There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we are ourselves incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real.
—G. K. CHESTERTON
These were some of the most beautiful and life-affirming words that Chesterton ever wrote. They were a kind of centerpiece to one of the great works of his later career, Chaucer (published in 1932).
For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every fowl cometh to choose his mate,
Of every kind that men think may;
And that so huge a noise gan they make,
That earth and air and tree and every lake
So full was, that underneath was there space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.
~Geoffrey Chaucer, from The Parlement of Foules
THE CANTERBURY TALES
The Franklin’s Tale
“In faith, Squier, thou hast thee well acquit,
And gentilly; I praise well thy wit,”
Quoth the Franklin; “considering thy youthe
So feelingly thou speak’st, Sir, I aloue thee,
As to my doom, there is none that is here
Of eloquence that shall be thy peer,
If that thou live; God give thee goode chance,
And in virtue send thee continuance,
For of thy speaking I have great dainty.
I have a son, and, by the Trinity;
It were me lever than twenty pound worth land,
Though it right now were fallen in my hand,
He were a man of such discretion
As that ye be: fy on possession,
But if a man be virtuous withal.
I have my sone snibbed and yet shall,
For he to virtue listeth not t’intend,
But for to play at dice, and to dispend,
And lose all that he hath, is his usage;
And he had lever talke with a page,
Than to commune with any gentle wight,
There he might learen gentilless aright.”
“Straw for your gentillesse!” quoth our Host.
“What? Frankelin, pardie, Sir, well thou wost
That each of you must tellen at the least
A tale or two, or breake his behest.”
“That know I well, Sir,” quoth the Frankelin;
“I pray you have me not in disdain,
Though I to this man speak a word or two.”
“Tell on thy tale, withoute wordes mo’.”
“Gladly, Sir Host,” quoth he, “I will obey
Unto your will; now hearken what I say;
I will you not contrary in no wise,
As far as that my wittes may suffice.
I pray to God that it may please you,
Then wot I well that it is good enow.
“These olde gentle Bretons, in their days,
Of divers aventures made lays,
Rhymeden in their firste Breton tongue;
Which layes with their instruments they sung,
Or elles reade them for their pleasance;
And one of them have I in remembrance,
Which I shall say with good will as I can.
But, Sirs, because I am a borel man,
At my beginning first I you beseech
Have me excused of my rude speech.
I learned never rhetoric, certain;
Thing that I speak, it must be bare and plain.
I slept never on the mount of Parnasso,
Nor learned Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Coloures know I none, withoute dread,
But such colours as growen in the mead,
Or elles such as men dye with or paint;
Colours of rhetoric be to me quaint;
My spirit feeleth not of such mattere.
But, if you list, my tale shall ye hear.”
We know little of the personal life of Geoffrey Chaucer. The extant records show him to be both skilled and versatile, but we can only divine his character from his work. He translated Boethius’ In Consolation of Philosophy into English, which apparently shaped his worldview, but his Canterbury Tales reveal a man more interested in savoring the journey of daily life than the arrival into perfect heaven.
In his book, The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds, said the following:
Chaucer, like Homer, writes about a journey, but as a Christian he has a different goal. Homer wanted to go home, but Chaucer’s pilgrims want a piece of man’s true home: paradise. The pilgrim is heading for a piece of heaven on earth, the shrine with its relics, but he must pass through the cities of man and through the wilderness.
Homer’s hero, Odysseus, is a storyteller, and so are Chaucer’s pilgrims. Homer’s stories bring him glory, but the stories of the pilgrims entertain and educate men on the Way. Chaucer is a pioneer of edutainment, and no story in Canterbury Tales is so bawdy as to lack a moral—even if a mistaken one.
Is your focus more on your present journey, your past or your destination?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
On Idealism and Limitations
Happily-ever-after is where “The Franklin’s Tale” begins. Hardly thirty lines are devoted to Arveragus and Dorigen’s embodiment of late-medieval romantic ideals: the lady’s beauty and nobility, the knight’s many quests and feats, his long suffering of love-pangs and devoted service to her, and finally her realization of his worth and pity for him.
