowed (encouraged?) to pillage churches, ravage women, and burn towns.

Quick advancement found him serving as foreign emissary on several occasions during his twenties and thirties. He was also given the responsibility of collector of taxes at the Customs House. The Cecilia Chaumpaigne episode occurred when Chaucer was forty. (How did he find time to write?)

Much of what has been put together in this depiction will play a part in reviewing his personal tales. It is a human, fallible poet who is about to tell his own story. In the closing prayer of the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer confesses his sinfulness and asks God’s forgiveness. The Canterbury Tales, this last work of his life, was the making of a pilgrimage. It is Chaucer on this journey who is about to be called upon to give an account of adventures of his life.

This is my “justification” for what lies ahead.

from IV: Introduction to Sir Thopas

Frankly, if I were twenty I would be too embarrassed to divulge what I understand in his confession. The content is downright obscene, astonishingly creative, lasciviously candid, but never prurient. Because drast [filth] is the essence of Chaucer’s first story, delicacy and refinement will not always be possible. For evidence and support we will draw upon early rude tales and songs that illustrate the historical earthy tradition enjoyed by many poets. Some examples are familiar old bawdy verses collected by Robert Burns, the Scots poet, who preserved this part of his culture for posterity. We’ll also sample sources contemporary to Chaucer, including fourteenth-century books of spiritual guidance in an attempt to bring to the surface the drast rejected as not to be fathomed during the Victorian era, and perhaps rejected for some time before A broader grasp of Chaucer’s vocabulary will prove the story to be anything but pointless.

< Back to Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage main page