Sunday 27 September 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

The Pardoner begins by explaining his profession, using a rather conceited tone as he exults over all the people he's managed to deceive into purchasing his pardons for their sins.  His theme is "Radix malorum est cupidas", which means "Greed is the root of all evils" from 1 Timothy 6:10, yet he only applies this adage if it is to his own monetary gain.  He is willing to steal from a poor woman's children and have them starve, yet he claims that, in spite of his monstrous character, he is able to tell a moral tale.  Given that his life is constructed from an abundance of lies, one would tend not to believe him.

The Pardoner's Tale

In Flanders, lived three young men who were fond of carousing, drinking and gambling.  Discovering that their friend and thousands of others have been killed by a foul fiend known as "Death," they set out bent on revenge.  An old man who had asked Death to take him, but with no luck, says that they can find him at the base of an old oak tree, but the only thing that they discover there is a pile of gold florins.  Immediately forgetting their quest, they draw straws to see who will fetch food and drink, as they plan to wait by the tree until night so they can carry the treasure away in secrecy.  The youngest of the three is chosen to go into town and while he is away, the others plot his murder, planning to stab him with their daggers upon his return.  The youngest, on his way to town, is thinking of how to dispose of his comrades, and places poison in two of the three bottles with which he returns.  The two slay the young man and then sit down to drink their fare.  Death takes them in terrible suffering and everyone receives his due.

The Pardoner attempts to sell his relics to the Host who reacts by venting his spleen upon the Pardoner.

"I wish I had your ballocks in my hand
Instead of relics in a reliquarium;
Have them cut off and I will help to carry 'em.
We'll have them shrined for you in a hog's turd."

Middle English:

I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond
In stide of relikes or of seintuarie.
Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;
They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!

The Pardoner is incensed and the Knight attempts to mediate between them before they all continue on their way.

Warwick Gobbel

In the tale, the men practice self-deception, neither suspecting the others, and the Pardoner himself practices a sort of self-deception, in that he confesses his sins without expectation of any consequences resulting from them.  The tale and prologue meld very well together in that we learn that such unconscionable evil is blind to the consequence of its actions and that it can occur both in the dregs of society and even a holy man of God.

Thursday 24 September 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Physician's Tale

The Physician's Tale

An illustrious and affluent knight, Virginius, had a daughter named Virginia who was very dear to his heart.  Thus follows a very long narrative on her chastity and how young women should be raised.

One day, while walking through the street, a judge named Appius, spies her and is lustfully determined to possess her.  He enlists the assistance of Claudius, a notable miscreant, to carry out his plan of seizing the maiden. Claudius falsely accuses Virginius of theft, in fact, theft of his own daughter, claiming that she was a servant who was taken from him.  Appius quickly rules in Claudius' favour, decreeing that the girl must be returned to him.  Distraught, her father informs her of the circumstances and states that she must either face death or dishonour.  Virginia chooses her fate:

"And thus addressed her father, unafraid,
'Blessed be God that I shall die a maid!
I take my death rather than take my shame, 
So do your will upon me in God's name!'"

Middle English:

She riseth up, and to hir fader sayde,
"Blissed be God that I shal dye a mayde!
Yif me my deeth, er that I have a shame;
Dooth with youre child youre wyl, a Goddes name!"

Her father smites off her head and returns it to Appius, at which point the judge orders Virginius' arrest.  Suddenly a thousand men of the town, learning of the treachery committed, seize Appius and murder him and would have done the same to Claudius if Virginius had not pleaded for his exile.

"Here one can see how sin is paid its wages;
Beware, for no one knows how God engages
Or when to smite the sinner, or how the rom
Of conscience will bring terror to the firm
In wickedness, however secretly,
Though none should know of it but God and he.
Be he illiterate or a man of learning,
How soon the blow will fall there's no discerning.
I offer you this counsel; let it make you
Forsake your sins before your sins forsake you."

Middle English:

Heere may men seen how synne hath his merite.
Beth war, for no man woot whom God wol smyte
In no degree, ne in which manere wyse;
The worm of conscience may agryse
Of wikked lyf, though it so pryvee be
That no man woot therof but God and he.
For be he lewed man, or ellis lered,
He noot how soone that he shal been afered.
Therfore I rede yow this conseil take:
Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake.

