The House of Fame: Read from August 26 to September 1, 2018

Book 3:

The construction of the house of fame is quite remarkable and a work of creative genius. First of all it’s a perversion of Dante’s Paradise in that instead of a loving, benevolent God rewarding all the faithful with eternal life, the court at the House of Fame, rather than worshiping their God only beg for recognition and favor and in turn she is totally arbitrary in whom she meets out rewards. Earlier I noticed how Chaucer might be playing with the idea of showy, intoned prayer being no better than a fart and I think this is what he sees as the result. He seems to be explaining what happens to people who are to focused on being showy than on actually doing the hard work. This makes line 1100 funny because he doesn’t want to show off his craft / skill as a poet, he just wants to make one moral point, but he doesn’t know what that point is and so he needs Apollo’s help to guide him.

One has to wonder what had happened to Chaucer to cause him to write this poem. Line 1887 says he is looking for new material to set him apart from the old masters, and line 2129 describes a scene that could be straight out of his day job counting and verifying shipments of goodness knows what. Perhaps he was wondering if this is all his life would ever be knowing full well he had the talent to be a great poet yet felt stuck in a world that only recognized the unworthy, or at best arbitrarily handed out fortunes. Perhaps he had even been caught up in some slander (which translates here to scandal) and he bemoans when in the wicker rumor mill he sees truth and lies joined together in such a way as to make them indistinguishable?

Whatever his reasons, he does make some wonderful observations on the nature of fame and how petty gossip is and how the whole idea of fame is built upon an unsteady foundation. Even the material of the castle, beryl, is interesting in that while it magnifies, it also discolors so that one never gets a true representation of the thing being examined. He’s saying that the old masters whose pillars make up this castle, when you really look at them, are not what they seem to be and they even argue and bicker among each other.

Of course we can’t ignore the sexism latent in what he’s writing by turning Dante’s male God of Paradise into a fickle female. Yet when we consider how differently romance works compared to epic, in that in romance no man is complete without a lady (in epic the woman impedes the male hero), he is making fun of this trope too. He sees not just the flaws of epic, but also of romance and he’s not shy to make fun of it.