Thursday, February 14, 2008

Political and Religious Satire in Thomas More ’s " Utopia "

Thomas More produced his fictional Utopia as a satire on his contemporaries’ religious and political thoughts. The positive light given to religious, political and philosophical ideas diametrically opposed to those of the author, the presence of ridiculous wordplay in the names, titles and locations within the piece, and the pseudo Renaissance-humanist air given by setting the work in Latin, all reveal More’s satiric intent. Over time the piece has become something more than its author’s original use of satire, giving birth to a new genre of fiction, but More’s initial purposes seem to have been something less than literary innovation.
While the Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines “satire” as a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule, satirical writing or drama often scorns such folly by pretending to approve of values which are the diametric opposite of what the satirist actually wishes to promote. The implied benefits of divorce, euthanasia, married priests, and women priests, expressed in his Utopia, disagreed with More's celebrated dedication to devout Catholicism. More was a persecutor of heretics (Protestants) yet the book extolled the virtues of embracing varied religions, and even under the same roof. The piece engaged in political criticism, but More himself was Lord Chancellor, an influential English lawyer. Communism and the idea of communal living expressed as an ideal in Utopia could be seen as the opposite view expected from a rich landowner such as More.
More uses the Renaissance pilgrim-guide to describe the idyllic country of Utopia and named this guide Raphael Hythlodaeus. Raphael was the name of an Archangel mentioned in the Book of Tobit, who guides Tobias and later cures his father of his blindness. The angel Raphael was seen as an angel-physician who cured both the bodies and the souls of men. Angels have elsewhere been considered messengers of illumination, as was the angel Gabriel who told Mary she would give birth to the Son of the Most High God. But in giving his pilgrim character the surname Hythlodaeus, which means “nonsense”, More inverted the character’s role as a bringer of profitable illumination. The name Raphael Hythlodaeus could be interpreted as “angel of nonsense”. More’s satiric intent was further underscored when he used this character to describe a country whose name literally means "noplace”, and its river of no water and its ruler with no people.
One central feature of Renaissance humanism was the commitment to study the primary sources of the best writing from ancient Greece and Rome. This commitment was shown in the Renaissance humanists' motto "ad fontes”, which means "to the sources". Renaissance humanists glorified the ancient civilizations, and in a similar way some popular and glorified tales of New World civilizations were emerging from cross-Atlantic exploration. It seems possible More could have been tipping his hat to humanists by setting his work in Latin, and telling of an ancient idyllic civilization built on “superior” ideals. If this was More’s intent, and if the tale of a perfect communal society was a reference to New World legend (although in reality Amerigo Vespucci’s Incas practiced cannibalism), then this would be further proof that More viewed his "Utopia" as satire.
It's not uncommon for authors to never realize the stretch their works will ultimately reach, and a piece can inadvertently morph into a new invention without the author's conscious effort. More used literary tools of his time such as wordplay, referred to current events such as tales of New World civilizations, and spoofed a contemporary movement by playing upon the Renaissance humanists' love of Latin texts, to create a work of satire. But in the 500 years since it was introduced, "Utopia" has given birth to a genre which has been used to explore and improve the same religious, social and political shortcomings More had previously satired in his work.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Romance and the Fabliau in Geoffrey Chaucer ' s " The Canterbury Tales "

Geoffrey Chaucer followed his idealistic romance The Knight’s Tale with the bawdy fabliau The Miller’s Tale, providing powerful contrast within the context of his The Canterbury Tales. True to their individual genres, The Knight’s Tale paints nobles in a flattering light and The Miller’s Tale shows peasants acting like foolish simpletons. But neither view seems to reflect how Chaucer viewed his contemporary man. Instead, it is the subtleties Chaucer introduces to the two genres which make his characters seem human and at the same time show Chaucer’s own humanity.
Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale is one of the great short stories of the English language, but finds its origins in the French fabliau. The fabliaux were a group of about 150 short stories with basically interchangeable characters: a cuckolded husband, an offending clergy, and foolish peasants. The plot of a fabliau usually goes, “There was a man who had a wife, and the wife fooled around with some clerk and made the local peasants look like fools.” Of course real life in fourteenth-century towns and villages was never like this; these stories always required incredible degrees of gullibility in the victims and of ingenuity and sexual appetite in the trickster heroes and heroines. The fabliau had flourished in thirteenth-century France, and was largely out of fashion when Chaucer resurrected it 100 years later. But like most comedy the fabliau was irreverent, and this made the perfect vehicle for Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. He used the fabliau in his Miller's Tale, Reeve's Tale, Shipman's Tale, Summoner's Tale, and The Cook's Tale. Other stories, such as The Merchant's Tale, show traces of the genre as well.
A "romance" is a prose or poetic heroic narrative originating in medieval literature. The term was coined to differentiate popular material in the vernacular from scholarly and ecclesiastical literature in Latin. The romance dealt with traditional themes which were linked in some way, perhaps only in a frame story. In late medieval and early Renaissance literature the trend was toward fantastic fiction. Early romances, such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, spawned many imitators and the genre was well received. Heroic and chivalrous knights tended to populate medieval romances, wielding super-human ability in their quest of monsters and giants, all the while following strict codes of chivalry and ultimately winning the heart of some fair lady. But despite the lady’s love, medieval romances focused on adventure, and not love.
But Chaucer’s genius is in how he showed intelligence in his fools and foolishness in his nobility. The carpenter in The Miller’s Tale loved his wife, and believing the prophesies of Nicholas doesn’t seem to make him too gullible; somehow we see a little of our own trusting nature in the carpenter. In The Knight's Tale, Palamon and Arcite are indeed noble, and their love for Emily is at least romantic (perhaps their love has something to do with how we first applied the term to love), but they are foolish nonetheless and Emily isn’t even interested in being a wife. Chaucer avoids the cliches of his chosen genres, and in doing so creates living and breathing characters who survive the now archaic literary forms which first delivered them to us.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Camelot: A Land Both Far Away and Contemporary

>Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a practically perfect kingdom where knights were noble and ladies were fair. The tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table touch on civilization’s oldest quests for beauty, law, and order. These are the things of our fantasies and fairy tales, as well as our Broadway musicals.

A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there's a legal limit to the snow here
In Camelot.
The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order, summer lingers through September
In Camelot.

Camelot! Camelot!
I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
But in Camelot, Camelot
That's how conditions are.
The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

Camelot! Camelot!
I know it gives a person pause,
But in Camelot, Camelot
Those are the legal laws.
The snow may never slush upon the hillside.
By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear.
In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

(from Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner and Fredrick Loewe)

Even cultural mega-machine Disney tapped into the Arthur legends with its animated The Sword in the Stone, released on Christmas in 1963. Google the term “King Arthur” and there are 346,000 entries. The legend has seeped into contemporary politics as well, with the Kennedy administration of the 1960’s and the seemingly idyllic Kennedy family, who some consider America’s own royal family. It would be difficult to find an adult in the modern world who does not have at least some familiarity with the Camelot legends.

But there is a song by Harry Chapin that says: “Anywhere’s a better place to be.” In other words, we cherish our dreams of better places; they give us hope of a respite from our sometimes dull, everyday life. Visions of courteous knights, lovely damsels, and a Utopian society give us the possibility of escape, even if only in our fantasies. We would like be believe our society has descended from such noble mores and moralities.

Even better, the Arthur tales are not without their humanity and human fallibility. When young Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, the story plucks our Cinderella heart strings and we are all the mislabeled and mistreated underdog who becomes one of history’s greatest kings. When the fair maid of Astolat suffers and dies for her love of Sir Lancelot, it is lauded one of the great stories of romance; never mind how it might remind you of Glen Close stalking Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction. Arthur’s death echoes that of Christ, as men said his tomb is inscribed with “Here lies Arthur, the once and future king.”

Many of our fairy tales involve characters wandering into the forest to face their fears and emerge victorious, but while these stories may have human protagonists, many of the antagonists in these stories are non-human. The stories of Arthur involve the same quest for an understanding of life, relationships, honor, power, as other fables, but both protagonist and antagonist are human. These stories’ humanity brings them closer to home, closer to our hearts, and the stories resonate deeper than most other tales from our past.