In the Words of the Host to the Physician and to the Pardoner, the Host vehemently berates all unscrupulous lawyers, and states that gifts that seem to us of great worth can also bring harm, depending on the circumstances.  In fact, the Physician's tale has upset him so that he pleads for a cheerful tale from the Pardoner, whereupon the people request a tale of moral goodness and worth.

The Legend of Virginia
source Wikimedia

This tale is based on a tale from Livy's Histories and is also retold in The Romance of the Rose.  While scholars consider it one of Chaucer's weaker tales in structure, the drama certainly carries the reader along.  It reminded me a little of King Lear, in that the evil characters get their just deserts but the innocent partake of their destruction as well, which adds a definite poignancy to the story.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Top Ten Books on my Autumn TBR or Ten Books I Dream of Reading This Autumn

I'm not even going to sport with your intelligence and claim that I can even entertain reading ten books over this autumn.  If I get to five, I'll dance a jig. So with that in mind, I think I should change my title post to Ten Books That I Dream of Reading This Autumn.  Just a second, and I'll do that .....

Yes, it's all a dream, but here are the books that I'd like to read.

Northanger Abbey


My Experiments With Truth


Petrarch Selections from the Canzione


Notes From the Underground

Nightingale Wood

Framley Parsonage

Le Rêve

Monday 21 September 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Franklin's Prologue and Tale

Before we get to the prologue of this tale, there are Words of the Franklin to the Squire and of the Host to the Franklin, where the Franklin commends the Squire for the spirit in which he told his tale, and that his eloquence is surprising considering his youth.  He deprecates his own son until the Host interrupts to urge him to tell his tale.

The Franklin begs pardon for his lack of education and he, therefore, cannot adorn his words with the "colours of rhetoric", but still he will do his best with his story.

The Franklin's Tale

In Brittany, or in, at that time, Armorica, there lived a knight, Arvéragus, who held a deep abidding love for a lovely, high-born lady, Dorigen.  Alas, he neared despair of his love being returned due to her high status in society, but she saw the honourable worth of Arvéragus, and the two were joined in marriage.  He gave his promise that he would never show jealousy nor impose his will upon her, and, in turn, she pledged humbleness and faithfulness to her husband.  The Franklin next gives a quite wonderful description of love, and how to temper it for a successful relationship:

"Lovers must each be ready to obey
The other, if they would long keep company.
Love will not be constrained by mastery;
When mastery comes the god of love anon
Stretches his wings and farewell! he is gone.
Love is a thing as any spirit free;
Women by nature long for liberty
And not to be constrained or made a thrall,
And so do men, if I may speak for all.
  Whoever's the most patient under love
Has the advantages and will rise above
The other; patiences is a conquering virtue,
The learned say that, if it not desert you,
It vanquishes what force can never reach;
Why answer back at every angry speech?
No, learn forbearance or, I'll tell you what,
You will be taught it, whether you will or not.
No one alive -- it needs no arguing --
But sometimes says or does a wrongful thing;
Rage, sickness, influence of some malign
Star-constellation, temper, woe or wine
Spur us to wrongful words or make us trip.
One should not seek revenge for every slip.
And temperance from the times must take her schooling
In those that are to learn the art of ruling."

Middle English:

For o thyng, sires, saufly dar I seye,
That freendes everych oother moot obeye,
If they wol longe holden compaignye.
Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.
Whan maistrie comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!
Love is a thyng as any spirit free.
Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constreyned as a thral;
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal.
Looke who that is moost pacient in love,
He is at his avantage al above.
Pacience is an heigh vertu, certeyn,
For it venquysseth, as thise clerkes seyn,
Thynges that rigour sholde nevere atteyne.
For every word men may nat chide or pleyne.
Lerneth to suffre, or elles, so moot I goon,
Ye shul it lerne, wher so ye wole or noon;
For in this world, certein, ther no wight is
That he ne dooth or seith somtyme amys.
Ire, siknesse, or constellacioun,
Wyn, wo, or chaungynge of complexioun
Causeth ful ofte to doon amys or speken.
On every wrong a man may nat be wreken.
After the tyme moste be temperaunce
To every wight that kan on governaunce.

