The Medieval Review 13.09.44

Pugh, Tison. An Introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. Pp. xviii, 251. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-8130-4424-8 . . .

Reviewed by:

Robert J. Meyer-Lee
Indiana University, South Bend

As anyone who has surveyed available auxiliary Chaucer texts knows, they comprise very much a buyer's market: there are introductions, guides, historical and literary companions, encyclopedias, name dictionaries, critical casebooks, and historical and literary sourcebooks; there are volumes covering Chaucer's entire corpus and those focused on individual works; and there are texts suitable for first-time high school readers up through research specialists. There is, in short, a text for almost every need, and hence a primary consideration when evaluating a new one is what particular niche it fills. With the volume under review, Tison Pugh (author and editor of thoughtful, stimulating studies of queerness and masculinity in medieval literature, medievalism, and, most recently, children's literature) offers an introduction to Chaucer that is both comprehensive and very basic. It is thus suitable, as Pugh indicates in his preface, for readers with little or no experience with Chaucer or other medieval literature who require a broad but brief guide to the poet's oeuvre--particularly, say, for the novice reader who wishes to acquaint herself with a fuller range of Chaucer's works than that covered on the typical undergraduate syllabus. Such readers will find the book valuable, although--because Pugh has so scrupulously avoided most kinds of critical complexity--the book is less likely than some other introductions to appeal also to more experienced readers. Moreover, the book's organization, as sensible as it appears (and however much determined by the guidelines of the series), has the effect of isolating context from content and consequently places some obstacles in the way of its intended purpose of giving novice readers a sense of the richness of Chaucer's writing.

The book's main text is apportioned among three chapters, devoted respectively to biography and historical context; literary works; and intertexts and reception. These chapters comprise 190 pages, around which are an ample set of apparatuses: a chronology, a glossary, a pronunciation guide, a high-frequency word list, detailed plot outlines to Troilus and Criseyde and the Canterbury Tales, notes (largely bibliographical), a suggested book list organized by category, and an index.

The first chapter is quite short, totaling a mere eight pages, and hence does not provide much beyond the biographical and historical information supplied by most Chaucer editions or even British literature anthologies. It is serviceable in its brevity, although instructors who emphasize, say, the political context of Chaucer's writing may be dismayed at the reduction of the troubles of Richard II's kingship to the statement, "After a reign filled with court intrigues, Richard II was deposed in 1399 and died in 1400" (5). Also, some of the chapter's details could have been sharpened. For example, the term raptus, in its specific usage in the Cecily Chaumpaigne release, does not seem in Chaucer's day to have carried the ambiguity that Pugh indicates, and it is surely an overstatement to suggest that there exists a "general assumption" (2) that Chaucer studied law at the Inns of Court, as Speght's secondhand report attests.

The second chapter, at 132 pages, dwarfs the other two, and thus forms the bulk of this introduction to Chaucer, with the other two chapters playing ancillary roles. Over half of this chapter's pages are devoted to the Canterbury Tales alone, yet Pugh dutifully gives considered attention to every text that appears in the Riverside Chaucer, managing a paragraph for even such generally passed over minor poems as "To Rosemounde." The advantage of this comprehensiveness is that it provides in a relatively short space a lucid appreciation for the scope and variety of Chaucer's writings, as well as a sense of the characteristic concerns that run through them. However, as they are largely cordoned off by the book's organization from the history and intertexts that animate and complicate these writings, this chapter's accounts of Chaucer's works--while always relayed in an infectiously appreciative, lively prose--are consequently somewhat impoverished, at times even approaching straightforward summary. Thus, for example, the complex and interpretively foundational intertextual dimensions of works like the Book of the Duchess and the House of Fame receive only very brief notice in these pages, with further discussion of figures like Machaut and Dante delayed until the following chapter.

This problem is compounded by the theoretical and critical restraint that Pugh more-or-less steadfastly maintains throughout the volume. Pugh has severely limited incorporation of the theoretical approach of his scholarly work on Chaucer (although this approach is well reflected in the list of selected readings), and he has generally avoided wading into the waters of specific debates, preferring instead just occasionally to note points of ambiguity and disagreement (as for example in his understated comments about Chaucer's "ironic stance" [33] toward the female protagonists in the Legend of Good Women). Rather than turning to queer theory as a focusing lens for his comments on each work, Pugh makes use of genre theory for this purpose. While this is a wholly understandable decision for the aims of this volume, the basic version of genre theory that Pugh uses--largely shorn of other theory and historical and intertextual contexts--does not strongly beckon excursions into the thematic profundity of Chaucer's writing that for many is the stronger basis of the poet's appeal.

