Fascinating Chaucerian dead ends (Installment 1): Space Music, Horror Chauceriana

A basic fact of research is that you gather more data than you will end up using: and in literary-cultural research like ours, that involves a lot of chasing minor references and odd hunches. Chaucer’s particular status as a figure who is Canonical, reasonably widely known of, but nowhere near as commonly read or adapted as, say, Shakesepeare means there are quite a lot of stray references out there! I’ve posted to Twitter before about Garth Greenwell’s fascinating and recurrent citing of Chaucer vis-a-vis sex writing as literature.

Here are two odd Chaucerian references we’ve found – this was supposed to be a post of three, but let’s be honest, I (Amy) will never stop being fascinated by weird Chaucerian references and I’ve found another one just this week. Expect an occasional series!

Cover of Robert Charles Wilson's SpinChaucerian Space Music: in Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor, 2005).

Kristen found this one, and sent it to me, last year – I think even before her actual start date. Spin is a futuristic sci-fi novel that won the Hugo in 2006. It involves time manipulation, Martian colonisation, experiments on cattle, and frankly seems quite baffling from the Wikipedia summary. Somewhere in there, apparently, the protagonist attends a concert where ‘The songs, Ina explained, were about love, marriage, fate, disappointment, sex. Lots of sex, couched in metaphors Chaucer would have appreciated’.

In order for this reference to work, we require three things:

  • Contemporary readers must have a vague idea who Chaucer is. No actual reading of Chaucer is necessary, just reputational knowledge.
  • We need to accept that in the future Chaucer will still be read, by enough people for the reputation to remain.
  • That reputation in both cases needs to be a reputation for writing about sex. And, interestingly, not for writing frankly (as Greenwell puts it) about sex, but in metaphors!

think the assumption here is that the metaphors are either funny, or lurid, but I genuinely can’t tell which, and music wasn’t described in any greater detail. It’s possible the metaphors are delicate and moving, and I only think they’re lurid and humourous because that’s what I like about Chaucer.

What I like about this is that it is somehow located bang smack in the intersection of our interests – it relies on Chaucer being both canonical and obscene – and almost empty of meaning!

Fanart - The Boneturner's Tale

Free fanart wallpaper by Dragonsatplay

The Boneturner’s Tale: The Magnus Archives (Rusty Quill, 2016)

Candace Barrington, in American Chaucers, describes how when she mentions her work on Chaucer, non-specialists will quote part of the Canterbury Tales or otherwise show off their knowledge. She reads that as a desire to establish their social capital, and to impress her / show respect for her as a professor.

Now, I definitely have had people respond to my description of my postdoc by dropping names of pilgrims to demonstrate that they know what I’m talking about. But I don’t think they’re mostly trying to impress me. I often have the impression, outside of humanities scholars, that those who care about cultural capital are demonstrating that they have Enough of That Capital, thank you, from school or undergrad, and that further study in Chaucer (and those who pursue it) is a bit weird.

Much more fun are references that come from people wholly unaware that Chaucer is supposed to freight cultural capital at all. One of these came from the person I met in 2019 in Australia whose response was ‘The Canterbury Tales? They’re mentioned in The Magnus Archives! Here’s the episode. Is there anything significant about which pilgrims are named? Is there something obscene I missed?’

The Magnus Archives is a horror fiction anthology podcast (which just wrapped up – no spoilers!) involving the archives of the ‘Magnus Institute’, dedicated to recording supernatural events in the UK and some abroad. Mag 17, The Boneturner’s Tale, is told as a first-person account by a suburban London librarian, who finds a mysterious book in the returns chute. This book contains ‘The Boneturner’s Tale’, a narrative describing someone, The Boneturner, stalking the Canterbury Pilgrims en route to Kent. It is specified that the tale is in modern English, and so not a ‘lost Chaucer tale’.

I tried to read The Boneturner’s Tale via the transcript, but being completely unfamiliar with the Magnus Archives or indeed horror anthology podcast as a genre, it made absolutely no sense to me: the best I could say was that there’s definitely nothing about obscenity involved here, and the naming of pilgrims seems random (and odd – specifically, it describes the Pardoner as staring too much at the nuns, which is not who I would have the Pardoner staring it, if I wanted to make a Chaucerian in-joke!). The whole thing bugged me, though, and that’s how I’m two series deep in TMA by now!

Although obscenity isn’t a factor here, Chaucerian cultural capital is. The first thing this reference does is establish the character, Sebastian Adekoya, as ‘the kind of person who knows about Chaucer’ – not just enough to recognise the ‘The X’s Tale’ formula, but enough to give a paragraph digression on the tale order and why the Tales are incomplete. It’s basic decent character work from Jonathan Sims – a character with an African name doesn’t get pigeonholed into a specific stereotype of story. It’s also, of course, establishing cultural capital for Sims, and delivering one of TMA’s key (at least, to me) distinguishing factors – it’s not just horror, it’s horror with regular digressions into obscure historical and cultural facts past and present. Sign me up (and then I will spend my time critiquing the series’ treatment of book history).

To be continued…

It’s no secret that I didn’t read much Chaucer in undergrad, and I only read The Canterbury Tales in full at the start of my PhD (checking for references to friendship). I’m fairly sure the first I ever heard of Chaucer was Paul Bettany in A Knight’s Tale, although there might have been a reference in Kevin Crossley Holland’s The World of King Arthur and His Court, or a Horrible Histories book at some point. And yet when I was given The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame in a third-year seminar, the concept of Chaucer wasn’t new to me. I had absorbed the idea of Chaucer.

I’m deeply, obsessively fascinated by this kind of cultural transmission, not just regarding Chaucer (don’t get me started on King Arthur. Or Spiderman. Or Jesus). It means people come to adaptations as a sort of ‘knowing audience’ (per Linda Hutcheon) without actually having read the original! In the case of Chaucer, this cultural diffusion involves both his reputation for courtly poetry and his obscenity, so expect to hear more from me on this.

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