Once married, Dorigen and Arveragus attempt to keep some of the core romantic ideals of the medieval code of courtly love in conjugal love. Arveragus, freely and unprompted, promises to remain her lover insofar as he rejects the “mastery” often thought the husband’s due and promises instead to continue his service of his beloved by following Dorigen’s will in all things. She, in response to his generosity, pledges to be his true wife, who will never willfully grieve him. Their marriage is established not by a contract or exchange of services—though we do see such a contract define the relationship between Aurelius and the magician—but by the utterly gratuitous gift of the lover and the free response of his beloved.
Thus, as the Franklin comments, Arveragus succeeds in having both his lady and his love. By contrast, that famous medieval lover Lancelot could only ever have his love, since Guenevere was Arthur’s lady, and while he may be praised for his devotion to her, his passion could only ever attain to the temporary fulfillment of sex, rather than the lasting union of a happy marriage.
Elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales, too, romantic idealism does not fare well. We laugh or cry over the pilgrims’ cynical views of marriage, in which any mutual love has disappeared and one spouse dominates or deceives the other. But the Franklin emphasizes repeatedly that Dorigen and Arveragus are faithful spouses and passionately devoted lovers. Their ability to remain lovers and spouses is, in part, what the tale puts to the test. And as much as the plot of “The Franklin’s Tale” relies on exaggeration and elements of fantasy, the lovers’ endeavor to translate their romance into their married life had real-life implications, because the behavior of English lovers was actually influenced by the ideals of the courtly lover’s humble service and courtesy as well as of the ennobling power of love.
Of course, the best way to test the romance of a marriage is to send one spouse away for a long time (and include the risk of death for good measure) and to present the other with a seemingly perfect substitute lover. In Aurelius, we have all the outward trappings of the ideal courtly lover. He sings and dances better than any man alive (ever). He is also the handsomest man alive, young, rich, strong, popular, a prolific poet, and, conveniently, a near neighbor. Like Lancelot, he goes mad when rejected and is willing to sacrifice everything to attain his lady. “A servant in the game of Venus,” he is love-sick, without question, but it’s also clear that love is a game—however deadly—that he’s playing.
His rhetoric is almost perfect, but beneath the veneer of courtesy he reveals the churlish heart he only owns up to later. Chaucer is careful to make it clear that Aurelius only achieves the illusion of satisfying Dorigen’s condition, just as he only achieves a barely coherent illusion of humble service when he confronts Dorigen with his claim on her. “You know what you promised. Not that I challenge anything of you by right, sovereign lady, but by your grace” is a far cry from Arveragus’s gift of freedom to her. Aurelius’s shallow commitment to courtly love only becomes ennobling when he gives up the vulgar passion that had lain hidden beneath the elegant flourishes of love’s game. What’s more, in renouncing his ill-gotten power to constrain Dorigen’s affection, he gives himself the gift of freedom from Venus’s rule, from the passion that has been dominating his life for years to his detriment, to the sorrow of his brother, and to the deep distress of Dorigen and Arveragus.
Though a far nobler lover than Aurelius, Dorigen also suffers from play of courtly love. It is when the scene is set for love—after a jolly dance in a garden in the springtime of Love—that she playfully adds the impossible task to her refusal of Aurelius’s advances. She intends her words to reinforce her emphatic rejection of his plea, since she knows her condition “will never happen.” But by rhetorically playing Venus’s game and giving the lover an impossible quest to achieve, she has implicitly agreed to abide by Venus’s rules.
As much as her marriage to Arveragus successfully realizes the ideals of courtly love—service, humility, faithfulness in spite of suffering, and generosity—their marriage is no game. Dorigen understands and embraces the exclusive claims of conjugal love, but her careless play puts her in the impossible bind of having to choose between honor of word and honor of body. Her dilemma is impossible not only because failing in “truth” attends either choice, but also because it is precisely in conjugal love that honor of word and body are inextricably linked; to lose either is to lose both, and thereby to lose herself.
