The Book That Had To Be Written
I chat with neighbors about Chaucer. I mean that in the biblical sense. I'll talk to anyone kind enough to listen when it comes to Geoffrey Chaucer. I can't help myself.
When Sally, from across the street, drove me home from the beekeeper interview, she heard my new bee information. Chris, two doors away, came to get some irises, and got gruesome fourteenth-century medical details along with the flowers.
My Chaucer-urge first exhibited itself when I was an undergraduate. I was one of those happy-to-finally-get-to-go-to-college middle-aged matrons. As an English major, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was "Required." The Middle English language scared me, but soon something "clicked." Three weeks into the course, the vocabulary became stimulating; the poetry, a new-found friend. I wanted to know everything about Chaucer's world.
Questions began to nag me. Why such an odd word there? (He slept with a wonger?) Why such a repulsive association? (A hired cook with a running sore?) The ambiguous words were distracting. And there was the make-up of the pilgrim group--why one pair of brothers? no husband and wife? so few women? Instructors responded with variations on "That's the way it was." Questions never left me. The Canterbury pilgrims passed in unending review before my mind's eye. Then, one evening their movement ceased; answers fell into my head; I could see how some of the ambiguous words worked. This could be the topic for my term paper, but I needed help to organize countless details.
When I saw my Chaucer professor, Dr. T, next afternoon, a mass of information came pouring out of me. He said, in self-defense, "Wait! Can you give me a one sentence summary?" After a moment I said, "When Chaucer tells a story his ambiguities are telling another story besides." An indulgent smile greeted my statement. "Do you mean an allegory?" "Yes!" Dr. T said with assurance, "Chaucer did not write allegories." End of conversation. (But I'd learned that medieval readers expected and delighted in the challenge of allegory.)
I chose an ordinary topic for my paper, but still needed to tell someone what was in my head or I'd burst. The former Chaucer professor--student-centered, door always open--seemed a good choice. "May I talk with you, Dr. A?" "Certainly." That was the start of our brief Chaucer relationship. He seemed intrigued and called me an "enfant terrible."
Next time we spoke, I mentioned religious protests concealed in Chaucer's lines. Dr. A frowned and said I was "pigeon-holing a great writer." But wouldn't a religious aspect add another dimension, elevate his stature? When I switched to the topic of pilgrim identities, it just got worse. His frown deepened. He cautioned, "Mind your humility." (My conferring about Chaucer often ended abruptly.)
Having disconcerted two professors caused me to evaluate, but it didn't discourage me. I was enthralled with the Chaucer pursuit. Besides, I'd been married to a college professor for twenty-five years. Many of our friends were professors. I was not in awe of them; I even knew they could be wrong. I started working independently, encouraged by a great book on literary research that said it was all right to challenge long-held, venerated opinions. For balance, it also exhorted: If your idea is found to be in error, "it has to be dropped."
My understanding husband gave me a gift of "time" each week for research. Mondays after my classes, I spent three hours in the library pursuing things medieval--gothic architecture, illuminated manuscripts, the Black Plague--whatever made up Chaucer's life. Then we would eat out, and I was able to talk about what I had just learned. (He was always a "good neighbor.")
The religious aura of many alternate images caused me concern that negative findings could mar Chaucer's reputation. Fr. B, the college chaplain, said the words I needed to hear, "Never fear the truth." That wisdom continues to guide me.
Hope for a mentor still flickered. A Senior Project was required, a substantial literary critique. My designated advisor, Dr. L, listened to some Chaucer thoughts. She asked for an outline which I delivered next day. A week later she told me she had conferred with the advisor for her recent thesis. He said I obviously didn't know much about the fourteenth century. My ideas had no substance. Her counter-suggestion: compare three women from the Tales. I said I'd think about it.
Frustrated, I stopped by the chairman's office. I knew and respected him. "Dr. J, do I have to compare three women from the Canterbury Tales?" There was a loophole. If I found a Chaucer-topic he'd approve, he could be my advisor. What a stroke of good fortune! Purposely avoiding the Canterbury Tales, I selected Chaucer's Parlement of Foules instead. The topic was approved. Then a truly great thing happened. I took the required bibliography course that facilitates work on the Senior Project--and met Prof. V. On a 3x5 card, the students were to state their topic, where they were going with it, and why it interested them. I said reading Chaucer caused double mental images for me, like double-exposures on photos. I wanted to understand the secondary images. On my card she wrote "Fascinating!"
