19 Mar


Smarter than the average medieval bloke… possibly!

An investigation into the intentions of the narrator in Chaucer’s  “Book of the Duchess


  In “The Book of the Duchess” the reader is presented with a duality of dream vision and cathartic intervention; a poetic, psychological discourse between the bumbling narrator of the poem and a strange, anomalous black knight. Of course the dream is dialogued and staged managed by its author and what at first appears to be merely an analogous tale of circumstance and coincidence contains instead a depth of meaning that would’ve undoubtedly been perceptible to John of Lancaster, for whom the poem was intended upon the anniversary of the death of his wife. The interactions between the dream figures are clinically developed to the point where the imagination and sympathies of the reader are juxtaposed by the alter-egos of the protagonists. Is it the narrator who’s being assisted by the lovelorn knight, or is the knight an allegory for the narrator’s own problems? Perhaps it goes even deeper and is instead an intimation of concern by its author for its recipient? The concept of dream reality is that anything is possible and all interpretations are valid. In this particular dream the subjectivity of the dreamer is secondary to the revealed truths. Although all the clues have been provided it’s for the reader to decide whose giving advice to whom, and for what reason; in short “cui bono?”  By analyzing the conversation of the dream figures we can justly surmise that the narrator is both the recipient of innate wisdom and a well-intentioned pretender with regard to the amorous dilemma of the knight. 

            The nature of dreams is such, that what’s impossible in the quotidian can easily occur within the construct of a dream reality. A nightly purgative where one is offered visions to help one tackle the difficulties of life; where the subconscious administers somnial wisdom to ease the cares and worries of the dreamer. The figure of the black knight within the somnium is an allegoric persona for the narrator’s own mortal concerns. It’s through the sadness of the knight that the narrator, upon awakening, is able to translate the experience and resolve his own issues via the medium of poetry. The encounter in the forest doesn’t appear to be pure chance and lends itself to the mediation of Lady Fortuna; her intervention allowing the dreamer to once again mount an ascending cycle. From the inept and troubled chronicler we meet at the beginning of the poem to the dexterous and adept interviewer who’s able to draw the knight from his reverie and illicit reasons for his melancholia, we discover a man capable of dexterous psychological machinations even if his apparent brilliance is the result of a dream. Although we’re led to believe that he doesn’t comprehend the knight’s sorrow, despite his heart wrenching confession of lost love, he manages to resolve the knight’s dilemma by coercing him into conversation with a play on stupidity and in so doing reveals to himself the nature of his own malaise. 

            The dream vision was a popular vehicle in medieval literature whereby the fantastic could be committed to paper without fear of accusations of heresy, treason or perhaps misinterpretation. After all, what was being realized was a dream that occurred not at the will of the dreamer but instead was the result of some mysterious sub-conscious revelation; therefore, the retelling of it could cause no offence. Popularized by the writings of authors such as Macrobius , dreams could be categorized into five distinct topics. The most important of the five were the oraculum, a dream containing a message, the visio, the prophetic dream and the somnium which was of psychological importance. The regimented characterization of dreams allowed one to translate their meanings and offer some pseudo-scientific commentary in order to explain them. “The Book of the Duchess” is a somnium where the narrator, our dreamer, falls into a deep sleep and is led through fantastic vistas of imaginative landscapes and ultimately to a man dressed in black armor; a knight sitting alone in a forest contemplating suicide. The somnium therefore offers insight to the dreamers mind, allowing him to draw the necessary conclusions and correct accordingly. 

            The medieval idea of fortune’s wheel also plays a significant role in the dream and is significant for both the knight and the narrator. When we first encounter the narrator he’s sick and unable to sleep, believing himself close to death. Clearly he’s reached his human limit and without some form of divine intervention sees little hope in extended life; a direct allusion to the complaint of the knight. Through the retelling of the story the narrator is able to regain his vitality and his ability to sleep, as evidenced by the poem itself. Having fallen asleep and dreamt, he awakes to complete the manuscript. Clearly Fortuna has cast a glad-eye and he’s once again in the ascendency, although the troubles of the knight, except in verse, are conveniently forgotten.  

            The persona or mask that Chaucer paints of his main character is of a bumbling, inefficient, rather naïve individual. A comic comparison to himself may be drawn via the insomniac reading in bed who, despite his questionable intellect, does seem to have more than a passing understanding of the classics and is able to draw on these throughout the narrative. Thus the conclusion can be made that the narrator is Chaucer. It’s is from this point of intellectual redemption that he adds an element of humor to his enduring tales. His foolishness is displayed when after retelling the story of Alcyone and Ceyx, where Alcyone offers a pious life to Juno in return for details of her missing husband, the narrator instead offers a bed so that the god of sleep, Morpheus, may rest comfortably. The offering of a comfortable bed is clearly more in line with the narrator’s needs than the gods. 

            Upon falling asleep whilst reading a book the narrator, despite earlier protests that he’s unable to do so, awakens within the somnium in a fabulous room decorated with the story of the “Roman de la Rose,” which describes an allegorical dream vision of courtly love; foreshadowing of what the narrator is yet to encounter. An environment where the sounds of a royal hunt can be heard and where the narrator, with youthful vigor springs naked from his bed to his horse, before being led by a puppy into an exquisite forest! Here the reader is made comically privy to the inconsistency of dreams; how they skip from one scenario to the next without apparent reason. It’s in the forest where we encounter the knight, and the sympathetic meeting takes place between the two. 

            From the outset there’s intent on the narrator’s mind. Although he’s unaware of the reasons for his arrival in the dream-scape he’s already met and been cordial with members of a hunting party heading to the forest, and spoken with one of the young boys to ascertain the nature of their business and company. Upon seeing the knight sitting in the wood he makes a decision to creep up on him. Why would he do this if there wasn’t some kind of forethought in his mind to possibly take advantage of the information divulged during the knight’s complaint? The knight is unaware of any other presence and upon being disturbed may react in any number of ways. Safe and secure in the blanket of the somnium the narrator makes his way towards him.

“I stalked directly behind him and I stood there as still as possible, so that, to tell the truth, he didn’t see me; so he hung his head down, and with a deadly sorrowful sound he made a complaint of ten or twelve rhymed verses to himself, the most pitiful, the most doleful, I ever heard.”

            At this point it’s fair to assume that the knight is unknown to him, however, it may also be construed as a meeting of self. The knight is forlorn and hopeless just as the narrator is sick and dying, a mirroring of the “real” world with the dream. Therefore the narrator by confronting the self is able to comprehend what it is that ails him. Rather than the simplistic we’re offered a complex dream vision where it appears that a fool is engaged in a conversation with no comprehension or understanding of what is being addressed to him. A self-help allegory intended perhaps for the alluded to John of Lancaster on the anniversary of the death of his wife? 

            The knight is discovered mumbling a complaint of lost love and is left, strategically, undisturbed by the dreamer who, not wishing to interrupt, stands back and listens. He then confronts the knight who after some encouragement from the narrator describes an allegorical game of chess between himself and Lady Fortuna who’s apparently taken his queen during the game but who in reality has stolen the love of his life. The game of chess is a metaphor within the metaphor of the dream vision to describe the great sadness induced by lost love – courtly love – and although having heard every word of the knight’s complaint, the narrator pretends not to have been listening, presenting himself as one who’d rather help than pry. This is both a sympathetic and a cunning action which will gain him the knight’s respect and a chance to hear the remainder of his story. 

“Straightaway I began to search, to look where I might, for a worthy subject for discussion, so that I could get to know him better.”

            In order to placate, the narrator describes a list of classical figures that’ve suffered equal loss and who despite their circumstances overcame hardship and apparent hopelessness. After offering his naive understanding of the knight’s feelings he is rebuked, the knight claiming he can never understand what he’s lost, as his loss is far greater than all of classic tragedy. Through this act of pretended idiocy the knight is drawn into conversation. From not wishing to divulge anything at all the knight frustratingly insists that the narrator listens “with all his wit to his lamentable tale,” which our seemingly inept narrator promises to do. The knight proceeds to describe the beauty of his love the “good fair white” and lists the blazon of her physical attributes from lip to foot in which he describes an image of female perfection. After this heart felt outpouring the narrator cunningly pretends to understand her beauty, but to add insult to injury, suggests that it was without doubt, that in the eyes of the knight the woman was the most beautiful that ever lived. The exasperated knight is once again drawn in by the machinations of the narrator who then has to redouble his efforts to the apparent fool beside him, just how much she meant to him; a classic psychological move, where a patient is pushed to reveal the depths of distress through personal catharsis rather than forced intimation. The knight cannot help himself and at such a seeming affront is forced to divulge the very depths of his heart to explain the beauty he’s lost.

            To the narrator the death of the “fair white” is obvious or rather implicit in the knight’s telling long before the conclusion.

“What loss is that?” I said then; “Will she not love you? Is it so? Or have you done something wrong, that she has left you? Is it this? For God’s love, tell me everything.”

            The knight’s anguish is palpable, and there can be no other conclusion. The narrator who’s listened patiently to the complete tale and who through naïve commentary has drawn the knight out further and further to the point of complete emotional confession, continues with his inane questioning. 

“And tell me also what you have lost, as I heard you mention earlier.” 

“Yes!” he said, “you know not what you mean by your words; I have lost more than you think.”

“What loss is that?” I said then; “Will she not love you? Is it so? Or have you done something wrong, that she has left you? Is it this? For God’s love, tell me everything.” 

            The narrator still pretends to misunderstand and forces, rather like Lady Fortuna, the knight into a position of check. The knight has no choice and is compelled to respond to the narrator’s questions and through a moment of self-realization admits to both himself and to the narrator what has actually occurred. A moment of release and healing that’d been coerced from the initial moment when the narrator first pretended not to hear the knight’s complaint, to the moment he forced him into admitting the worst.

“She is dead!”


“Yes, by my word!”

“Is that your loss? By God, that is such a pity!”

            By drawing the Knight out and discovering the truth regarding “the fair white” the author has achieved three things; absolution for the knight, enlightenment to the narrator and sympathy for John of Lancaster. The purpose of the somnium with regard to its characters has been to rescue the knight from his grief and imbue the narrator with renewed drive and a will to live. Both characters have been saved by the Machiavellian machinations of the narrator. Clearly the narrator was endowed by some form of wisdom discovered within the dream that allowed him to play the part he did. The fact that he first awoke in a room decorated with images from the “Roman del la Rose” points to foreshadowing and a learned affinity with courtly love. With an intuitive understanding of the rules of love, the narrator is successful in both his contrived deceit of the knight and his necessary achievement of innate wisdom with which to recover his own self-worth.





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