My son, who celebrated his 8th birthday today, tells interesting stories. In fact, today I heard some anecdotes about the events that passed during a birthday golf trip with his dad, uncle, and granddad. To hear him tell it, the responsible adult males abandoned him in a Pizza Hut, refused to allow him to sleep at all, forced him to watch baseball on television, and permitted him to drive a golf cart which he subsequently drove into a bridge. During this golf trip he also became an over-night legend, surpassing Tiger Woods in talent, which he demonstrated by winning seven holes, getting two hole-in-ones, and sending a ball sailing over a pond and across a sand-pit before it bounced off a tree and onto the green. (Can you guess which one of these fables is true?) While the above fabrications are impossible to believe, I appreciate that my son is attempting to develop his narrative voice. Granted, he needs work with finesse and believability, but he is only 8, and even at this stage, he puts some of Chaucer's Pilgrims to shame.
After the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer introduces the Pilgrims to the reader, each Pilgrim tells a story. The first four tales are told in succession by the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, and the Cook. Each of these narrators shares a story that reflects not only their view of social order, education, and governance, but also indicates Chaucer's view of fictional story-telling.
The Knight's Tale: A story of two Theben princes who are imprisoned in Athens by Theseus after a war. While in prison, both princes fall in love with Emily, whom they only know from afar (and behind bars.) One gets out of prison on good behavior and the promise never to return to Athens; the other escapes like a felon. Oddly, they run into each other in a field and start fighting over the girl to whom neither has ever spoken (and who doesn't return their affection). Theseus comes upon the fight and demands that they settle their dispute in a civilized manner with a tournament in which the winner will get the girl. In light of the battle, one man prays to Mars and one man prays to Venus; the woman prays to Diana. As with any tragedy, someone dies; and as with any romance, someone gets the girl. But none of that really matters. (But if you really must know, renting the Heath Ledger phenomena of the same title should satisfy your curiosity. Though, the book is much better than the movie.) The point: The Knight is a good story-teller. In fact, he's a little winded. 30 pages winded. But his tale possess many of the elements Chaucer indicates are needed in good fiction: believability (the chivalric ideals that were core to the culture), adventure (love and war; does it get any more adventurous than that?) and character (while the princes are a little shallow, the Greek gods and Theseus are well detailed. Plus, most readers find themselves rooting for one prince over the other, which wouldn't happen if the characters weren't endearing.)
The Miller's Tale: Alisoun, a beautiful 18year-old, is married to John, a much, much older carpenter. Nicholas, a student who rents a room in their home, aggressively pursues Alisoun who eagerly concedes to the pursuit. Absolon, an effeminate parish clerk, also falls for Alisoun, an affection which is not mutual. Seeing as how the tale is a bawdy fabliau, I won't go into too much detail, but the love triangles get quite complicated following the prediction of a flood and the kissing of an ass. (Nope, not a donkey.) (This is a tale you really must read. Let me know if you want me to email it to you.) The point: The Miller, despite his drunkenness, is a better story-teller than the Knight. In addition to the crude, common simplicity of it that would have pleased his audience, he slights the aristocracy by judging the need for order and control and non-learned people by slighting the ignorant carpenter, showing that members of the working class are much more clever than they've been credited. The Miller, unlike the Knight and the Reeve, removes himself from the story and just creates without fear. And in the end, readers want him to tell another story.
The Reeve's Tale: Is just terrible and therefore not worthy of a plot summary. The Reeve's biggest problem: he tries too hard. Frequently throughout the narrative he asserts that "this is true," "this really happened", and the like. The Reeve's perpetual insistence of his credibility makes him unreliable. (If you think about it, you know a Reeve. We all do. And usually, we don't want to hear him/her talk.)
The Cook's Tale: Isn't really a tale. It's a page long joke that starts and ends similar to all of those "So a guy walks into a bar" jokes that we love to hate. But even with that, in some ways the Cook is better at stories than the Reeve. Why? Because it's just so stupid it's funny. My son is like the Cook with his tales. They're usually mostly goofy, but I listen with pride and am completely entertained. He may not be a reliable narrator, but he's good at spinning a yarn.
Doesn't seem like anything new, does it? And that's because it's not new to readers and writers of modern society. But in the Middle Ages, when readers were trained to read with the purpose of identifying "The Double Law of Charity" (love God and love thy neighbor) within every text, reading wasn't this easy and therefore, neither were narration and fiction. Chaucer was among the first to institute the idea that fiction should be read to be read, not to be analyzed, and that it should be read with "the spirit" (pleasure and emotion), not with "the letter" (mind). Now students, this does not mean literature is not intended to be analyzed. It is. But Chaucer identifies a need for less regulated interpretation.
So in "the spirit" of reading with "the spirit", I hope that "the spirit" moves you to continue reading my blog.....
Oh, and the true story from my son: golf-cart wreck. Luckily, everyone made it out alive!