The Flying Chaucer

Every body, or to be precise – every mind, needs three reading lists. The first will contain the essential books of your field. The second list will offer solid insights into and felicitous expressions of one’s individual and community interests. The third is just plain fun to read.
In the old days, before I understood my reading tastes as well as I do now, long airplane trips, especially to foreign countries, meant packing pages in each category. Eschewing checked-through luggage required carrying all these volumes on my sometimes up-standing but usually down-sitting person. I solved the problem by sewing two huge pockets on the underside of the detachable lining of my overcoat. With these crammed pockets, I could not actually wear the coat, but I successfully got the books onto the plane and into overhead storage.
Unfortunately, this brilliant scheme is not practicable for summer travel. Even without a heavy overcoat, my flashing personality looks suspicious to airport personnel. They always search me. I am considering an overture to the next General Assembly demanding for Presbyterian travelers the right to choose the security person who pats them down and the degree of thoroughness with which this action is conducted. My overture should pass unanimously since it offers Presbyterians of all persuasions the opportunity to get their jollity without publicly declaring their orientation.
Still the question remains if you found yourself on a dessert (non-sic) island, what would put icing on your cake? The answer is to select one book which functions in all three categories combining the good, the true, the beautiful and the delightful.
I recommend the translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by David Wright. Long years ago the Chaucer course in my college was required of, and normally reserved for, upper level English majors. Apparently no previous sophomoric 19 year old non-English major had ever wanted to study Middle English and been willing to compete with the best and most mature literature students. That I was granted premature and special permission for the class was then – and remains – a matter of considerable satisfaction to me.
Doubtless, it is a serious character fault but I admit a continuing and enthusiastic admiration for Chaucer’s fabliau. However, truth to tell, reading Middle English in the wee, wee hours of an overnight flight is entirely too much like work. Therefore, a modern translation of Chaucer’s comic, frankly coarse, and often cynical poetry is a great way to be booked in the friendly skies.
For reasons imperfectly understood by me, I have always been afraid of real women oscillating somewhere between bemused fascination and complete bewilderment. In contrast, between the covers I have known and enjoyed many fictive women. If they give me trouble I turn over the page or in extreme situations I will close the book on them. Among our major poets, Chaucer is most interested in the estate of marriage, devoting seven tales to the subject. The most memorable character is Alice, Wife of Bath.
Alice’s story deals with the single question that puzzles every male person all his life, “What do women want?” The Wife of Bath has an answer of course, but I do not want to incur female trouble so I will not endorse or even report her conclusion. Curiously, at the beginning of the twentieth century scholars thought Chaucer loved women. Now they think he hated women. I would really like to hear a panel of modern women discussing the contrasts between the militant feminism of Alice, wife of Bath, and the unquestioning obedience of patient Griselda.
Meanwhile, I am willing to make my own modest contribution to the theory and practice of marriage based on years of careful observation and profound reflection. For a husband to lead a happy married life he needs only two phrases frequently employed. The first is, “Yes, my love.” The second is, “Please, dear, let it be my fault.”

2 thoughts on “The Flying Chaucer”

    1. I should have added this, Charles. In those long ago days in the Steel City, in a Harjie Likins class on Christian Education, we had to tell something about our names. She didn’t seem to appreciate the humor in my story, which I made up on the spot, that I was named for Chaucer, but my parents couldn’t spell.


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