Robert W. Barrett, Jr.

title.none: Saunders, ed., Concise Companion to Chaucer (Robert W. Barrett, Jr.)

identifier.other: baj9928.0704.013 07.04.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert W. Barrett, Jr., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Saunders, Corinne, ed. A Concise Companion to Chaucer. Blackwell Concise Companions to Literature and Culture. Maldon, VA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp. xii, 292. ISBN: $34.95 (pb) 1-4051-1388-X (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.04.13

Saunders, Corinne, ed. A Concise Companion to Chaucer. Blackwell Concise Companions to Literature and Culture. Maldon, VA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp. xii, 292. ISBN: $34.95 (pb) 1-4051-1388-X (pb).

Reviewed by:

Robert W. Barrett, Jr.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Edited by Corinne Saunders, Blackwell Publishing's Concise Companion to Chaucer is the latest entry in the crowded field of introductions to Chaucer and his works. Saunders testifies to this fact with her generous inclusion of a list of her chief competitors at the end of her introduction. Moreover, three of those competitors are published by Blackwell: Saunders notes that the Concise Companion occupies a place on the publisher's list between Peter Brown's encyclopedic Companion to Chaucer and her own Chaucer (a survey of criticism), while her list of Chaucer guides includes John Hirsh's Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales: A Short Introduction. The Concise Companion differentiates itself from the other Blackwell guides by providing its readers with a set of entirely new essays covering the entirety of Chaucer's oeuvre. (Focusing on the works separates the Concise Companion from Brown's thematically-organized Companion; commissioning new essays distinguishes the book from the extracts given in Saunders' Chaucer; and looking at all of the works complements Hirsh's Tales-specific analysis.)

The thirteen essays included in the Concise Companion are all cross-referenced with one another and accompanied by essay-specific bibliographies. They are also divided into five groups: "Chaucer in Context," "Dream Visions," "Troilus and Criseyde," "The Canterbury Tales," and "The Sound of Chaucer." I will review each of these sections in turn, concentrating on the essays in and of themselves--i.e., without any reference to similar essays in other Chaucer guides. Such comparison is beyond the scope of this review: I prefer to let Saunders' volume speak for itself.

The contexts analyzed in the first part of the Concise Companion are threefold: Marion Turner looks at "Politics and London Life," Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards consider "Manuscripts and Audience," and R. F. Yeager examines "Books and Authority." Turner begins her essay with an analysis of Chaucer's deliberate refraction of contemporary politics, one couched in the polyphonic registers of court and city, and then turns to an account of those moments in Chaucer's poetry when London comes into view. She ends with a short discussion of Chaucer's social circle, identifying its various members' connections to the city. The result is a substantial essay that is perfectly intelligible to the undergraduate readers who will be its most likely audience. Boffey and Edwards approach the question of Chaucer's contemporary reception through the manuscripts of his works, openly confronting the problem of the gap between Chaucer's life and the inscription of his poems. Their history of the Chaucerian manuscript matrix is top-notch: they address scribal production, coterie publication, rolling revision, compilatio, provenance, and annotation in clear and lucid detail. "Manuscripts and Audience" is one essay I will definitely be assigning to my Chaucer students. In the final piece of the section, Yeager looks at Chaucer's reading instead of his readers. He then effortlessly segues from the specific texts Chaucer may have read to the poet's overall struggle with Latinate auctoritas. Yeager singles out Chaucer's encounter with the Italian works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio as a key stage in his realization that he could honor auctoritas "while simultaneously asserting a claim upon a rightful heir acknowledges a benefactor" (62). The one regret I have about Yeager's chapter is his decision to omit any discussion of the Tales and their exploration of auctoritas--he ends the second phase of his analysis with Troilus.

The section of the Concise Companion devoted to the dream poems contains two chapters: Steven F. Kruger's "Dreaming" and Barry Windeatt's "Courtly Writing." Kruger introduces readers to the dream theories of Macrobius, Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great, not to pigeonhole Chaucer's poems into the categories of one auctor or another, but to demonstrate a common late antique and medieval concern with problems of hermeneutics. Kruger identifies a similar concentration on interpretation and metafiction in Chaucer's dreams and then goes on to stress the poems' interest in "not just personal or psychological concerns but also more philosophical, even theological, questions" (81). His readings of the dream visions are deliberately suggestive, stressing their open-endedness. Windeatt hits a similar note in his account of the courtly sources for the visions: he shows how Chaucer splices together elements from the French courtly tradition, turning such fragments to his own purposes and thus generating original poems instead of pastiches. These reimaginings of Machaut and company are augmented by a sensitive reading of the poems' negotiation of specific courtly situations and spaces.