The Parlement was a joy, and I learned a good deal about the fourteenth century. Dr. J was tolerant, flexible. His attitude was that this was not meant to be "a doctoral thesis." After graduation, however, he asked to see me. When I arrived he handed me an article presenting Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" as a coded love letter to a mistress. Quite amusing. He asked if I knew why he'd had me read it. "Because it's so well-written and amusing." No, I'd missed the point. "Discovering" something where nothing exists in "Trees," he said, was exactly what I had done with Parlement of Foules. He wrote a six-page analysis of my work to "dissuade" me. A short time later, I saw Prof. V at a summer concert. She asked how the Project turned out. I told her. She wanted to read it, so I delivered it to her at the next scheduled concert.
Before nine next morning Prof. V called. She had read the whole piece before going to sleep. It was the most original thing she'd seen in ages. Could we talk about it? That afternoon she encouraged me to consider getting a Ph.D. My immediate reply, "No." Undaunted, she offered Plan B: Organize articles for journals. If my name was seen frequently THEY would have to take me seriously. It sounded practical. I set right to it.
There was a neat little piece about the rooster, Chaunticleer. Accepted right off. Then I explained part of Sir Thopas. That got published too. Next I tried a topic a bit longer and more complicated. (That's when I interviewed the beekeeper.) It was challenging and fun. I called it "Chaucer's Litel Jape" (little joke) because the storyteller calls it that. The "joke" didn't make it. The reviewer was "impressed by the information collected" but "the tale makes perfect sense read as a literal tale." A hidden meaning wasn't of value. I returned to the Thopas story. The character named Sir Elephant is "the enemy." I went to the library to search for the identity of an Arab named Elephant. I scanned page after page about the history of diseases--and then I saw "him." I almost cheered, right there in the library!
While working on Thopas our local paper announced a lecture about this seldom-read Tale of Thopas. Remarkable. I went, of course. The lecturer, who was about to publish a book on the Canterbury Tales, began with droll academic anecdotes, made quick work of Sir Thopas, explaining that it's so dull that no one reads it unless it's assigned--and no professor concerned about his students ever assigns it. Large laugh. He analyzed the first twenty lines saying that they follow standard medieval conventions. The remaining 150 lines got a token acknowledgment regarding "similar conventions." The conclusion was more comic material, and then on to wine and cookies. A few days later I dropped him a note to ask what he felt was the purpose of Sir Elephant in the plot. His reply said, "Thank you for prodding me to think further about the issue."
My Thopas article was mailed a couple of weeks later. The reviewer's opinion was "there's something here and the research on puns and vocabulary is not to be dismissed but" It was suggested that I reduce the piece to a "'glossary' of obscenity." A fresh copy sent elsewhere received a rejection partly based on a term from the 1368 medical book that Chris and I discussed over the irises. Wondering if a Master's Degree would fill in background and broaden research, I made an appointment with a college counselor. The prim, white-haired lady asked about my interests. Chaucer soon surfaced. Her face lit up. She had been a student assistant to a famed Chaucer scholar. How serendipitous. Conversation became animated. I eagerly told of "new" ideas. She asked about my work in England. When I said I'd never been abroad, the atmosphere cooled. "Nothing 'new' can be said about Chaucer unless it comes from the source, from working with the centuries-old records." I tried to insist that his words were "the source." (My remark was not well received.)
The Master's Program still seemed useful. A timely "call for papers" from a Christian literary group was posted on the bulletin board. I sent the synopsis of a topic I was eager to introduce. To reevaluate the Canterbury Tales--the Host, the guide of the pilgrimage, seemed the place to start. The paper was accepted to be presented several months hence.
I needed a fact on good authority for the paper. Because it concerned dogma, I stopped at church to ask Fr. F how to proceed. He was curious about my field of study. I told him of my Chaucer paper. He beamed. His degree was in literature. He was eager to talk--until I said I wondered if Chaucer's leanings might be heretical. The poor man's face turned purple. He blurted, "He was devoutdevout!" I agreed to "devout," but in what way? Fr. F dismissed me by saying he'd look into my question. (I never heard from him.)
