Table of Contents

Chaucer’s Reality Check: 
The Modernization of Fairy Tales

John W. Campbell


Click here for a printable version...
Click here for a printable version


Home

A defining characteristic of Chaucer’s writings is his relentless use of juxtapositions to create both complex and simple dichotomies.  Perhaps the most prevalent of these juxtapositions is Chaucer’s insertion of Medieval and early modern figures and conceptions into classical settings.  This clash between past and present is not only entertaining but critically important to understanding Chaucer’s view of his own world. The devices that interrupt Chaucer’s storybook portrayals of an ideal past are often those most associated with the hard realities of his own time: bureaucracies, parliaments, and practicality.  Indeed, Chaucer directly attacks the validity of the legends of antiquity.  Once faced with a challenge based in practical, real world terms, the dynamics of Chaucer’s fairy tales are thrown into turmoil:  Love becomes a mere rhetorical game among birds, Homer’s greatest hero is made powerless by democratic parliaments, and only death can ascribe to a knight the virtues he lacked during life.  In short, Chaucer creates attractive, classical realms only to demonstrate how they could have never existed outside of books.  The legends of antiquity were never more than escapes from the pettiness of their own times.  Therefore, Chaucer’s tragedies of the past become even sadder.  Chaucer and his learned contemporaries could look to their books and travel to a land filled with virtuous heroes and lovers of antiquity.  But, as Chaucer knew well, the trip was only temporary and ultimately self-delusional.  Once the book was closed, the immutable difficulties of civil society remained to blot out the wistful hopes and dreams of societies long since dead.
    Even in Chaucer’s early works, there is clear skepticism in his handling of classical legend.  For instance, the Parliament of Fowles, Chaucer’s Valentine’s Day work, cynically proposes that Greco-Roman teachings are of little use in the quest for love in the modern world.  Before examining the details of Chaucer’s story; however, it is worth noting that the placement of a springtime day of love in the middle of February has no recorded precedent before Chaucer (Benson 383).  If Chaucer originated the idea, then his choice of dates was counterintuitive at best.  However, in light of his overall theme, February 14th is a perfect date to express the absurdity of the general mood.  By placing a day of love in the heart of dreary February, Chaucer practically dares the characters within the tale to prove practicality wrong and allow true love to bloom in adverse circumstances.  Disappointingly for the audience, and perhaps for Chaucer himself, the story does not allow love to conquer all.  
    In addition to the celebration of love’s curious date, Chaucer further complicates the story by introducing his readers to a narrator obsessed with love but reading Macrobius’s edition of Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” (PF 29-31).  Rather than expounding the art of love, Scipio’s dream tells “of hevene and helle / And erthe, and soules that therinne dwelle” (32-33).  From the outset, Chaucer steers the substance of the Parliament of Fowles away from love and towards a much greater critique.  
    When the narrator falls asleep and then dreams that Scipio Africanus volunteers himself as Chaucer’s guide through a garden of love, there can be little doubt that Chaucer has something other than romance in mind (109-133).  Scipio, though a great Roman commander, would hardly be the first guide chosen by a young medieval man seeking love and affection.  For one thing, Scipio was often portrayed in medieval art and literature as a shining beacon of sexual restraint (“Scipio Africanus”).1   Furthermore, one historian described Scipio’s views of society in the following terms: “he had marked how pride and cupidity, the thirst for pleasure, the decay of wedlock and all the passions of the commercial era […] had ruined the old military power of Rome” (Ferrero 47).  To say that the subject to which Chaucer’s narrator was drawn would disinterest the medieval conception of Scipio would be a great understatement.  As Chaucer’s narrator notes, Scipio was primarily interested in “commune profyt,” not in personal glorification (PF 46-49).  In the meeting of the two Scipios in Cicero, Chaucer records the elder as serving the ultimate indictment against the earthly pleasures: “Than bad he hym, syn erthe was so lyte, / And dissevable and ful of harde grace, / That he ne shulde hym in the world delyte” (64-66).
    By delivering his narrator into the puritanical hands of Scipio, Chaucer introduces an element not present in many of his other Greco-Roman settings.  Scipio, unlike Theseus and Hector, was an actual man living without the aid of superhuman strength or the aid of friendly gods.  As Chaucer apparently recognized, Scipio at one time had an identity free of legend.  Furthermore, Chaucer not only represents Scipio as a virtuous man, but also hints at a certain weariness the world has placed on him.  Scipio takes his grandson to a “sterry place” to show him “the lytel erthe,” thereby demonstrating the pettiness of worldly affairs (43, 57).  Through this interpretation of Scipio, Chaucer badly damages the romanticism often accompanying classical works.  As a sort of last survivor of the Roman world, Scipio appears in the Parliament of Fowles to suggest that there never was a golden age of virtuous love and action as romanticized in Chaucer’s England.  In addition, the glory ascribed to Scipio is apparently retroactive and incidental since Scipio appears to shun such earthly delights.  Instead, Scipio plans to show Chaucer’s narrator some of the worldly, petty concerns that dominate love, that trait that the narrator apparently considers such a worthy endeavor.
