My passion for Chaucer came to me in an instant. Here is the story.
You could content yourself with the surface story of the Canterbury Tales and let the idea of a hidden meaning just slide. Chaucer's surface story has been enjoyed for centuries--and will continue to be. But I couldn't do that. The poetry nagged me: "Why did he say that?" For example, only one of the pilgrims is said to wear spurs. No, not the Knight. It's one of the women. Why would Chaucer say that? I figured he must have had a reason.
While we're on the subject of pilgrims, in one of his earlier poems (Troilus and Criseyde), Chaucer says the hero "Like a pilgrim he disguised himself" so that he could make his way undetected into enemy territory to visit his ladylove. I didn't know about that disguise until after the episode I'm about to describe, but it shows that our poet already had that trick in mind.
The whole scheme of the Canterbury pilgrims distracted me. Chaucer's reputation was too well known, his skills too well recognized by his contemporaries for me to think that the group was a haphazard collection. So what was it that made this precise combination necessary? Why was there one pair of brothers, not from a religious order, but two men related by birth? Why not three brothers or no brothers? Why was there a wife--but no husband and wife? Why no children? Why so few women?
When I raise the question of the make-up of this assortment of travelers, I was told, "That's just the way it was in the Middle Ages." End of discussion. But that never satisfied me. And it didn't stop the tape loop that had begun playing in my head. No matter what I was doing, in some little compartment of my brain, a never-ending succession of the images of the pilgrims was always on screen. I knew there had to be an answer to the selection of exactly this group. My need for the answer was obsessive, unrelenting. That ever-present pilgrim tape streamed past my mind's eye for more that a week--and then it happened.
Picture this. What 's going on in your mind is projected on a TV screen, and at the bottom of the screen there is a narrow tape running--rather like news headlines are displayed. That tape at the bottom ran on and on with the pictures of the pilgrims. And then--without any warning--my memory dredged up a second tape of images that began running just above the pilgrim tape, and in a few moments they meshed. They matched. The pilgrims were identified. The tapes stopped running, and I sat there overwhelmed, contemplating the matched identities. It was like checking your lottery ticket against the winning numbers printed in the newspaper--and realizing you've won the jackpot. Eureka! I suddenly knew that Chaucer presents one group of characters described in terms of another group. The pilgrims are all disguised!
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