Monday, August 4, 2014

Like Sun on a Troll's Back: Tales of Iceland and the New Chaucer Society Congress

View of Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja
This summer I had the chance to visit Iceland for the Nineteenth Biennial International Congress of the New Chaucer Society. I am still processing the experiences I had, which loom like fantastical peaks in my memory. I went a week ahead of the conference so that I would have time to explore Reykjavik and spend some time in the surrounding country as well. As the conference grew nearer, I began to run into more and more familiar faces around the city, and it was exciting to feel that sense of connectedness in this beautiful new place. The conference was fantastic. I heard excellent papers and conversed with friends old and new. The energy of the conversations I had is helping to motivate me as I work through the final period of dissertation writing/revising. The congress also included excursions, so I got to see some stunning things both in and out of the city. The landscape in Iceland is startlingly, unbelievably beautiful. I asked my Romanticist friend if the word "sublime" applied, and she said that it did. Driving through the country there feels like driving out of this world and into a world of myth. I fell in love with Iceland. I immersed myself in sagas before and during my trip, and then the landscape of the sagas vivified and challenged  and confirmed everything that I had read or wanted to read.

Black sand beach at Vik
(The sea stacks may be trolls who
were petrified by the sunrise)
An incredible feature of the landscape is that every place I visited was interwoven with stories. These stories bridge the gaps between myth and history with growing grass and trickling water and surging lava. A cliff was a troll who'd been petrified by the rising sun. A pool of water  once splashed with the bodies of women hurled there to drown for adultery or incest or infanticide. The terrain there seems indifferent to humans (though maybe not to elves). Its beauty delights and beckons, but it seems like it isn't really meant for us either. I cannot imagine how the first settlers survived. Yet the stories that surround every topographical feature manage to lend it a narrative texture. Reykjavik, for example, exists where it does because Ingólfur Arnarson threw his high seat pillars into the ocean in 874 when he saw Iceland's coastline materialize on the horizon. The pillars landed in a spot made steamy by hot springs, leading to the name Reykjavik, meaning "smoky bay."

The city, then, functions as the living answer to a question from story: where will these pillars land? And other built environments are connected to stories as well. Visiting the turf houses of Keldur was a thrill, having read about them in Njál's Saga. The host, a stoic lady who grew chatty as we showed her our enthusiasm for the location and its history, told us that the foundation was a thousand years old, but that people had lived in the house we we're standing in until 1946. We could see the layers of construction; we could feel the temporal rift as we moved between two sections of the house that had been built 600 years apart. We looked at the mixed construction -- wood and stone -- that our host explained combined building practices from Viking and Celtic cultures, a sign that the settlers from Norway often stopped off in Ireland and Scotland to pick up slaves. Not only geographical movements, but sociocultural realities of the past leave their mark.

Turf houses at Keldur
Detail from Njáls saga fragment, c. 1300

But architectural wonders are not the primary attractions in Iceland. The people who settled there built no massive castles or cathedrals. And much of what they did build has disappeared under layers of time. The remains of  a longhouse, for example, feature in the Settlement Museum. The ruins were discovered during a construction project, and the museum is carved out around them in an underground space. As incredible as this museum is, most of the impressive buildings I saw are not medieval, but modern: the Harpa concert hall, Hallgrímskirkja church. The most dazzling remains of times past in Iceland are manuscripts and the recorded sagas and laws and history and myths they contain. And those narratives are written onto the landscape as surely as any wood or stone constructions could be. 

Leif Erikisson and Hallgrímskirkja
Inside Harpa

Outside of the city, the landscape seems to swallow up built structures with its shifting and boisterous geological demeanor. In the landscape of Þingvellir, fissures and cracks in the earth proliferate and separating plates reveal a path between the continents. In such a space, who could hope to locate the famed rock where The Law Speaker stood to recite the laws to the people? Grass-covered outlines of booths are the only traces of the lively gatherings that once crowded the space. Yet the story of the law rock and of the yearly general assemblies that took place there from 930 to 1798 still brings us to Þingvellir en masse. The description of the general assembly as a place to adjudicate disputes and visit friends and relatives is vivid in texts like Njál's saga. The land is steeped in the intersected narratives of geological and historical time.

The earth splits at Þingvellir

The multiplicity of temporal narratives written onto the landscape there reminds me of medieval mappa mundi, which feature Biblical and classical and contemporary history arranged spatially over the world. Medieval travel narratives (and Icelandic sagas, for that matter) connect their stories to locations, while the maps connect the locations to stories, but in each case there remains a strong sense that narratives and places are mutually constitutive. Since I was presenting a paper on this very idea, the location of the conference and my adventures there ended up connecting to my presentation in ways that I couldn't have anticipated. In my paper, "'By Sun and by Shadow': Narrative Mapping in The Canterbury Tales," I considered the frame of the The Canterbury Tales as a travel narrative and thought about the function of the tales in relation to travel. I guess it was inevitable that my own experience of traveling would link to my paper.