No wonder death is such an attractive option. Though we might protest that such an empty vow couldn’t be binding, no one in the tale rejects its force. That ultimately her truth can be preserved only in the context of forgiveness shows the limits of our ability to speak and fulfill the truth of our words. Our promises, even when freely and consciously made, are subject to our limitations as much as to our wills.
What makes Geoffrey Chaucer such compelling reading is his creation of a riveting conversation between the ideal and the everyday: can Dorigen and Arveragus remain lovers and spouses when confronted with not just their temptations but also with their limitations? Such tensions are the root of much of Chaucer’s well-known, and often biting, satire, but it’s likewise the root of his insight into human relationships.
Here, in “The Franklin’s Tale,” we see the ennobling pursuit of an ideal lived out in the strains and trials that the world can place on even the most ideal of relationships. While it may be hard to be faithfully married to an ideal, it’s impossible to stay passionately married without one. Arveragus’s generosity to Dorigen and to Aurelius, though shocking, is as he says, “well-paid,” and not only by the faithful love of his wife and by Aurelius’s sacrifice. More than that, he is well-paid insofar as his and Dorigen’s pursuit of a passionate conjugal love offers a chance for a boorish faker to abandon Venus’s empty game and finally begin to become a noble man.
Diane Vincent, PhD, is an assistant professor of Medieval Literature at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).
“Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”
This week we look to Jonathan Swift and his masterwork Gulliver’s Travels. The story is familiar, but widely misunderstood. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the sanitized and highly abridged version consumed by contemporary audiences omits the bits that scandalize some surprised readers. Swift was a master of satire and his use of symbols was filled with power and nuance.
As Karen Swallow Prior writes in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me:
Symbols are powerful. And we live in a symbol-saturated society. The power of symbols comes from the reality they represent. Very few of our experiences are unmediated by the symbols of an experience that enter our consciousness long before the actual experience. We see ads touting the smiles toothpaste will bring us before we have all our teeth. We watch commercials showing how much fun we’ll have if we drink a certain brand of beer before we’ve lost the joy of blowing bubbles. We hear songs about romantic love before we have our first crush. Before we’ve even reached puberty, we watch sex as it is portrayed in the movies and television, imagine it as it is described in books, and laugh about it from jokes whispered by schoolmates. It’s hard to imagine things otherwise.
A symbol is something that represents something else. This chapter discusses symbols of sex and the power of those symbols.
What are other kinds of powerful symbols in our society?
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Literature, Liturgy & The Arts
When Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, the author’s name did not appear on the book. The title page read “Travels into several remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver …” Many people accepted this as fact. Travel books of the time told many tales that were no more strange than the imaginary adventures of Gulliver. One sea captain even claimed that he knew Captain Gulliver well.
Other readers condemned the book as full of exaggerations.Although it became one of the most famous books for children, it was not written for children. It was savage satire aimed at the human race. The tiny Lilliputians are vain, malicious, and bloodthirsty. The king and the court of Lilliput are a parody of the English king and court. The giants of Brobdingnag are amiable, but commonplace and insensitive. Laputa is full of the foolish philosophers and scientists whom Swift despised. The Houyhnhnms are horses who use degraded men, Yahoos, as men use horses elsewhere. Looking at mankind through the eyes of horses, Swift sees people as vicious, greedy, and ignorant.
From its first appearance Gulliver’s Travels delighted its readers instead of shocking them. In spite of his bitterness, Swift took a dry delight in making his narrative sound real even when it was fantastic. Children could enjoy the marvelous adventures of a traveler among pygmies and giants, on a flying island, and in a country where horses talk. Gulliver’s Travels soon became a children’s classic.
A large part of what Swift wrote is made up of pamphlets on political or ecclesiastical affairs and must be read in the light of history. But A Tale of a Tub, a satire on false religion, and The Battle of the Books, a burlesque of literary controversy (both published in 1704), are still read for their comic ridicule of human folly. Drapier’s Letters (1724), written to expose a minor scandal in the government of Ireland by the English, lifts the issue to something universal—the human rights of men against tyrants. The Journal to Stella is a brilliant picture of a brilliant age.
“Swift, Jonathan,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.