Friday, April 30, 2010

In Praise of Chaucer

I wish Chaucer would get more credit than he usually does. The dude was brilliant, and it's hard to appreciate him fully without hearing his original language—which was, after all, a bit different from ours. He wrote The Canterbury Tales before the great vowel shift in English, and spellings weren't entirely agreed upon, either (which continued through Shakespeare's day). Still, modern readers can follow along pretty darn well, and when you hear it with the original pronunciation his gift becomes clear. I had a professor in college who would read it to the class with the shifted vowels, just as Chaucer would have in his time, and it's wondrous poetry.

But it's also quite ribald at times. People like to gasp and blush at the naughty bits of our plays and movies today, but I don't think there's much going on today that can rival the "ick" factor of Chaucer when he wanted to lay it down—nor much that can rival the humor. Check out the following passage below—it's from the Miller's Tale. This one doesn't get taught in school very'll see why. This passage is about a young foppish sort named Absalon who wants nothing more than a kiss from a lady, and finally, one night, she gives in—but not the way he expects. (Modern English translation provided by the nice folks at Harvard.)

3730         This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie.
                    This Absolon wiped his mouth very dry.
3731         Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,

                    Dark was the night as pitch, or as the coal,
3732         And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,

                    And at the window out she put her hole,
3733         And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,

                    And Absolon, to him it happened no better nor worse,
3734         But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers

                    But with his mouth he kissed her naked ass
3735         Ful savourly, er he were war of this.

                    With great relish, before he was aware of this.
3736         Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys,

                    Back he jumped, and thought it was amiss,
3737         For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd.

                    For well he knew a woman has no beard.
3738         He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,

                    He felt a thing all rough and long haired,
3739         And seyde, "Fy! allas! what have I do?"

                    And said, "Fie! alas! what have I done?"

Ha! and Eww! and Ha! again. This bawdy tale is told by a miller, of course, a fellow who enjoys lowbrow humor, and it follows a very tony highbrow tale by a knight. The genius of Chaucer is that  these twenty-four different narrators feel so authentic, displaying variations in their language according to their social class.

I'm attempting something similar for five chapters of Hammered (in prose, not verse), so I've been revisiting Chaucer lately and rediscovering his brilliance. Six characters in my novel will be making a pilgrimage of sorts, and five of them will share a tale with the others: a wizard, an alchemist, a thunder god, a werewolf, and a vampire. The Wizard's Tale is already finished, and I'm looking forward to writing the others "ful savourly."

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