Arvéragus and Dorigen lived in wedded bliss until one day Arvéragus decided to leave to win renown and honour in Britain. Two years he will be gone, and Dorigen wept and bemoaned the loss of her husband every single day.  Unbeknownst to Dorigen, a handsome and lively squire, Aurelius, was sick with love for her, and finally confessed his suppressed passion. While Dorigen repeated her vow to be a faithful wife, in a moment of thoughtless gaiety, she promised her love if he was able to remove all the rocks from the coast of Brittany, an impossible task.  Yet she did not reckon on Aurelius' determination and after praying to the gods and two years of bemoaning his hopeless assignment, he found a conjuror who completed the task.  When he informed Dorigen of his success, she was brokenhearted, for she had thoughtlessly broken the promise to her beloved husband.  She decided that she must die rather than defile her love, and sited various instances from ancient accounts of women who took this recourse.  However, when Arvéragus returned home, she confessed her transgression to him, whereupon he stated that she must keep her promise, no matter what pain it would bring them.  Yet when Aurelius saw her woe and learned of the noble deed of Arvéragus, he released the lady from her promise, even though he was left with an enormous debt payable to the conjuror.  Yet fate was kind, in this case, and the conjuror immediately forgave the debt, saying that he had been paid with Aurelius' moving story.

This tale is possibly based on a similar one in Boccaccio's The Decameron (Tenth Day, Fifth Tale), but the removal, or apparent removal of the rocks echo Merlin's magical moving of the rocks accounted in The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey Monmouth.

This tale was particularly moving because of the themes of loyalty, patience and keeping one's promise.  My favourite tale so far (do I keep saying that?)

Thursday 17 September 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Squire's Prologue and Tale

The Host encourages the Squire to step up and tell his tale, and the Squire, although employing a hesitant and self-conscious manner, agrees.

The Squire's Tale

Part I

In the land of Tartary, there lived a noble king named Cambuskan (which is perhaps Genghis Khan, although the account of him is more memorable of his grandson, Kublai Khan).  He had two sons and a daughter, whose name was Canace.  Upon the king's twentieth year of reign, he hosts a large celebration but a surprise is in store for him as an unknown knight arrives bearing gifts for the sovereign.  He gives the king a brass steed that can transport him to wherever he wishes, a mirror which can reveal true friends or enemies, a sword that has a deadly power but can heal its wounds as well, and a magical ring which will allow the wearer to comprehend the language of the birds.  

Part II

The last gift is given to Canace, whereupon the next morning on her walk, she comes upon a distraught falcon who confesses that she has been courted and then later abandoned by a handsome tercelet.  In her distress, she faints and Canace cares for her, building her a mew hung with the finest shade of velvet blue for faithfulness, and green for duplicity.  The Squire promises to tell how the falcon won back her repentant love, but first he wishes to relate Cambuskan's conquests and to tell of Cambalo who won Canace for his wife.

Part III

"Apollo whirled his chariot on high
Up through the house of Mercury, the sly ---"

Here the story breaks off and Chaucer leaves it unfinished.  The developing of the story in the initial 708 lines indicates that this tale, if completed, would have been one of the longest tales of the collection.  John Milton was convinced that a conclusion was necessary, writing in his Il Penseroso:

Or call him up who left half told

The story of Cambuscan bold

Of Camball, and of Algarsife ,

And who had Canace to wife,

That owns the vertuous Ring and Glass,

And of the wondrous Hors of Brass,

On which the Tartar King did ride;

And if ought els, great Bards beside,

In sage and solemn tunes have sung,

Of Turneys and of Trophies hung;

Of Forests, and inchantments drear,

Where more is meant than meets the ear.

Edmund Spenser did attempt to finish the tale in his books III and IV of The Faerie Queene, but apparently his verse bears little resemblance to Chaucer.

Thursday 10 September 2015

L'Argent (Money) by Émile Zola

"The clock on the Bourse had just struck eleven when Saccard walked into Champeaux's, into the white and gold dining-room, with its two tall windows looking out over the square."