    Once Scipio and Chaucer’s narrator arrive at their dream destination, they are confronted with all of the lusty images of springtime romance that the narrator could wish to see.  Within a tastefully vegetated garden, the narrator witnesses the Greco-Roman figures of indulgence enjoying their dominion (PF 260-280).  However, this celebration of classical love is short-lived.  As Scipio inexplicably disappears from the tale, Chaucer’s narrator is left to witness figures of Greek mythology in the process of dying as love’s servants (288-294).  Uncomfortable with this turn of events, the narrator says that he “[f]orth welk I tho myselven to solace” (297).  
    At this point, the narrator notices Nature, who is in the process of assembling the parliament of birds to begin the mating season (298-315).  The narrator is drawn to Nature, who “fayrer was than any creature” (301).  But once again, the narrator’s expectations of virtuous love go unfulfilled.  For after the three tercel eagles engage in a rhetorical contest for the formel, the romantic imagery is broken by the stirrings of the birds of lesser nobility (484-497).  Quickly, it becomes apparent that the aristocratic birds most akin to the classical heroes are hardly in control of the Parliament.  Symbolically, the love overtures of the upper classes are stripped of their noble dressings and exposed as nothing more than the same lustful desires expressed by the commoners.  “Have don, and lat us wende!” the lesser birds cry (492).  
    As if to stymie this reality check, Nature eventually silences the birds and allows the formel to choose “hym on whom hire herte is set,” once again opening the possibility for an expression of true love (627).  Unfortunately, however, the formel states plainly that she “wol nat serve Venus ne Cupide,” thereby introducing an element not often seen in classical romanticism: a woman who really cannot be persuaded or forced to love her suitors (652).  Thus, the narrator’s hopes for examples of ideal love are shattered by the invasion of real world circumstances into a fantastic setting.  First, by using the “commune profyt” doctrine of Scipio, the lesser birds are capable of forcing an early decision from the formel so that they can be free to choose their own mates.  They accomplish this through parliamentary procedures, which were quite familiar to Chaucer.  Second, the formel is revealed to be a bird with a will of her own and no interest in love.  When taken together, Chaucer paints a portrait of an institution of love that is far from ennobling.  The tercel eagles are engaged in a contest more concerned with besting each other than winning the female, the lower birds are clearly anxious to fulfill their biological urges, and the formel is simply unwilling to deal with the entire situation.  In short, the lofty imaginations of love that the narrator gathered from his books of antiquity turn out to be mere illusions (1-28).  Everyone ends up following their own practical self-interest, leaving the disgruntled narrator to flee from the nasty dose of reality and return to the escapism of his old books (695-699).
    Despite the sufficiently heavy-handed nature of the Parliament of Fowles, Chaucer continued to craft the classical world in disappointing terms in a number of other stories.  At the forefront of these inventions is Chaucer’s adaptation of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato.  Entitled Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer’s version takes extra care to build a world of adventure where courtly heroes wisely guide their charges.  Then, Chaucer reverses course in the latter half of the story and demonstrates the impossibility of such a place ever existing in anything but his own story.  As John P. McCall explains in “The Trojan Scene in Chaucer’s Troilus,” the space between the twenty-first stanza of Book One and the beginning of Book Four contains no mention of the ultimate destruction of Troy and only one questionably negative mention of the city (265).  Otherwise, this section, constituting the bulk of the book, has only positive descriptions of the reputation and imagery of Troy (265).  Even the raging Trojan War fails to pierce the quiet of the city.  Indeed, until the beginning of Book Four, the Trojans are constantly victorious in battle (267).  This success relegates the classical war to a mere sideshow for the romance at the center of the story.  Such an approach allows Chaucer to portray the heroes and maidens of classical literature in their best possible light (with the possible exception of Troilus).  Given the totality of circumstances, Troy appears to be a peaceful city made for a love affair.
    However, Books Four and Five of Troilus and Criseyde quickly destroy the illusion that Chaucer so carefully engineered. Book Four has hardly begun when Hector, the greatest of Homer’s Trojan heroes, draws up a plan of battle that fails miserably when put to the test (IV, 29-49).  Later, as the Greeks and Trojans negotiate the exchange of the great hero Antenor for Cressida, Hector once again fails to provide a victory to the forces of virtue.  His arguments to retain Cressida in Troy meet only sharp criticism from the Trojan people (IV, 176-196)  
    The richness of the Parliament of Troy scene is a Chaucer original, having no parallel in Il Filostrato (TP 230-235).  Indeed, the idea of a democratically empowered parliament existing in ancient Troy sounds strange in its very conception.  Once again, Chaucer fills the holes in the stories of antiquity by supplying a complication from his own world.  Although it is unlikely that an English-style parliament would exist in ancient Troy, the general thrust of Chaucer’s argument rings exceptionally true.  If the Trojan story had really progressed in the way portrayed by Homer, then a war of extermination was being waged by Greece simply to retrieve one woman.  The objects of that extermination, the Trojan people, would certainly not be too excited about the prospect of becoming martyrs to temporarily indulge the fancies of one of their princes.  Therefore, although Chaucer cannot undo the immensely counterintuitive story of Homer, he can include a substantial roadblock made by the people against their rulers.  The people, thinking things out logically and practically, as the real world requires, make the following demand of their prince and their king:
    “And we han nede to folk, as men may se.
    He [Antenor] is ek oon the grettest of this town.
    O Ector, lat tho fantasies be!
    O kyng Priam,” quod they, “thus sygge we,
    That al oure vois is to forgon Criseyde.”
    And to deliveren Antenor they preyde. (TP IV, 191-196)
    After the people have made their voices clear, not even the fearless Hector can rally even one other vote to his cause.  Once again, Chaucer has placed the legendary figures of the classical world into a realistic position and they fail to turn the tide against the harder aspects of the world.  Hector, as perhaps the most virtuous and admirable figure of the Greco-Roman tradition, is specifically targeted by Chaucer to demonstrate the futility of believing in the classical tales.  The great hero’s objection is not in Il Filostrato, suggesting unmistakable Chaucerian intent to belittle Hector’s power (TP IV, 176-182).  
    After Hector’s clout is disrupted, Troilus and Cressida really have no chance of overcoming the challenges of the real world to allow their fairy tale to continue.  Throughout the tale, Cressida is too often the servant of practical safety and Troilus accuses Fortune of conspiring against him every time there is a minor setback.  If Hector could not protect the two lovers from the world, then they are surely doomed when left to their own devices.  Predictably, Cressida yields to Diomedes after hearing that Troy will fall and Troilus with it (TP, V, 883-889).  The classical fairy tale, though enjoying sway for three-fifths of the book, ultimately must bow before the overpowering force of practicality and realism.  This adds new dimensions of tragedy to Troilus and Criseyde, with the most interesting perhaps not even being based in the story itself.  It is easy to imagine Chaucer imposing the realism he knows cannot be avoided, yet maintaining an inner hope that his analysis is perhaps incorrect.  However, the extent of Chaucer’s sentimental streak can hardly be revealed by merely reading his text.  However romantic Chaucer’s inner self may have been, the readings suggest that his logical mind approached the classical texts with skepticism.  The worlds created in them were simply too good to be true.
    Interestingly, Chaucer’s canon includes a story that not only allows reality to pierce the heart of a classical setting, but also offers an explanation as to how the fairy tale perceptions of excessively virtuous men arise.  In the Knight’s Tale, Chaucer presents a contest between two knights for the hand of the beautiful, but inaccessible Emelye.  Just as in the Parliament of Fowles and Troilus and Criseyde, there are plenty of moments that cut at the fabric of the fairy tale.  Emelye, for instance, is refused aid from Diana despite her years of loyal service (CT I, 2346-2357).  Of course, the most crushing blow to the romanticism of the story is the simple fact that Arcite dies by accident (another real world complication, despite the interference-of-the-gods explanation given within the tale) in the service of a woman to whom he has never spoken (I, 2684-2699).  And, once again, no one really goes home happy at the conclusion.
    Beyond these intrusions, however, lies Chaucer’s answer to how such glorious, but false classical tales may have formed in the first place.  As Duke Theseus is delivering his final speech for Arcite, he remarks:
    And certeinly a man hath most honour
    To dyen in his excellence and flour,
    Whan he is siker of his gode name;
    Than hath he doon his freend ben of his deeth
    Whan with honour up yolden is his breeth,
    Than whan his name appalled is for age,
    For al forgeten is his vassalage.
    Than is it best, as for worthy fame,
    To dyen whan that he is best of name. (CT I, 3047-3056)
Theseus highlights the ultimate reward that a great warrior from the past can garner: the glorification of one’s name.2   In fact, there can be little doubt that Arcite’s stature in death is so much greater than it was in life that his deeds will soon be retold in an exaggerated, excessively virtuous manner.  He is no longer a frustrated youth fighting his best friend over a pretty face, but a glorious knight who made the ultimate sacrifice for love.  Meanwhile, his opponent, Palamon, though getting the girl by default, will soon have “his name appalled for age.”  Given Theseus’s speech, it is not unreasonable to doubt the facts surrounding Arcite’s death.  After all, it is far more romantic to say that the gods fated Arcite to die rather than admit that the great hero simply couldn’t handle the reins of his horse.
    Through this process of glorification, then, the tales of antiquity have been overblown, exaggerated, and firmly detached from their original context.  The medieval mind’s formulation of an attractive classical world, Chaucer realized, is an extreme error in interpretation.  As noted by Moses Hadas, “the Greek city-states were extremely particularistic, war rather than peace being the normal relationship between them” (105).  Furthermore, each group of people viewed the world suspiciously, accusing their neighbors of being “strange and repulsive, uneducated, superstitious, awkward, stupid, unsocial, lawless […] slavish and cowardly, unrestrained in passion, petulant, cruel, violent, faithless, greedy and gluttonous (106).  Living in an age of such pettiness hardly seems attractive in a historical sense, a perspective Chaucer tried to subtly convey while upholding the central tenants of the classical legends.  After all, despite the falseness with which the ancient tales were crafted, they are still entertaining stories with admirable characters.  But, Chaucer reminds us, they are just stories.  The actual world has too many harsh realities to depend entirely on a virtuous nature to ensure a noble ending.  Any fairy tale unable to adapt to the impositions of modernity has no real basis in either the past or the present.  And unfortunately, Chaucer demonstrates that the fairy tales capable of adapting to such complications are few and far between.








