Unknowing Readers Reading Rape: A Brief Look at Children’s Versions of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale
Guest Post by Lucy Fleming, University of Oxford
Content warning: This post contains discussion of sexual violence.
When I tell people that I work on children’s Chaucer, I tend to get one of two responses. The first is ‘ah, of course’—people recall having read the Canterbury Tales in school, often in an abridged or translated version, and they joke about the way Chaucer’s toilet humour must really appeal to kids these days. The second response, though, is more of a ‘yikes’: Fart jokes, sure, but what about all the violence, the torture and death of children? What about the whole ‘sex in a tree’ episode? What about the rape?
In short: those are my questions too!
Let’s take the last one. One place to start is the Wife of Bath’s Tale, which concerns an errant knight who commits a crime and, as punishment, must discover what women most desire. Its Arthurian setting made it a favourite with nationalistic British adaptors in the late nineteenth century, and it’s remained popular in recent decades thanks to its bombastic narrator, who has become something of a feminist icon (see Barrington 2009). And at first glance, the Tale is a natural choice for children’s adaptors: it’s got knights, fairies, quests, and a happy ending. The challenge stems largely from the incident that sets off the quest. In Chaucer’s text, the knight’s crime is unquestionable rape.
I was initially shocked to find that, of the Canterbury Tales that contain references to rape, the Wife of Bath’s Tale is both the most explicit and the most popular for children’s adaptation. It’s been adapted at least 24 times, and appears in eighty percent of children’s Chaucer anthologies. Why it’s such a hit is a longer story, but for now, I’ll focus on a textual question: How does children’s adaptation get away with it?
There are two major strategies that adaptors have used in the nearly 200 years since Charles Cowden Clarke’s Tales from Chaucer appeared in 1833. First, there’s obfuscation—avoiding describing the knight’s crime, while not explicitly offering an alternative. Clarke, in fact, does this, writing that
a handsome and vigorous young bachelor knight…saw before him a young maiden, whom in a transport of wilfulness and brutality he ill-treated. (Clarke 1833, 154)
While Clarke carefully obscures the sexual nature of the crime, his is what I term reflexive obfuscation. That is, the reader’s interpretation of the act is radically dependent on the reader’s own prior knowledge. Even without having read Chaucer’s original text, an adult reader in Clarke’s time or our own would not take much prompting to connect this ‘brutal…ill-treat[ment]’ of a young woman with the act of rape. Indeed, readers familiar with Chaucer’s text are uncomfortably aware of the gap between what we know Clarke is adapting and what his text, on its own, is able to convey. Adaptation theorist Linda Hutcheon has articulated this duality as that between the ‘knowing’ and ‘unknowing’ audience (2013, 120–127). Here, the knowing audience may be disturbed, but the unknowing audience may connect the knight’s crime with some other transgression. Meanwhile, the adaptor avoids any blatant substitution.
Some adaptors do, of course, opt for substitution: explicitly converting the rape into some lesser crime. For instance, the knight will often commit a form of theft such as ‘steal[ing] a kiss’ (e.g., McCaughrean 1984). In one case, the knight is even ‘seized with a desire for gold, and rob[s the maiden] of all she had’ (Johnson 1909, 85). Chaucer himself used a metaphor for theft to describe the rape (‘rafte hir maydenhed’ (III.888)); that theft here becomes literal.
Interestingly, these two techniques don’t show a clear temporal trend; an adaptor working in the last decade is just as likely to use obfuscation as one working in the 1880s. There is, however, a pattern when it comes to adaptors’ gender: while women adaptors are more common overall, they’re also much more likely to use obfuscation, while men are more likely to convert the crime to a lesser offence. We can speculate that adaptors who have lived as women may be more resistant to changing the knight’s crime altogether. Instead, they rely on reader reflexivity to keep the ‘truth’ of the story alive.
As a final example, we can consider Marcia Williams’ 2000 version, told as a comic strip framed by medievalesque marginal glosses.
Take a close look. Though the text merely notes the knight’s ‘great cruelty’, Williams accomplishes in images the same type of obfuscation as did Clarke 167 years before. Whether we see this moustachioed cartoon character as a mischievous prankster, a creep, or a rapist depends entirely on our reflexive reaction to the text: what we imagine happening in the gaps between the images on the page.
In some ways, children’s Chaucers give us examples of a fragile hermeneutic circle, where our interpretation is radically dependent on what we already know. But as a final note, there’s also an irony here: adapters attempting to mask the explicit rape in service of promoting Chaucer as a great poet end up exemplifying fairly intricate poetic strategies to cover up what is arguably Chaucer’s biggest innovation upon his own sources: the rape itself. Clearly, something needs to set the Tale in motion. But fundamentally, the techniques of obfuscation and conversion offer different ways of thinking about the function of the rape in Chaucer’s own text. Is it important that it be rape? Or is it replaceable with something else, something symbolic of the gravity or perhaps the physical or gendered nature of the crime?
Whether young readers have ever truly warmed to Chaucer is a matter of debate. What we can say is that these adaptations, whether didactic or rollicking, have much to tell us about the way society has imagined Chaucer, children, sexuality, and the currency of medieval literature. And there are lots more questions left.
Lucy Fleming is a DPhil candidate in English at New College, Oxford, writing on sexual poetics in children’s adaptations of Chaucer and Shakespeare. She holds a master’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Oxford.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer.
Cowden Clarke, Charles. Tales from Chaucer, in Prose. Designed Chiefly for the Use of Young Persons., 1st ed. (London: Effingham Wilson, 1833), 154.
Johnson, R. Brimley. Tales from Chaucer, Gowans’s Copyright Series 1 (London and Glasgow: Gowans & Gray, 1909), 85.
McCaughrean, Geraldine. The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Williams, Marcia. Here Bygynneth Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. London: Walker Books, 2007.
Barrington, Candace. “Retelling Chaucer’s Wife of Bath for Modern Children: Picture Books and Evolving Feminism.” In Sex and Sexuality in a Feminist World, edited by Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Katherine A. Hermes. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.
Hutcheon, Linda, and Siobhan O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2013).