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The Great Legitimizer

by Euphrates Moss

Up from the barbaric yawp of Beowulf and routing through Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), an Italian poet of great distinction, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340s-1400) created the greatest collection of short stories ever assembled. Recognized by consensus as his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales used Middle English as Francified by a royalty landed by Gaulic people from across a sliver of ocean. And so, taking a leaf from the breathless praise one would hear of Ronald Reagan “The Great Communicator” Chaucer was “The Great Legitimizer” of the Angle-ish Langwidge (first word: mine, second word: Ezra Pound’s). Early English, perhaps better termed Anglo-Saxxon, was a different beast than what we speak today. The words and formulations introduced by the French created an idiom much more comprehensible and readable than Beowulf which has about two words familiar to the modern English speaker: “and his.”

Chaucer had already been an accomplished poet of great distinction by the time he started his tales with a number of smaller lyrics and ballads, a commanding translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and his own Troilus and Cressyde. But even at an early stage the poet could probably tell what he was putting together was special even by his standards. Chaucer most likely died before his masterpiece could be completed. Yet like The Trial by Franz Kafka which is also incomplete, it is still a shattering work that is unrivaled in many ways.

The framework is lifted from Boccaccio’s The Decameron which follows storytellers, three men and seven women. The hapless citizens take refuge in a villa outside of a plague-racked Florence. The introduction containing descriptions of the effects of the plague is quite terror-inducing. In contrast the rest of the book as follows is light. To pass the time one story would be told by each of the refugees every day over a ten-day period making one hundred in all. Chaucer’s new framework ramped up the ambition levels with a plan of 120 tales to be told among 30 travelers in a contest. The winner would receive the clout of a free meal at the Tabard Inn where they stayed on pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. They would each tell four stories, two on the way and two on return.

He started with a proper index of English citizens. Then, in an innovative move he showed the nature of those characters in the tales they told. And Chaucer’s mirror to man is as blistering as Mark Twain’s. I’ve seen many techniques to show as well as develop character but I’ve never seen the use of storytelling as a means to do so, or really it being done through the lenses of a cast of characters. So often we cannot see outside of our lens and the phrase “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” tends to be a cop-out to justify the deplorable nature of others. Not so with Chaucer.

Chaucer didn’t just mimic the theme of The Decameron. Many of the tales were retellings as was the norm until the false notion that a yarn should be fabricated whole cloth. Chaucer took the 100th tale from The Decameron, a masterpiece in its own right, and bastardized it in the mouth of one of his pilgrims. At first glance it’s an inferior retelling but read between the lines it shows moral failings of memory as well. Or it simply brings the skill of the storyteller down to keep up the mystery of who would win the contest.

Great as the stories are the prologues, also dictated by the characters, are their equal. They bring things back to the inn, connect the stories, and shine even more light on the fellows. Although some of these prologues and stories are more famous than others it would behoove you to read all of them for the sake of apprehending the closest to complete cross-section.

Let’s not forget that literary history abounds with incomplete works. “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is possibly the most famous fragment in history. All of Sappho’s work as we know it today is fragmentary. Even television powerhouses such as Emmy-winning Deadwood are incomplete since they got cancelled before they were to properly end. The fact that they’re incomplete does not detract from their greatness.

Only 24 stories of the planned 120 exist to varying degrees of completion yet the poem runs 17,000 lines, sufficient for a book. Imagine five times that amount of lines AT LEAST with each running at roughly 5-7 words per line. I’ll take the happy medium of six in my calculations and we have a grand total of 510,000 words. Ulysses by James Joyce is roughly 260,000 words for scale. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is 587,287 words. It’s good to think Chaucer’s ambitions were tempered!

Most collections of stories we read are put together but they have nothing to do with each other. There might be a theme, or barring that a genre, and what you’re reading is like an album consisting of usually 9-14 stories for songs. The Canterbury Tales is more cohesive and it’s bigger than most short story collections. To keep up the metaphor it’s like a concept album and a double album. And it maintains its consistency through Chaucer’s flowing verse.

Despite the characters being on pilgrimage some say that Chaucer is devoid of religious significance. But secular art is still moral. It still hews to consonance and beauty, truth and love. The greatest literature, though not religious in name, can exhibit the highest of religious values just as individuals who are not Christians can live by the highest of Christian values.

A work with no morals, without even the fibroids of morals is no work, is not literature. Stories of the amoral almost never make it into the oral traditions. They almost never stand the test of time. They almost never make it past the end of the year! In the laziest of books there’s at least contention. There will be protagonists and antagonists. Something will be learned. Wherefore would you audit a story if not to find out what’s to become? Ovid’s collection of Greek stories and myths is called The Metamorphoses. What an apt title. Such is what happens in all stories to a greater or lesser metaphorical extent.

