Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Violating the Integrity of the A-Fragment

I'm on my two-course semester (here at Wheaton we alternately teach 3 and 2 courses), so life is supposed to be easier and, surprise, it actually is. Even though I have almost exactly the same number of students as I did last semester, the extra 3 hours free of class is a huge help thus far.

I'm teaching Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer (in Middle English), so it's language, language, language for a while. The Anglo-Saxon students still seem intimidated, which I'm hoping will be fixed soon, and the Chaucer students are already very into the text, arguing about the narrator, the characters, the interpretation of key passages... it's amazing and wonderful. I can't understand why anyone would pass up the opportunity to teach Chaucer. You have to spend a little time on the Middle English, but the rest of the course teaches itself. Explain a few things, set a bit of an agenda, and then step back and let the students dig into the text. There's so much great stuff in Chaucer, and he presents it in such a fun, stylish, clever way, that for me it never gets old.

By the way, I reject the idea (that was popular when I was in grad school) that the Canterbury Tales are boring and played out. That's all I teach for my Chaucer class, the whole CT (even Melibee, but not all the Parson) in Middle English. They do a little outside reading, and some do papers that compare CT material with some of the other poems, but they and I love the CT so much that it all just comes together. So much fun.

I do have one trick, which I'll share, though I'm supposed to hide my head in shame here: I break up the integrity of the A-Fragment (the horror!). Because the first tale after the General Prologue is the Knight's Tale, which is very long, difficult and confusing, I have them skip KnT. Why? Because when students are just learning Middle English, KnT is a horror: it takes so long at the speed they can read that either you spend three weeks on it, or you drive them crazy with so many hours of Middle English. So I skip right to the Miller's Tale and do the Knight at the end of the semester.

Does this work? Well, in my undergraduate class, taught by the great Peggy Knapp at Carnegie Mellon, we all hated the Knight's Tale despite the great battles, love interest, etc. I'm sure it wasn't due to the Tale itself, but to the steep learning curve of Middle English for novices. But when I teach KnT at the end of the semester, when they're all expert at ME, the students love it and consider it Chaucer's finest work and most beautiful tale (which it might be, though I love the Pardoner's Tale, in its setting, the most).

I've had a number of really good Chaucerians tell me that they are horrified that I break up the A-Fragment (More properly, Fragment I, Group A; the Canterbury Tales are organized in fragments; each fragment is made up of Tales that we know Chaucer intended to be in a certain order. So we know Chaucer intended General Prologue, Knight, Miller, Reeve, and Cook because there are internal links between the Tales. We can't be sure that Man of Law comes next, though most people agree. We know that Wife of Bath, Friar and Summoner go together, but we only infer that Clerk is supposed to come next). And I see where they're coming from: the Miller's Tale is a response to the Knight's Tale, where the Miller takes all the beautiful, chivalric romance that the Knight describes and says 'it's really all just about dirty, barnyard sex' (at least in many interpretations). If you don't read KnT, you don't have the references to Miller.

But my take is that students just don't understand KnT at that early stage of their Middle English reading. I'd rather they understood, even though they have to then retrospectively construct the Miller's 'quiting' of the Knight. But as far as I know, I'm the only person who does this, so maybe I'm playing too free and loose with Chaucer (after all, I'm not a real Chaucerian but an Anglo-Saxonist).

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