Works Cited
Benson, Larry D.  Introduction to “The Parliament of Fowls.”
The Riverside Chaucer.  3rd Ed.  Ed. Larry D. Benson.  Boston: Houghton, 1987.  383-384.
Chaucer, Geoffrey.  “The Knight’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales:    
Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue.  Eds. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
----.  “The Parliament of Fowls.”  Benson.  385-394.
----.  Troilus and Criseyde.  Ed. Stephen A. Barney.  New York:     
W.W. Norton, 2006.
Ferrero, Guglielmo.  The Greatness and Decline of Rome: Vol. I:  
The Empire-Builders.  Trans. Alfred E. Zimmern.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910.
Hadas, Moses.  “From Nationalism to Cosmopolitanism in the          
Greco-Roman World.” Journal of the History of Ideas 4.1 (Jan. 1943):  105-111. 
McCall, John P.  “The Trojan Scene in Chaucer’s Troilus.”  ELH  
29.3 (Sep.1962):  263-275.
Macrobius.  Commentary on the Dream of Scipio.  William Harris  
Stahl, Trans.  New York: Columbia U P, 1952.
Patterson, Lee.  Chaucer and the Subject of History.  Madison, WI:
U of Wisconsin P, 1991.
“Scipio Africanus.”  Wikipedia.  3 Mar. 2007.  9 Mar. 2007             
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scipio_Africanus>.

1     More recently, historians have cast considerable doubt on Scipio’s purity.  Some sources have suggested that Scipio actually took great interest in young and beautiful members of both sexes.  However, this perception was certainly not present in the fourteenth century, when Scipio was the champion of self-restraint and traditional marriage.  (Wikipedia, Ferrero)

2     This personal glorification is also what Scipio warned his grandson not to seek.  It apparently does not pay off in the afterlife.