Walking behind Seljalandsfoss
In one memorable moment, for example, as I scrambled into a cavern behind the waterfall called Seljalandsfoss, I found myself rethinking how time is conceived in The Canterbury Tales. The power of the water was palpable, so palpable that I emerged from the experience drenched. Water rolls off of the mountain inexorably; currents and gravity converge so that the water travels forcefully in one direction, a teleological natural wonder. (Though I was later told that the wind is sometimes so strong that it can send a waterfall upward ...) Anyone who gazes into the heart of a waterfall can see that its movements are beyond human control. Harry Bailey evokes such an image in the prologue to the Man of Law’s Tale, when he laments wasted time:

Lordinges, the tyme wasteth night and day,
And steleth from us, what prively slepinge,
And what thurgh necligence in our wakinge,
As dooth the streem, that turneth never agayn,
Descending fro the montaigne in-to playn. (21-25).

The host’s description of time expresses the movement from one moment to the next in a strikingly geographical way. Time is like a stream, whose current only moves one way. The progression of time is like gravity, flowing down the mountain in a way that we mortals are powerless to fight. We are always in the flow of time; it’s not so visible or tangible as the waterfall, but its movement is just as relentless. The pilgrims’ trip to Canterbury might be meandering and, ultimately, incomplete, but time moves along as they tell their tales and we read them.

This description of time as a geographical feature connects temporal movement, often seen as linear and narrative (at least in many Western cultures), with the more spatial and visual. Since the frame of The Canterbury Tales is a travel narrative, this connection between narrative and landscape makes sense. Medieval travel narratives, all along the spectrum from real to fictional, follow a model of connecting locations to stories of things that have happened there (or may have happened there). And my travel the week before had been the same. The part of the gorge leading to Seljalandsfoss, for example, is named Troll’s Gorge for an old troll woman who tried to cross it. Other places I visited connect to people and events from the sagas, and the sagas in turn are consistently connected to topographical features that we can visit today. A hill or city or waterfall links us with things that happened there a thousand years ago. Travel narratives more generally serve to yoke stories and locations. Medieval mappae mundi take this connection even further, collapsing past and present by presenting all of their details in
Babylon and Tower of Babel from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon
(From the British Library's Medieval Manuscripts Blog)
terms of space: here is where Lot’s wife looked back, here is where the Tower of Babel was constructed, here is where Alexander crossed the Hellespont. In Maps of Medieval Thought, Naomi Reed Kline describes the medieval world map as "a visual encyclopedia of images and disparate facts" which she contrasts with the "linear and discursive" nature of language (89). The depiction of historical narratives on these maps is spatial rather that teleological; bits of text only make sense in terms of their location on the map. Pilgrimage both relies upon this sense of narrative location and imposes a linearity to it, as pilgrims create an itinerary to a place because of the story associated with it. You go to Canterbury because that is where Thomas Becket was martyred. (And many of us, in turn, go to Canterbury because of The Canterbury Tales.) Chaucer's pilgrims perpetually travel the road to Canterbury, always moving toward it and never arriving. Yet The Canterbury Tales do not describe the journey itself, do not recreate the landscape or experience of travel in words. Rather, the text employs a kind of narrative mapping to move the characters along via stories. Tales whose subject matter spans the globe serve to paint a line between two distinct locations in England.

I argue that Chaucer's use of narrative mapping in The Canterbury Tales serves to reexamine the ways in which time and space function together in the act of traveling. Chaucer specifically calls attention to the connection between story and travel in the prologues to The Man of Law's Tale and The Parson's Tale. In each prologue, the host notes the position of the sun and the shadows it creates in order to ascertain the time and thus to decide how many tales may yet be told that day. Each tale is told as a result of these calculations, and thus each tale begins with a specific sense of correlation to the journey at hand. Unlike the bits of narrative on mappae mundi, these stories do not directly concern the location of their telling, but instead represent the movement through time and space that constitutes travel itself. To map the progress of these pilgrims, then, is only possible by engaging with acts of storytelling.

The Tabard, Urry's edition of Chaucer (1720)
(Courtesy of Visualizing Chaucer)
In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the narrator takes pains to give us “Th' estaat, th' array, the nombre, and eek the cause/ Why that assembled was this compaignye/ In southwerk at this gentil hostelrye/ That highte the tabard, faste by the belle” (716-19). The people on the trip are clear to us, so much so that my students came in angry with the Wife of Bath one semester. We get details about them that give context to the stories they tell, and many of the stories (such as the Wife’s) are deeply rooted in the character who tells them. The places are far less clear. My colleague Kara McShane has recently created a website called Visualizing Chaucer, and it features a constantly increasing number of images of the pilgrims and their tales. Under the heading “places,” however, only two locations are mentioned: the Tabard Inn and Canterbury Cathedral. Since the pilgrims never seem to actually make it to Canterbury, the Tabard Inn is the only place in the text well-defined enough to illustrate. And even the inn is simply placed “fast by the belle.”  Despite the frame’s implied movement, the stories could be told anywhere (though the pilgrimage gives a reason for the disparate group to be together, and starting in Southwark may increase the possibility of mixing such a cross-section of society). Once the tale-telling begins, the movement from Southwark to Canterbury recedes into near invisibility as we’re treated to tales with locations that are both specific and general but that do not in any way correspond to the landscape through which the pilgrims move.

Because of this lack of topographical detail, the moments when the host does seem to call attention to the surroundings are striking. Before introducing the Man of Law’s Tale, we are told that
           Our Hoste sey wel that the brighte sonne
The ark of his artificial day had ronne
The fourthe part, and half an houre, and more;
And though he were not depe expert in lore,

He wiste it was the eightetethe day
Of April, that is messager to May;
And sey wel that the shadwe of every tree
Was as in lengthe the same quantitee
That was the body erect that caused it. (1-9)
Photo from my own pilgrimage to
Canterbury in 2011

The passage continues for some time, as the host notices many things about the shadows and infers many things about the time on account of what he sees. Josie Bloomfield pointed out last year at the Plymouth Medieval and Renaissance Forum (in a talk titled "Walking with an Astrolabe: Measuring Time on Chaucer’s Pilgrimage") that his information is not particularly accurate and is more cumbersome than it needs to be. If the host wants to know the time, listening to church bells would be much easier. And yet Chaucer chooses to write it this way. The details he includes might not describe a specific location on the journey to Canterbury, but they do describe sun and tree and shadow in order to define a specific point on the journey. As Helen Cooper explains in The English Romance in Time, “A phrase such as ‘a day’s journey’ is in fact tautologous, since ‘journey’ derives from journée, how far can be covered in a day. Distance itself was hard to measure, and the conversion of space into time provided a functional and accessible approximation. The ease of the conversion is itself an indication of how one-dimensional travel appeared, like time itself. The conversion worked in the other direction too, to represent time as space. Dante famously claimed to have had his vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven mid-way along the pathway of his life, in the thirty-fifth year of his allotted seventy” (68). To travel is to move through space and time simultaneously, and to pilgrimage is to ultimately to collapse the two. We go to the place where Becket was killed in the past because that location has meaning for us in the present. The host further connects location to time when he uses the waterfall metaphor I mentioned above. The conclusion of his astronomical musings is to ask the Man of Law to waste no more time and tell his tale. There is some irony in how much time the host spends in trying to move things along, but the sustained focus on scenery and time and story-telling functions to remind us of the connection between travel and narrative in the Tales.

The tale the Man of Law tells is itself full of travel, as Custance sails from east to west and back again. Kathy Lavezzo argues in Angels on the Edge of the World that "since Custance's journey begins in Syria, the cartographic territory evoked in the tale . . . suggests a map of the world" (95). Both we as readers and the pilgrims as listeners can follow Custance’s voyages while the Man of Law describes them. Stories, after all, are a kind of travel, as reading about travel to holy places sometimes functioned as virtual pilgrimage for those who
Detail from Gustaf Tenggren illustration
to the Man of Law's Tale (1961)
couldn’t make the actual journey. Yet as John F. Plummer noted the same day as my own talk in a fantastic paper called "Figures of Geo-political Spaces in the Man of Law's Tale," 
Custance’s journey is not as specific geographically as it is in Chaucer’s sources. The Man of Law often cannot name the castle or island on which Custance lands. At one point he explains that her boat goes "Som-tyme West, som-tyme North and South,/ And som-tyme Est, ful many a wery day" (948-949). So, basically, her boat goes in every direction. Nothing could be farther from the image of the forcefully direct waterfall. And time is no less clearly defined. Custance’s ship is carried back and forth across the ocean for "Yeres and dayes," a time that seems specific, with the addition of days, and yet is nonetheless vague (463). How many years? How many days? Later, her ship is at sea for "Fyve yeer and more" -- we do get a number of years this time, but the "and more" undoes that precision (902). The sense of movement over space and through time is almost magnified by this unspecificity, as our heroine’s movements could cover any distance we could imagine. Yet the passage of time is indelibly linked to the oceanic spaces through which she is traveling. Everything about her tale is rooted in her landscape (or rather oceanscape).

The second mention of sun and shadows comes before the Parson’s Tale, which is further removed from physical travel than the Man of Law’s choice of material. In this second instance, the geotemporal reflections in this scene come not from the host, but from the narrator Geoffrey. He begins with reference to the previous tale, which places the observations explicitly between tales:

By that the maunciple hadde his tale al ended,
The sonne fro the south lyne was descended
So lowe, that he nas nat, to my sighte,
Degreës nyne and twenty as in highte.

Foure of the clokke it was tho, as I gesse;
For eleven foot, or litel more or lesse,
My shadwe was at thilke tyme, as there,
Of swich feet as my lengthe parted were
In six feet equal of proportion. (1-9)

 My own interaction with sun and mist and
flowers at the base of Gullfloss
With the shift from host to Geoffrey, we also get a more personal interaction with the landscape, as the calculations are made not in terms of trees, but in terms of his own shadow. As before, the landscape is vague and general, and yet it is nonetheless there, and both time and tale-telling are defined by it. And the implications of sun and shadow must be clearly evident, since the host responds to them even as Geoffrey tells us about them. The narrator explains that it is because of the telling length and angle of the shadows that the host addresses the pilgrims:

                      … 'Lordings everichoon,
Now lakketh us no tales mo than oon.
Fulfild is my sentence and my decree;
I trowe that we han herd of ech degree.
Almost fulfild is al myn ordinaunce.' (15-19)

The tale-telling is meant to accompany the trip to Canterbury, so the idea that all but one pilgrim has told a tale and that the host’s ordinance is almost fulfilled gives us a clear sense of movement. If this many tales has been told while riding along, they must have been getting somewhere. And again this knowledge of movement and this request for another tale comes from observations about the play of the sun on the world, details about their surroundings so clear that the host could speak up even as the narrator muses to us about his own shadow.

The Parson’s Tale that follows is, to put it mildly, different from the Man of Law’s. In response to the host’s invitation to give the company a fable, the parson retorts “Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me” (31). And not only is it not a fable, but it’s not even really a tale at all.  It’s more of a sermon. While the Man of Law, responding to a similar request from the host, sends us around the world with his narrative, the parson wants us to instead look inward and examine our souls for a different sort of pilgrimage. As he explains,

          And jhesu, for his grace, wit me sende
          To shewe yow the wey, in this viage,
          Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage
          That highte jerusalem celestial. (48-51)

The parson wants to achieve the perfect pilgrimage of celestial Jerusalem, which isn’t physical but is rather spiritual in nature. Even though tales like the Man of Law’s don’t
John's vision of Christ and heavenly Jerusalem, Revelation 21: 2-8
from Yates Thompson 10 f. 36
(Courtesy of the British Library)
directly relate to the voyage at hand, they’re still part of a shared game of tale-telling that is associated with the time it takes to get from one place in England to another. The Parson, on the other hand, yanks us out of the temporal realm and leads us to a kind of pilgrimage that is related to a Canterbury pilgrimage spiritually (at least ideally speaking – some pilgrims seem to have more spiritual reasons than others), but is distinct in more practical ways. As Helen Cooper notes, “The pathway of life is also the journey of life; life as quest” (68). We’re all moving from birth to death, and many hope that death will be followed by a pleasant afterlife. As the narrator in Pearl just can’t help but try to cross the river in his vision, it’s easy to mistake geographical movement as the way to achieve that ultimate pilgrimage, but the parson insistently reminds us that we must look inward and turn our minds to higher things. It is perhaps telling that a “tale” with so little connection to either narrative or location follows an extended musing on the visual cues of the passage of time.  We might long for the eternal, but in the meantime we’re stuck in the temporal realm.

As we read these moments where time and space rise to the surface of the Canterbury Tales’ frame narrative only to be followed by tales with an increasingly vague sense of physical locatedness, the connection in narrative between time and space becomes both apparent and richly complex. It is impossible to separate the one from the other, and yet neither is fixed. Whether we read a story or travel to Iceland or just sit and wait, things change. Time passes. The earth shifts, and landscapes are built and rebuilt. The simultaneously uncertain and sure movement of those pilgrims as they wend their way and tell there tales both removes us from time and space and reminds us that we can never escape them. Except, perhaps, in the afterlife.

Layers of lava rock look heavenly to me

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