Aristide Saccard is on the move again. Brought low by ruinous business practices (see La Curée or The Kill), his wife dead, and his estate sold, Saccard winds calculatingly through Paris like a snake looking for an opportunity to strike. At first, he is certain that his brother, the government minister, Eugène Rougon, will come to his assistance, but when he hears that his sibling wishes to remove him from Paris for fear of embarrassment, Saccard makes a precipitative move, declaring he will open a bank that will be the financial success of Paris, a venture in which everyone will be clamouring to be involved.  His passion and sheer energy sweeps people along with him, including Lady Caroline and her brother, Hamelin, honest and respectable souls, who admire Saccard's genius.  Yet in the world of big money and La Bourse (the French equivalent to Wall Street), allegiances can fluctuate, affiliations change, and behind every corner is the face of your own demise.

Celebration in the Streets of Paris (Montemarte) (1863)
Vasily Perov
source Wikiart
"The Bourse is a real forest, a forest on a dark night, in which people can only grope their way along.  In all that darkness, if you're foolish enough to take heed of everything, however inept and contradictory, that you're told, then you're sure to break your neck."

Zola paints an excellent representative portrait of Paris' frantic and unscrupulous financial world of 1863-during the reign of Napoleon II of the Second Empire.  We see how alliances and loyalties are formed only on the basis of financial gain, yet human concern or family loyalties have little value.

"In these covert and cowardly financial battles, in which the weak are quietly disembowelled, there are no more bonds of any sort, no kinship, no friendship, only the atrocious law of the strong, those who eat so as not to be eaten."

La Bourse (1900)
source Wikimedia Commons
Zola demonstrates through his narrative and his colourful characters, how the lust for money, greed and power are not merely promoted, but in fact, worshiped.

"His wife was never seen, being unwell, said the Marquis, and kept to her apartment by infirmity.  However, the house and furniture were hers, and he merely lodged there in a furnished apartment, owning only his personal effects, in a trunk he could have carried away in a cab; they had been legally separated ever since he started living on speculation.  There had been two catastrophes already, in which he had blankly refused to pay what he owed and the official receiver, having taken stock of the situation, had not even bothered to send him an official document.  The slate was simply wiped clean.  As long as he won, he pocketed the money.  Then, when he lost, he didn't pay:  everyone knew it and everyone was resigned to it.  He had an illustrious name, he made an excellent ornament for boards of directors; so new companies, looking for golden mastheads, fought over him:  he was never unemployed."

As Saccard cleverly constructs his colossal financial empire, he is captivated by money but he is captivated by power more.  The thrill of financial battle is as addicting as as drug, and he is high on the power and the ultimate campaigns fought to gain it.  It is a house of cards and each trade, each purchase, each decision, is perhaps the one that will cause its downfall.

"Wealth for him had always taken the form of that dazzle of new coins, raining down through the sunshine like a spring shower and falling like hail on the ground, covering it with heaps of gold that you stirred with a shovel just to see their brightness and hear their music ......... But he had always been a man of imagination, seeing things on too grand a scale, transforming his shady and risky deals into epic poems; and this time, with this really colossal and prosperous enterprise, he had moved into extravagant dreams of conquest, with an idea so mad, so huge, that he did not even formulate it clearly to himself."

Panorama of Paris, 1865
Charles Soulier
source Wikimedia Commons
Also explored are the feelings on anti-Semitism prevalent during the time.  Jews were often seen as good for loans but with little else to their character or worth to recommend them.  In a world were humanity is held in so little regard, this racism is another head on the monster of greed, power and manipulation.

With his usual descriptive flair and creative technique, Zola allows the reader to skim along the surface of the narrative, to first get your bearings, before he draws you into the story and you are held captive by the machinations of the characters, the vivid depictions of Paris and the power of that elusive yet ever-coveted currency, money.

This book was not Zola's favourite to write.  "It's very difficult to write a novel about money.  It's cold, icy, lacking in interest ......"  Zola said in an interview, but he declined to demonize it, instead choosing to show the effects of its worship in a work that would "praise and exalt it's generous and fecund power, it's expansive force."  His technique certainly worked, as the reader becomes the observer of an inanimate object that effectively controls the lives of an empire.

Other Reviews of the Rougon-Macquart Series (Zola's recommended order):

Further Reading: