Friday, June 20, 2008

Bathroom Monologue: Narration 2, OR, The Accidental Epilogue of the John's Tale

This one's a true story, no assuming ironic voices here - just assuming a Middle English voice. I took this class in Geoffrey Chaucer in college, partially because I thought we were going to find his corpse and huddle inside of it, and partially because he's one of the funniest writers to get admitted to the English canon. Comedy is sorely underrepresented in academia. We worked with a $100 hardcover that contained the original Middle English works of Chaucer, including every scrap of The Canterbury Tales that's excluded from lesser versions. There was no modern translation. We were forwarded to several scholarly websites to listen to clips and practice how the 'y' sounded when it followed an 'r' sound – this confederate consonant had at least four different vowel noises it could make given context. “He” sounded like “Hay,” and 'k' was only a silent letter when you thought it wasn't. You were expected to know how every vowel sounded naturally from the dialects of centuries ago, and to independently research the thousands of outdated words. Otherwise you wouldn't know what you'd just read for class.

This was particularly difficult for me, as I'd been calling him “Chow-sir” for the last decade. I'd even gotten his name wrong, and now we were reading aloud from his works every class, in proper pronunciation. To get even one syllable wrong meant the knowing gazes of your peers and public correction by the professor – a normally wonderful woman who hardened up on the spot, especially if you were still screwing up by Week 7. I was. I was mortified to learn we'd have to read a minimum of ten continuous lines aloud at the end of term, and that it would seriously effect our report.

I knew what I wanted to read, though. The accidental and untitled epilogue to The Pardoner's Tale, when he ended his didactic story and went straight into a sales pitch for fake relics and premium absolution. The “Hoste” got so pissed that he threatened to cut off the Pardoner's testicles and enshrine them in pig crap. Classic literature. The Knight (“Knyght,” or “kin-neecht”) had to step in and keep them from fighting. I loved it because it reminded me of photos of then-President Bill Clinton at Camp David with leaders of Palestine and Israel. He was taller and broader than both of them, and would put his arms around their shoulders, at once as though to make peace and to smilingly threaten to throttle the bastards if they weren't nice. A Jewish friend reproached me for besmirching the best time in Israeli-Palestinian relations. I put an arm around his shoulder.

In classic John Wiswell fashion, I decided to read the whole damned thing – some thirty or forty lines where ten were acceptable. Not that I could read one line properly. But I had to redeem myself – God holpen, to get a Pardon. I returned to the scholarly websites and listened to each vowel and special pronunciation over and over again, then began translating the page from Middle English to phonetic. It took to 1:00 AM, and then I got to practicing, ten lines at a go. I got up early every day that week, and made sure to go to bed late. For an hour I could do anything – play a videogame, watch anime, stare at the clouds, but every five minutes I would have to glance at the phonetic translation and read the first ten lines I saw aloud. By Wednesday I was glancing at the Middle English manuscript and doing the same. By Thursday I was going a little nuts, and started to put personality into the Pardoner, Hoost and Knyght. The Pardoner had showmanship, and the Hoost somehow became a stereotypical Italian. Doing a bad Italian accent in modern English is offensive, but especially at 7:30 AM, a bad Italian accent in a Middle English threat to cut off your testicles is hilarious. To this day I will screech, “shul be shryned in an hogges toord” for no apparent reason.

The brave Knyght sounded a little Russian, though his syllables were technically sound.

I remember three things from my recital. I remember the professor exclaiming, “Oh God!” when she realized I wasn't stopping at the end of the first stanza. I remember my Jewish friend laughing and asking how I'd fit Latin in there. And I remember receiving the only round of applause of anyone the entire semester. One out of three isn't bad. The Knyght was my favorite.

I still love Geoffrey Chaucer. He's undeniably one of the greats in our language, profane beyond belief back before profanity was overdone, and a deep thinker of nuanced characters who could make each of dozens of tales questionable and interpretable. I wrote a modernization of his Monk's Tale, wherein his Monk delivered awful Cliff's Notes versions of classic stories like the fall of Satan and the death of Achilles. Mine took a pick-axe to nearly a hundred pieces of classic literature, from Ovid's Metamorphoses to Kafka's Metamorphosis. The Canterbury Tales was included. It was all to express my deep admiration for Chaucer. I still get his name wrong, though.

Heere is ended The John's Tale.


  1. "Chow-daaair? Its CHOWDA!" ...too much simpsons for me. Cute post!

  2. Witty and informative! ...I've never read any of his works. But I get hiow to pronounce his name now!

  3. I really love this post, Johnny, thank you. I call him Chow-sir,or Chaw-sir, what is it supposed to be?

  4. It's supposed to be "chaw-sir." I'm still out there on the pronunciation of a lot of names because most of my advanced reading as a kid and teenager was unsupervised, and so I didn't have anyone telling me the proper way to pronounce names. I once got in a fight with six people at the Bennington cafeteria over "chaw-sir." It was great when people at other tables got pissed at me and joined in.

    And it's not too much Simpsons. During that same fight I channeled Mayor Quimby.


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