Lessons from Middle English: ' Tis a Gift to Be Simple

Simple ballads and lyrics surviving from Medieval literature might at first glance seem inferior to the sophisticated imagery and complicated sentence structure of modern works. We might assume their authors remained anonymous because the pieces were too elementary to inspire the pride of authorship. But the oldest surviving pieces from Middle English (before colonization began to develop divergent forms of the language) had to be understood at a single hearing; obscure references would have been lost when the words rattled by without time for study and reflection. Our language had its birth in an oral tradition, and the purpose of its literature was different from what we sometimes have in modern times. The inspiration was not necessarily inferior or superior to that of modern works, and we cannot safely assume the feelings which sought expression then were either simpler or more complex than our own.
"Sumer is i-cumen in"
Spring has come in
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blooms
the meadow
And the woods springs now
Sing, cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The calf lows after the cow
The bull
leaps, the buck leaps, twisting.
Merrily sing, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Well sing you, cuckoo.
Nor cease you ever now!
Translated by Craig E. Bertolet

As a matter of fact, there may be lessons to learn from the apparent simplicity of Middle English pieces. While today we might feel it is acceptable to layer our imagery past the point of immediate recognition and at the same time use obscure references which may not be understood without deeper study, but how many of these images and references are really ever understood or appreciated by anyone but the most dedicated critics or scholars? If we paint a house red, does it really matter if there are layers of green and blue underneath? At some point our “sophistication” goes so deep it loses the practicality, and a piece of writing becomes too self absorbed to truly communicate.
Today, a written piece can be printed, read aloud and recorded, saved in a digital file, and various combinations of these formats. Because of this, it can be read, re-read, listened to multiple times, and pondered. In Medieval times, a bard or balladeer might perform a piece only once for a particular audience; anything that wasn’t heard or understood the first time wasn’t going to be heard or understood later. But in spite of the many opportunities we have these days to come back to a text, how often do we really do so? Unless we have some specific reason for deeper study, don’t we usually keep our first impression of a piece and never seek to look any deeper?
If that is true, then perhaps we can learn a lesson from the simple straightforwardness of Middle English literature. Its apparent lack of sophistication is by design, and should not be confused with a lack of merit. These pieces were written with the end in mind, and that end was always communication. If a modern work wishes to communicate, then simplicity might be a welcome means to that end.

A Blogger in the Fifteenth Century: The Book of Margery Kempe

If Margery Kempe had lived 600 years later, she might have been a blogger. The Book of Margery Kempe is an account of her later life, much like a diary, without any obvious connecting theme or storyline. Much like a modern blogger might be technically challenged and enlist the help of a son or daughter, Mrs. Kempe was illiterate and solicited the help of an Englishman living in Germany, possibly her own son, and later the help of a priest to get her story written. But modern bloggers may owe a loosely associated debt to The Book of Margery Kempe since many consider it the first autobiography written in the English language.
Two other similarities between Mrs. Kempe and modern blog writers are an interest in home-based businesses and seemingly random ramblings. Margery Kempe operated a grain mill and a brewery, both common home-based businesses operated by women in Medieval times, although without success. Even though Mrs. Kempe is sometimes thought of as an oddity, recent scholarship on vernacular theologies and popular practices of piety suggest she may not have been as odd as she first appears; instead of the ramblings of a madwoman, her Book is now thought to be a carefully constructed commentary on spiritual and social issues. While modern blogs might not be so carefully built, at the very least The Book of Margery Kempe parallels their ability to provide insight on the female middle class. In this case, Kempe’s book may be the best source of such insight we now have from the Middle Ages.
Margery Kempe is a well traveled woman, having made several pilgrimages to the Holy Lands. Her worldliness and business background could remind you of The Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but the similarity stops there. Instead of an interest in sex and multiple marriages, Kempe has chosen a life of chastity, along with her husband, and devoted herself to spiritual pursuits. As “modern” as this might sound, holy men and women often broke with the traditions of family and society. Outside the boundaries of physical and patriarchal constraints of marriage, these believers could cultivate a less restricted relationship with God. This practice constituted an important women’s religious movement of the Middle Ages, and its documentation in The Book of Margery Kempe provides part of the reason for the work’s significance.
The work was uncovered in 1934, found in the personal library of a family in Lancashire. Too bad The Book of Margery Kempe didn’t have the accessibility of a modern blog, where someone could simply have Googled to find it.