Legitimizers are important because not all languages have been legitimized by their achievements in literature. I know this might not be a popular contention in a world infected by pathological altruism as parts of this modern atrocity are. Objective and subjective are binary but do not exist in dichotomy against each other. Let us not pretend two musical notes written by a child—even Mozart (KV 1)—are as good as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Latin has not been legitimized by its literary achievements. Though the Romans pride themselves on inventing the supreme form of comedy known as satire and they were diligent preservers of Greek achievements their own greatest achievement in Virgil’s Aeneid is but a copy of Homer’s The Odyssey and as such cannot help but fall short. Not that it doesn’t pain me to knock Virgil but I take solace in the poet being given new life and soaring under the guiding wing of Dante. And so these examples, amongst many more, stand in a great metamorphosis, an overall transformation albeit incomplete to us, taking the audience on a meaningful story arc, and more significantly earning legitimacy.

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Euphrates has a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Seattle University. He lives in Issaquah, Washington.
He has been published in Poetic Matrix Press (poeticmatrix.com), The Issaquah Press newspaper, Ms. J Mentions (http://www.msjmentions.com/), and elsewhere. His current book of poems is titled Telos and Other Psychographs, which was released August 2017.

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4 Responses

  1. Shaun C. Duncan

    This is a very enjoyable essay. I particularly like the point you made about his use of storytelling in The Canterbury Tales as a form of character development as one of the more striking things about the pilgrims’ narrative to me is how their choice of story often betrays their attitudes toward one another, giving us more of a sense of the social structure of the day. Before reading it, I had no idea that miller’s were so despised.

    It’s sobering to think Chaucer achieved all he did whilst working a fairly demanding civil service job and, later in life, even did a stint as a member of Parliament. His later prosody is smooth as silk, his characterization is consistently suberb, and the various prologues and epilogues to the individual Canterbury Tales constitute a remarkable window into what life was actually like for the common folk during the high middle ages. Of all the great writers in the English pantheon, he strikes me as the most humble and was also, in my opinion, much funnier than Shakespeare.

    Reply
    • Euphrates

      I do agree on both fronts- more humble and funnier. I read a quote from someone who said, “Between Shakespeare and Chaucer I preferred Shakespeare but I hated myself for it.” It can feel that way when Chaucer seems to be more full of life. My essay got ballooned up to a little over 3000 words before it was pared back down to the length you see here. In that I went a little more into the details of the tales but I think that draft of the essay lost a bit of focus even though all of that was on subject.

      Us writers are an indulgent bunch and I must admit I am certainly guilty but I worked diligently with the editor of this publication to get it into the shape it is and as focused as it is. I think it turned out incredibly well for all the passion that I have on the subject. I love Chaucer in particular and I’m so glad my debut with the Society was on the subject of him. If I get a second publishing credit I would actually be interested in writing about Alexander Pope whom I believe actually fits the aesthetics of the Society best and is even downright underrated. We shall see.

      Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    Hi Euphrates

    I enjoyed your essay and am a great Chaucer fan. In fact, I wrote return journey stories for most of the Pilgrims as an ongoing writing exercise.

    I was particularly enamoured with how many genres Chaucer encompassed in his stories and the fact that the ‘Father of English Literature’ was the first to put down his writings in English. It’s just a shame we don’t have more detailed information about his life, though his works give us an invaluable insight into the times he lived in.

    I still write shorter Chaucerian pieces for competitions. In the poem below, I was tasked with comparing Chaucer to an fruit, and chose an apple. I hope you like it.

    An Apple for Geoffrey Chaucer

    Geoff Chaucer is the apple and the core,
    the quintessential English fruit of yore.
    To peasants, serfs and freemen he unfurled
    his stories in the language of their world.
    No more would French and Latin texts hold court –
    in budding English script his verse was wrought.
    From Geoffrey’s blooming boughs an orchard sprang,
    and from it tales of Canterbury sang;
    comedic, tragic, courtly, every hue,
    as if red, green and yellow apples grew.
    A yarn to satisfy each person’s taste,
    like pie or crumble filling out your waist.
    Tart Miller’s Tale! The sweetness of the Knight’s!
    These seeds of English writing reached new heights.
    The windfall Geoffrey Chaucer left behind
    enriches us, from pip, to pulp, to rind.

    Thanks again for your elucidating essay, Euphrates.

    Reply
    • Euphrates Moss

      You’re too kind. Thanks for sharing the poem. I think if I compared Chaucer and Canterbury Tales to a fruit it would be sundried tomatoes for his use of the word “sundry” near the top to describe his various pilgrims. “The General Prologue” is truly a poem for the ages in and of itself and I’m so glad T.S. Eliot strengthened it with the first line of “The Waste Land” – “April is the cruelest month, breeding.” Understanding that poem couldn’t exist without the Tales while “repudiating” it, but knowing Eliot’s penchant for sarcasm and facetiousness nothing is what it seems in his work. It’s a shame he didn’t produce more.

      Reply

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