The third section of Saunders' collection includes three chapters on Troilus: Andrew Lynch's "Love in Wartime: Troilus and Criseyde as Trojan History," Saunders' own "Love and the Making of the Self: Troilus and Criseyde," and Norm Klassen's "Tragedy and Romance in Chaucer's 'Litel Bok' of Troilus and Criseyde." Saunders' essay is a solid piece, laying out the post-medieval history of amour courtois as a scholary concept and demonstrating a Chaucerian conflict between irrational, destructive passion and rational, ennobling love. But the Troilus portion of the Concise Companion is dominated by the essays of Lynch and Klassen. Lynch expertly summarizes the Trojan literary tradition en route to an account of Chaucer's deliberate detour away from the public, epic aspects of that tradition in favor of its more private, romance elements. Klassen takes a Williamsesque "keywords" approach to Troilus, exploring the poem's meditations on "double," "tragedye," "romaunce," and "litel." He plays romance's dilatory openness off of tragedy's teleologic finality, establishing an intricate dialectic characterized by the poem's "litel" investment in "a zone of possibilities, the compression but not the cancellation of differences" (174). Klassen's essay will be tough-going for many undergraduate readers, but its sophistication merits the extra attention the piece will require.

The Tales section of the Companion falls into four parts: Judith Ferster's "Genre in and of the Canterbury Tales," Richard Firth Green's "Morality and Immorality," Neil Cartlidge's "Marriage, Sexuality and the Family," and John C. Hirsh's "Christianity and the Church." Fester examines genre at multiple levels, reading the Tales as a collection and individual tales as specific generic exemplars. In each case, she finds a characteristic "generic wobble" (190), one she attributes not only to the inherent instability of genre as a hermeneutic concept but also to Chaucer's deliberate refusal to fit distinct categories. Less straightforward but perhaps ultimately more rewarding to those Chaucer teachers who might make use of the Concise Companion are the essays of Green, Cartlidge, and Hirsh. Each writer supplements a student-directed account of key medieval discourses with an ambitious meditation on one aspect of those discourses: Green juxtaposes what he calls the "ideological discourse" of the Seven Deadly Sins with the "hegemonic discourse" of trouthe (214), Cartlidge adds a focus on fatherhood to an account of sexualities and genders in the Tales, and Hirsh complements his reading of Chaucer's ecclesiastical contexts with an exploration of the part that the theo- philosophical "Common Good" plays in the work. Like Klassen's Troilus essay, these three pieces challenge student readers-- but once again the effort to fully comprehend them is worthwhile.

The Concise Companion ends with David Fuller's "Reading Chaucer Aloud." I will break the rule I established at the beginning of this review to note that Fuller's piece is the first essay in a Chaucer companion (that I know of) to emphasize issues of performance and pronunciation. It is therefore welcome for that groundbreaking reason alone. Considered in and of itself, the chapter does an excellent job of laying out the cases for both modern and reconstructed pronunciation. Fuller is also careful to pace his argument slowly, beginning with some general observations on rhythm, syntax, pace, voice, and memory-performance guidelines that would benefit students reciting English poetry of any period. The one misstep in Fuller's essay is his decision to include Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 Canterbury Tales in a survey of modern recordings of Chaucerian verse: I'm not sure what an Italian-language film has to tell us about the declamation of Middle English.

Overall, I find the Concise Companion to be a useful adjunct to the teaching of Chaucer. As I note above, the book's most ambitious chapters ask more of the undergraduate reader than do those dedicated to summation of the current status quo in Chaucerian studies. Teachers may need to devote additional class time to the former group of pieces. At the same time, I have to admire the volume for challenging its readers: the danger in perusing a companion to an author is seeing the same material considered in roughly the same way yet again. The bulk of the essays in Saunders' volume avoid that trap, adding to our knowledge of Chaucer even as they guide us through his works.