Personification in the Medieval Morality Play " Everyman "

>According to Ingmar Bergman in his film The Seventh Seal you may be able to cheat death. However if you believe the Fifteenth Century morality play Everyman, Death can’t be bribed. When the same play’s main character was summoned to his final journey he tried the bribery route without success, but Death was amiable enough to allow Everyman a traveling companion. That is where the action of Everyman begins.

Evidently, a traveling companion for life’s final journey is not easy to find. All of life’s little pleasures, like Fellowship, Beauty, and Strength abandon Everyman on the journey. In the end, after a little pick-me-up in the form of Everyman’s confession, Good Deeds is the only one to consent to the journey.

The church had made a division between venial sins, which could be forgiven without the sacrament of Confession, and capital sins resulting in damnation. A largely illiterate audience couldn't be expected to remember each of the Seven Deadly Sins, or even the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. This was an issue of deep significance.

A call to education about the Seven Deadly Sins came from the Fourth Lateran Council (1214). This council established a practice of annual confession.
All the Faithful of both sexes shall, after they have reached the age of discretion, faithfully confess all their sins at least once a year to their own (parish) priest and perform to the best of their ability the penance imposed, receiving reverently at least at Easter the sacrament of the Eucharist, unless perchance at the advice of their priest they may for a good reason abstain for a time from its reception; otherwise they shall be cut off from the Church during life and deprived of Christian burial in death. Wherefore, let this salutary decree be published frequently in the churches, that no one may find in the plea of ignorance a shadow of excuse.

Let the priest be discreet and cautious that he may pour wine and oil into the wounds of one injured after the manner of a skillful physician, carefully inquiring into the circumstances of the sinner and sin, from the nature of which he may understand what kind of advice to give and what remedy to apply, making use of different experiments to heal the sick one.

This mandate required priests to teach congregations to recognize and recall their sins, so English bishops wrote syllabuses for clergy to learn and teach to their congregations. Because of their severity, The Seven Deadly Sins were featured in these syllabuses or catechisms.

To help the faithful with their memories, as well as with their abstract reasoning skills, such concepts were personified, giving them human form and human traits. Giving a face to such abstractions as the Deadly Sins helped citizens know which sins were the worst and what sins required confession.

Once given human form, the Deadly Sins could be painted on cathedral walls, pictured in books, and appear on the stage. From these platforms, personifications could help people remember which sins to avoid the most. The Seven Deadly Sins do not appear in Everyman, but the play does borrow the technique and personifies such abstracts as Beauty, Intelligence, Fellowship, and Good Works.

In this play, the character Everyman could be seen as a personification as well; instead of representing one individual man, he is meant to represent mankind in general. The same technique was present nearly two hundred years later in John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress, when the character Christian represented mankind on an Everyman-esque journey.

The Law, Death, and Grace in Medieval Poetry: " Sir Gawain and the Green Night "