I didn't wait for his assistance. Muddling along a couple of false trails, I discovered reference works I'd never used before, and eventually got the needed information. The word host was bound to bring an image of Christ to the fourteenth-century mind: In the late 1200s the Dogma declaring the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic Host was confirmed. The feast of Corpus Christi--the most elaborate of all medieval feast days--celebrated this belief. Prof. V came forward with an invitation to have me rehearse my conference paper at her home. A small group listened and asked questions to prepare me for the real event.
My talk and responses went well, I reported to Prof. V. She advised me to incorporate material from the question period into the paper and send it off immediately to the journal of the sponsoring society. I did just that. The editor was kind enough to send me reviewer's responses. One said, "Ifthis paper were to be accepted, the result would be a revolution in Chaucer studies" A second reviewer recommended that their journal "should not touch [such a topic] with a hundred foot pole." The editor chose the hundred foot pole. That experience convinced me that an article of 12-15 pages could not make a proper case. I'd have to write a book.
* * * *
I know that some have tried to save me from my own enthusiasm. And some have just worked hard to maintain tradition.
A good friend (a professor), with whom I'd shared my insights, finally admitted I made him "uneasy" because he felt "skeptical when anybody (anybody!) claims to have a unique key to an earlier author" (Pepys' diary and the Rosetta stone notwithstanding).
Through the years, when I have felt that no one cared about what I was doing, I'd remind myself of Prof. V. She was (and is) an inspiration. Thinking of that book on research, I once told her that if someone would just prove to me that I was wrong, it would save me a lot of work. She found the statement foolish--she was right.
The excitement of the quest, the discoveries, the desire to give what I see to others, stimulates me. Even little coincidences are a thrill. For example, an old friend visiting from Chicago spent an evening talking old times, old church friends, and how things have changed. She'd moved to the new St. Thomas parish; it was not "home" as St. Alphonsus had been for both of us, but she was adjusting. The evening wasn't time enough to cover everything. When good-byes were said, I returned to the dining room to find a copy of the famous picture of the murder of Becket, on my table. Words above it said "The Canterbury Tales." I was startled, but the explanation is simple. It was a paper left for me by my friend, a parish bulletin folded in half so that only the top half was visible. She hadn't specified that her "St. Thomas" was Thomas à Becket. (His shrine is the destination of the Canterbury pilgrims.) "Canterbury" happenings are always special for me: The arrival of a gift purchased at "The Canterbury Shop"; my favorite "Broadway Shows" program presenting "The Canterbury Tales" (a musical that never made it). I get my Chaucer pick-me-up by singing along.
I'll mention one more incident because this one was a big help. I'd been looking for good detailed pictures of Canterbury Cathedral for several years. Photos of St. Peter's and the various Notre Dame's are in great supply, but pictures of Canterbury are rare and mainly second rate. While enjoying a train trip, I made the acquaintance of a British woman. Out of curiosity I asked if she was familiar with Canterbury. "I've lived there for years. Why?" I told her what I was looking for. She had the solution. "Contact the gift shop at the cathedral." I would never have thought of that. I ordered two beautifully photographed souvenir books that contain just what I needed.
My passion keeps me rejoicing over all sorts of things: finding a picture that alters a "truth" I'd taken for granted; looking up a word and accidentally finding another next to it that solves part of a problem; reading a book for general knowledge and being rewarded with a fact of great importance. It's a captivating game.
After deciding that writing a book was my only option, I joined a writer's group. They have been patient (at times, even excited) about my manuscript that began as the paper for the Christian literary conference.
After numerous tries at finding a publisher--"Thank you for your submission. We're sorry it doesn't meet our current needs, but good luck."--I received a letter from a publisher who said, "I wish [my brother] had lived to read your book." Such warm, human words. The book (Chaucer's Host: Up-So-Doun) was published this summer. I'm working on the Sir Elephant book now. Someday I may get to the story about the bees.
I haven't changed much. I still chat with my neighbors about Chaucer at every opportunity. The difference is that now I have many more "neighbors."
Footnote for those who object to Required Courses: If I had not been required to take the Chaucer course I would have missed the most exciting intellectual adventure of my life. Even hearing Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony for the first time or hiking the Grand Canyon come second to Chaucer now.