Saturday, July 3, 2010

You and the horse you rode in on

Dr. Patterson told us on the first day of class that The Canterbury Tales, as with most texts, would read us as opposed to us reading them. Meaning, each of us brings our perspectives, beliefs, morals, fears, interests, experiences, etc. to the text and use them to aide in our interpretation. Sometimes when the text reads us, it is beneficial to identifying purpose, theme, and the like; others, it clouds our understanding, causing us to read too much into something that is truly insignificant. Prior to this course, I considered myself good at reading text without jumbling it up with my personal mess; this week I discovered that text reads me much more than I care to admit.

I have an irrational fear of horses. No, a horse didn't buck me or bite me as a child. I've never been saddled atop a rogue horse like Billy Crystal in City Slickers. (In fact, when I was less than 6 months-old, my Uncle Sammy held me in his lap and trotted around the ring of a horse show. I wowed the judges and won a blue ribbon. That, however, was the height of my horse-loving.) Aside from being named after Darcy Farrow, a beautiful maiden in a John Denver song who met her demise when "her pony did stumble and she did fall," I have no reason to be afraid of horses. But I am. And as a result, I was very aware of the attention Chaucer gives to the horses the Pilgrims ride on their Pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Of course, the journey to Canterbury is long; the roughly 60 miles would take three to five days on horseback. (In my opinion, willingness to travel on steed for this long indicates true devotion.) The Monk, who should be a man of simplicity without worldly possessions, has a stable full of excellent horses, of which he chooses the best for his bridle. The Shipman (aka the Pirate) is not an equestrian and Chaucer describes him as riding "upon a rouncy, as he kouthe," [upon a workhorse as best he could]. Preferring sea travel, horses and land are not really his thing, but pirates need penitence as much as other pilgrims, so he journeys to clear his conscience. The horse, accustomed to working the field, seems as out of place as his rider. The Wife of Bath, for whom this blog is named, sits upon an easy-gaited saddle horse. This horse, the epitome of daintiness and grace, greatly contrasts the Wife, a curvy woman whom Chaucer describes as being dressed in such abundance that readers--I--easily imagine that the horse must labor under the weight. The Wife seemingly anticipates that the horse might struggle for she wears "on her feet a pair of spores sharpe" [a pair of sharp spurs]. (And here, even though I fear them, I find sympathy for horses.) The Plowman, assumed by many to be the best of all the Pilgrims because "God loved he best with al his hoole herte/ At alle tymes, thogh him gamed or smerte" [he loved God above all else with his whole heart whether is pleased or hurt him], rides a simple mare. A simple horse for a simple man.

And so I could continue with all 29 Pilgrims, but I think you get the point. While Dr. Patterson indicates that Chaucer had no underlying purpose in detailing the horses as he did, I find it very interesting how each horse teaches readers--okay, me--a little about the pilgrim who rides it.

I am excited to see what else I discover as I let the text read me.

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