It’s not easy being green; if you happen to be a knight, being green may cost your head. Being a green knight carries a big responsibility. Some may even say that in your ever-green garments you’re a representation of no less than Christ himself. As a type of Christ, the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight attempts to teach King Arthur and his Round Table a lesson in grace, but is misunderstood and thought of as an evil green giant (and anything but jolly).
As an acclaimed achievement of ancient alliterative adventure, this romance reeks of both mores and morality, all in the guise of a game.
At Christmastime in Camelot, the gallant King Arthur and his followers celebrate the season, placing a premium on appearances. Knights must appear more noble, maidens must appear more fair, and Arthur himself seeks to appear so interested in sport and adventure that he refuses to eat dinner unless told some marvelous tale. But this showboating is not left long without an answer when a mysterious Knight offers the entertainment Arthur seeks. The knight is looking for someone to answer his challenge. Whoever agrees to play this game will be given a beautiful battle-axe. He is to strike a blow with the axe on the Green Knight’s bare neck, but he will do so under a covenant where the Green Knight is to return the blow in one year and one day.
The call is answered by Sir Gawain, and when he journeys to meet the Green Knight in response to their covenant a year later, he is met with another series of games by a seemingly uninvolved Bertilak de Hautdesert. Sir Gawain plays these games with strict attention to the law, but just as man cannot fully follow the law of God, Sir Gawain’s human nature causes him to fall short in adherence to his covenants with Bertilak.
At his dreaded rendezvous with the Green Knight, he receives an unexpected gift of grace and is not dealt the death he bargained for. The Green Knight merely nicks Gawain in the neck with his axe, revealing his identity as Bertilak and offering Sir Gawain a grace aside from works. Gawain, however, cannot fully accept the Green Knight’s grace, and chooses to legalistically wear a green girdle the rest of his days as a reminder of his failure to fulfill the law of the covenant. As a matter of fact, the entire appearance-oriented Round Table decides to wear green girdles to share in Sir Gawain’s shame; the idea of grace seems to allude them.
Spring is a time of green and of new life, and green in the winter offers a paradox. The knight’s green habiliments might represent the eternal life of Christ, much as the Christmas tree was later used. so the Green Knight may be viewed as a type of Christ, offering eternal life in the midst of the barrenness of winter. The games and covenants are reminiscent of the Bible’s Old Testament covenants with God, but grace comes along to abolish that law and the death man deserves in breaking it.
But the same way man has difficulty understanding God’s gift of grace and thereby returns to the law, Sir Gawain and the knights of the Round Table return to the security found in their law of appearances and covenants.

Lessons from Middle English: ' Tis a Gift to Be Simple

Simple ballads and lyrics surviving from Medieval literature might at first glance seem inferior to the sophisticated imagery and complicated sentence structure of modern works. We might assume their authors remained anonymous because the pieces were too elementary to inspire the pride of authorship. But the oldest surviving pieces from Middle English (before colonization began to develop divergent forms of the language) had to be understood at a single hearing; obscure references would have been lost when the words rattled by without time for study and reflection. Our language had its birth in an oral tradition, and the purpose of its literature was different from what we sometimes have in modern times. The inspiration was not necessarily inferior or superior to that of modern works, and we cannot safely assume the feelings which sought expression then were either simpler or more complex than our own.
"Sumer is i-cumen in"
Spring has come in
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blooms
the meadow
And the woods springs now
Sing, cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The calf lows after the cow
The bull
leaps, the buck leaps, twisting.
Merrily sing, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Well sing you, cuckoo.
Nor cease you ever now!
Translated by Craig E. Bertolet

As a matter of fact, there may be lessons to learn from the apparent simplicity of Middle English pieces. While today we might feel it is acceptable to layer our imagery past the point of immediate recognition and at the same time use obscure references which may not be understood without deeper study, but how many of these images and references are really ever understood or appreciated by anyone but the most dedicated critics or scholars? If we paint a house red, does it really matter if there are layers of green and blue underneath? At some point our “sophistication” goes so deep it loses the practicality, and a piece of writing becomes too self absorbed to truly communicate.
Today, a written piece can be printed, read aloud and recorded, saved in a digital file, and various combinations of these formats. Because of this, it can be read, re-read, listened to multiple times, and pondered. In Medieval times, a bard or balladeer might perform a piece only once for a particular audience; anything that wasn’t heard or understood the first time wasn’t going to be heard or understood later. But in spite of the many opportunities we have these days to come back to a text, how often do we really do so? Unless we have some specific reason for deeper study, don’t we usually keep our first impression of a piece and never seek to look any deeper?
If that is true, then perhaps we can learn a lesson from the simple straightforwardness of Middle English literature. Its apparent lack of sophistication is by design, and should not be confused with a lack of merit. These pieces were written with the end in mind, and that end was always communication. If a modern work wishes to communicate, then simplicity might be a welcome means to that end.

Emapathy=Maturity in Zindel's "The Pigman"

In The Pigman , author Paul Zindel follows many expected tropes in young adult literature: coming of age, wild exploration, passion, etc. Ho...