Moreover, Pugh oddly does not tend to provide in this chapter detailed explanations of the generic norms with and against which Chaucer was writing. And when he does provide such explanations, they sometimes occur far after the norm's initial mention (as with the explanation of "Boethian tragedy," which occurs on p. 111 after its initial mention on p. 34). To be sure, Pugh supplies fuller definitions of key generic terms in the glossary, yet he has not marked these terms in the text (such as by an asterisk or italics) to indicate the presence of corresponding glossary definitions. As a result, the book's novice readers, unless they read the glossary ahead of time (as Pugh in fact suggests in his preface) and then remember it, may find some of the commentary on genre confusing, despite its introductory nature.

Notwithstanding these self-imposed obstacles, in this second chapter Pugh nonetheless frequently offers commentary that, while critically pared down, eloquently conveys some of the complexities of Chaucer's fictions. About the Knight's Tale, for example, Pugh succinctly writes, "Love's power to inspire is coupled with love's power to destroy, and its double edge undermines efforts to read the Knight's Tale as a straightforward homage to romance values" (58). Other similarly compact comments, however, may prompt some unease from more experienced readers, who may find them interpretively problematic (as for example the description of Allen's sexual aggression in the Reeve's Tale as "frisky adventuring" [67]) or terminologically imprecise (as when Pugh explains the "multigeneric" nature of the Book of the Duchess by its use of "the tropes of blazon, lyric, and romance" [15]). Furthermore, almost entirely absent are considerations of the textual issues that most affect interpretation, such as the uncertain authority of some elements of the Canterbury Tales, especially those pertaining to the work's structure. Thus for example on more than one occasion Pugh refers to the interrupting speaker in the Man of Law's Endlink as the Shipman, without supplying any hint about how contested (indeed, unlikely) that identification is.

The material in the third chapter is divided between "sources" and "influences," with the first section subdivided by category of source (classical, biblical, French, and Italian), and the second section subdivided by era (from Chaucer's contemporaries through Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale). Such a wide-ranging survey cannot, obviously, do much more than offer, in most instances, a brief description of the nature and significance of each source or influence, although I found the section on biblical sources helpfully nuanced in its comments about the multifaceted and often ambiguous functions of Chaucer's biblical allusions. The parceling of sources among categories, while a typical strategy of such catalogs, somewhat further compounds the organizational problem mentioned above, since to find all the intertexts relevant to, say, just the House of Fame, a novice reader would have to scour the whole section. And in regard to the chapter's account of influences: while I grant that some novice readers may find this the most intriguing section of the book, I have doubts about its utility for such an introductory volume. Pugh does not attempt to make the case here that the reception of Chaucer is a crucial part of our understanding of Chaucer's texts themselves, and, without this kind of argument, accounts of adaptations by figures like Wordsworth and Pope seem irrelevant to the purpose of helping novices read Chaucer. Thus they take up space better devoted to, say, more detailed discussion of intertexts. (There are, in addition, some notable omissions and errors in this chapter: for example, Pugh does not clarify that Petrarch is Chaucer's principal source for the Clerk's Tale, and he mistakenly refers to Thomas Usk as "mayor of London" [174]. Moreover, since Usk was executed in 1388, it is no way surprising that he "overlooks the ribald tales of such pilgrims as the Miller and Reeve" [175], which were most likely not yet written.)

In sum, this introduction to Chaucer generally fulfills its aim of providing a comprehensive account of Chaucer's corpus for novice readers. Although some organizational changes would have made it easier to use, Pugh--by including such features as a pronunciation guide (one of the most efficient and clearest versions of this that I have encountered) with a line-by-line summary of Chaucer's longest works--supplies in a single, relatively short, medium-priced volume much of what novice readers may require to explore Chaucer on their own. An unabashed cheerleader for Chaucer's poetic genius from the first sentence through the last, Pugh shares his enthusiasm with wit and verve. Yet his critical and theoretical restraint will also mean that the book's intended audience will likely quickly outgrow it in many respects--which perhaps is this volume's very point.