Superman at Canterbury?

January 17, 2010

Was Thomas Beckett, murdered archbishop of England, a Nietzschean Superman?

Despite my raging Anglo-philia of boyhood, I never saw Beckett (1964) with Peter O’Toole as HenryII, and Burton as Thomas Beckett, his Chancellor, and then archbishop of Canterbury.  Based on Jean Anouilh’s play, it is the story of an intense friendship between two men who understand power a little differently.  King Henry, a bit of a spoiled child and also a lonely soul, rages at the stuffy imbecility of his courtiers, but he takes his royal job seriously, and he has no intention of ceding royal power to anyone.  Nay, he wishes to increase it.  Beckett, his friend, his servant, then his chancellor, seems to be happy to go along for the ride, the food, the girls, but he knows that he has a tiger by the tail, and he knows how to keep himself safe when he is so close to the live wire of absolute power.

Then Henry makes a mistake – he makes Beckett the head primate of the Church in England, thinking he will then rule heaven and earth, with his friend a pliable and cooperative bishop.  Beckett is transformed by his new position, and finds the higher vocation that has eluded him thus far – he commits himself to the defense of churchly principle against secular power, driving his former companion to his wits’ end.

This was a central conflict played out during the Middle Ages again and again:  sometimes the brute kings won, as when the French king kidnapped the pope and dragged him off to ‘Babylonian’ captivity in Avignon, bringing on the Great Schism; and sometimes the Popes won, as when Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to waiting in the snow at the door of the papal palace in Canossa.  The State lost this round – Henry’s thuggish courtiers murdered Thomas while at services, thinking they were doing the king’s bidding.  Henry did severe penance, Beckett was quickly made a full-blown saint.

Both characters in the play are motivated by the ‘will to power,’ and their different allegiances.  Henry is left to rule the miserable earthly realm, while Thomas, standing tall while he is murdered without resistance, triumphs in true Nietzschean-Jesus fashion, over the pigs who think they can really kill him.  His person becomes venerated, and he casts his spell for centuries over England and its kings.  Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have gotten the Canterbury Tales!  He knows what he’s about:  His last words as he dies are, “Poor Henry…”

Of course, when one thinks of Richard Burton, one cannot help thinking of his on again, off again mate, Elizabeth Taylor.  As a very young boy, I asked my mother who was Elizabeth Taylor, and was told, “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”  Well, maybe so…

Finally, back to Chaucer, Beckett, and Canterbury, sort of…  I post here what I think is the most hilarious pastiche from an amazing book, The Holy Tango of Literature.  (Earlier post here and the text online here.)

CARRY HUGE COFFEE
anagram of GEOFFREY CHAUCER

In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

Now to this citie in a languor stukke,
Came a fair knyght cleped Sterrebukke,
Beryng benes from a forein land
Ygrounde to a poudre in his hand,
From which a potent brew could he deryve
That causeth wery peple to revyve.
Whan word aboute his draghte hadde sprede,
To his shoppe the custumers al spedde
Til everich veine felte a rush of blood,
With humours boyed upward by that flood.
Soone men who herd the crowyng cok
Wolde rise withoute cursyng at the clok,
The thoughte of facyng daylight not so bleke
With coffey bryngyng roses to the cheke
And helpyng them to holde their swords alofte
And shethe them before they falle softe.

Sterrebukke so bygan to thynke
Of other ways to selle the same drynke.
With stemed milk and sprenkled cynamone,
’Twas fit, he sayde, for kynges on the throne;
The capuchino joyned thus his wares,
As wel as mocas, sweter than eclares,
And lattes riche in creme, ofte fresen
And beten to a froth in sumer seson,
And tall espressos armured with cappes
To stoppen scaldyng spilles into lappes
As may hap when one is in a hurry
Upon a pilgrymage to Caunterbury.


Sex in a tree…

October 24, 2009

chaucer portrait merchants tale

…how can that be?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but surely he wouldn’t have objected to being confused with Geoffrey Chaucer.   I’m thinking of  Hop on Pop’s line, “three fish in a tree?”  The Merchant’s Tale involves exactly that, in a tree. Sex, that is.

I haven’t read Chaucer since college, but I picked up a copy of The Canterbury Tales in a bookstore, and was enthralled.  The Middle English takes a while to get used to, you can’t get every word, and I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the rhythm of it carries you along nevertheless.  The edition I bought has the most obscure words glossed in the margin, and the hardest phrases explained at the page’s foot so you don’t have to be flipping to a glossary in the back all the time.  The link above is to an interlinear translation, but I find that annoying to read.

Oh yeah, back to the sex, er…the story.  The pilgrims tell stories to pass the time on the way to Canterbury.  The merchant tells one about a rich old man, January, who finally decides to get married.  Of course, he is set on marrying a young and pretty woman, and he takes the time to find just the right one, named May.  She consents – that’s the way things worked in those days.  It’s not all that clear just how well the old guy performs in bed with his well formed young wife.

Things being what they were, and are, she and a young man in the household develop some feeling for one another.  The old man goes blind, but he keeps up his favorite custom of making love to his wife al fresco in his walled garden with a gate.  Nobody there but the two of them,

And May his wyf, and no wight but they two;
And thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde,
He in the gardyn parfourned hem and spedde.

and they did things there that they didn’t do in bed.

The girl and her lover get a copy of the key to the garden, and the next time she goes there with the old man, the young one is waiting in the tree’s branches.  The tree is a fruit tree, a pear tree.  January, May.  A walled garden with a fruit tree, Eden and the apple (or was it a pear) tree?  A blind man, without knowledge of his wife’s adultery.  But they will eat of the tree.

The girl says she absolutely must have some pears, and the old man curses the absence of his servants to fetch her some.  She has an idea – he bends down and she steps on his back and climbs up into the branches to get the fruit.  Yes, she gets the fruit all right.  Up in the tree, her love is waiting, and he

Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.

In case you missed it, throng is the past participle of thrust. Once again, the tree of knowledge has brought its bitter fruit to bear on man.  I wonder also if this is an allusion to a famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions in which he recounts his youthful sin of stealing pears from a neighbors orchard.  And the image of a woman stepping on an old man’s back calls to mind another medieval image of man humiliated by woman.

Meanwhile, Pluto and Prosperine are observing the entire business from a corner of the garden.  Pluto vows that if May cheats on January, he will give the old man his sight back.  He wants men to be able to see the evil things woman do to them.  Prosperine, his wife, scoffs at his male chauvinist drivel, and sticks up for women.  If Pluto gives him his sight back, she will make sure that May can talk her way out the impasse.

January gets his sight – the scales drop from his eyes? – and he is infuriated.  May is ready with an answer.  You didn’t see what you think you saw.  After being blind for so long, it takes a while to get used to sight again.  You’re confused.  Really, you should thank me for being up here wrestling with this man – that’s what cured you!  I was told that is the way to restore your sight!

Nothing doing, cries January!

He swyved thee; I saugh it with myne yen,
And elles be I hanged by the hals!”
[He screwed thee; I saw it with my eyes
And else may I be hanged by the neck!]

May is a quick-witted girl.  She replies that if this is what he saw, then her cure wasn’t as good as she had thought.  Obviously, he still has vision problems.

So there we have it.  A little sex farce set in a modern (for then) Eden.  Woman tempts man again, the tree of kowledge brings sight, but having knowledge isn’t such a great thing all the time. Or do we really have the knowledge we think we do?