Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chaucer and JK Rowling vs Stephenie Meyer

In honor of the opening of Eclipse, I dedicate today's blog to Chaucer's creation of a literary tradition for England.

Why is Chaucer important? Prior to Chaucer's career as a writer/poet*, he read the greats: Italians Dante', Petrarch, and Boccaccio. As the son of a wine merchant, Chaucer often interacted with Italian cultivators and merchants and as a result could speak as well as read Italian. Among few in the merchant class, and even the nobility with this ability, Chaucer studies the texts of these great Italians, as well as the French Roman de la Rosa by de Lorris and de Meun, and discovers that the literature of both cultures holds a living literary tradition, a dialogue between the texts, similarities from work to work, author to author, that establish a form for making good literature. In viewing various English volumes--of which there were few--Chaucer discovers that England lacks such a literary tradition and he sets forth to establish one.

*It must be noted that Chaucer did not consider himself a poet. He referred to himself as a "maker" and to his poetry as "making." Chaucer, and society as a whole, reserved the term poet for more classical authors of the time, such as those studied and admired by Chaucer as mentioned above. Dryden dubbed Chaucer as the "Father of English Poetry" in the 1700s.

In Chaucer's English literary tradition, readers see hints of Dante', Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and find comfort in the familiar elements of epics and fabliau (French fable, usually bawdy and humorous), but character development is where readers find Chaucer's "twist." In The Canterbury Tales, readers find the whole spectrum of Medieval culture, which is divided into 3 estates: those who pray (churchmen and women), those who fight (nobility), and those who work (everyone else). The pilgrims--29 in total, but only 24 share their tales--are the center of the literature. The tale and the teller (pilgrim) are linked--you can't truly conceptualize the message of the tale without first encountering the portrait of the pilgrim. ("The General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales provides a portrait of each pilgrim.) The pilgrims who tell the tales, not the characters in the tales they tell, drive the movement of the message. And thus, Chaucer establishes an English literary tradition founded on the character.

Chaucer's Monk and Wife of Bath. Shakepeare's Lady Macbeth, Iago, Mercutio, and the Dark Lady of sonnet fame. Dickens' Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times and Fagin in Oliver Twist. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Harry, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Sirius--honestly, I don't think Rowling got a character wrong--from the Harry Potter series. Yes, a literary tradition founded on the character.

Oh Stephanie Meyer, if only you were British!

***No Twilight fans were harmed in the writing of this post***

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