Chaucer FYI - 4 The Reeve's Tale

Well, if it isn't obvious by now, then I've lost a little hope for humanity. The tale-tellers interact. Chaucer is clearly trying to hammer this point home in this tale; the Reeve's prologue is almost entirely about why he wants to have a story-time smackdown with the Miller, and the last line of his story is his final jab at the Miller.

Chaucer wanted his audience to be aware that his speakers were more dynamic than the speakers in other tale collections because it not only made him more interesting as an author, it made the tales themselves more interesting. Chaucer took almost all of his stories from a preexisting source, at least in part. Since they were around beforehand, Chaucer took pains not only to make them more artistic, but to give a good reason for re-telling the tales. The Reeve's Tale in particular had several sources and analogues, and was probably fairly well known as a folk story as well as a piece of German/French/Italian literature, so when Chaucer put his pretty English spin on it, it wasn't that much more compelling than any of the others - until, that is, he made the story into an act of vengeance. At that point, an oft-repeated albeit funny story had an additional draw. Now the reader isn't necessarily reading to find out what happens in the tale - they may already know - they're reading to find out what happens to the person telling the tale as well, and looking for any jokes or pokes Chaucer may have added that were directed at the object of the tale. In this manner, Chaucer managed to brilliantly revivify old stories in a wonderfully modern method. Hollywood, take note.

On to another point - we're going to get back to tale-teller interaction more with the Friar and the Summoner - I have to apologize to anyone reading this. It is unclear in my translation that the brothers Alain and John have thick, nearly incomprehensible, Northern Middle English accents. Some of that can be seen by their use of unusual aphorisms, but not as much is communicated as I would have liked. To Simkin, his family, and the warden of Cambridge they sound like utterly hilarious backwoods hicks, which is part of why Simkin thinks that he'll be able to trick them so easily as well as part of the reason that they so badly don't want to be tricked. I'm sorry - I was trying to translate more for verbal accuracy than for anything else, and if you're reading this alongside the Middle English, your original text should show this dynamic well enough.

Now on to shagging. "Swyved" is a word that I ranted about in my last Chaucer FYI post, so I won't go into depth on it, suffice to say that I was trying to find a euphemism for "copulated with" that was a single-word verb (rather two-word verb phrases such as "made love" or "had sex") that was bawdy enough to fit the tone of the story and English enough that Chaucer might have used it if it had been around in his time. "Screwed" "boned" "humped" and yes, even "fucked" were considered, and I just ended up deciding that "shagged" was the best choice to act as an equivalent to "swyved." I will say though, if you read it with an Austin Powers voice in your mind, you're going to make me very happy and very sad at the same time.

Well, I seem to have exhausted my ability to be wry for the moment, so I feel that now is the time to discuss a rather serious issue in this tale: rape in the time of Chaucer.

Reading The Reeve's Tale for the first time was pretty jarring for me as I approached the end. I was excitedly waiting for a sneaky trick, wanting to find out what the brothers did to avenge themselves. Then Alain snuck up to the daughter's bed and became "aton" with her before she had a chance to cry out. Only about fifty lines later she is helping with his revenge and crying as he leaves the bed he was never invited into. Ahem. What!? Then John tricks Simkin's wife into his bed and they hump like bunnies all night long and she has no idea who she's in bed with. While part of my mind was amused by how Simkin's theft was being repaid, the rest of it was cringing away from the supposed "heroes" of the tale who were raping the wife and daughter of their host.

What can really be said about this? What can be offered as an excuse? In most of the other analogues, the stories have no character, they're just bawdy stories and everyone ends up laughing, so did Chaucer kick it up a notch to get a bigger laugh? Is this treatment of sex included because rape was funny in the 1300s? No; we can dismiss that theory. Did Chaucer think involuntary sex was hilarious? Probably not, no. So why does Chaucer include two fairly clear rapes in what is supposed to be a funny story? My theory is that Chaucer includes it to illustrate that while he is funny and clever and bright, the Reeve is not. I think that this tale approaches sex in this manner because it is the way that the bitter, old, wrathful Reeve would approach it - tastelessly, somewhat violently, and for the reason of perceived offense. I think Chaucer wants his audience to be uncomfortable with this story because he wants his audience to be uncomfortable with the Reeve - he is easing his readers into the very bottom of this particular downward spiral, which will come to a crashing, ridiculous end with The Cook's Tale, and which will leave the audience hungry for something "higher" that Chaucer then happily gives to us in The Man of Law's Tale. In this light, the inclusion of rape in The Reeve's Tale is brilliant - Chaucer is playing his audience like a fiddle, manipulating them into wanting to read the stories that he has written in the order that he chose to present them.

Sorry to sound like a nutcase fan-girl, but how unbelievably cool is that? One of the most "ick" moments in The Canterbury Tales may be there because the author wanted us to be grossed out enough to crave the "sentence" that is shortly going to follow.

Hats off, everyone. Chaucer is officially a badass.

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