Dust and Candle, Fear and Sin... The background to Bizarre Fables
Updated: Jun 24, 2018
There is a long European tradition in story-telling for the linked ‘circumstance sequence’, and through such a sequence human nature, and in particular the timeless elements of human nature, are put under the spotlight. Typically, and traditionally, there will be morality tales alongside fabliau: the apparently sacred competing for attention with the apparently profane. Whether or not 'circumstance sequences' are old or more contemporary, including in the present day, it is my contention that they tend to arise whenever there is a perceived shift in the foundations of society: as if the swopping of stories is a means of emphasis in timeless human nature in the face of change. Individual tales in such a collection of stories may be uplifting or elevating, or they may merely make the reader or listener smile. A good example of the circumstance sequence would be Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, of the fourteenth century, and also Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, also from the fourteenth century. Famously, the circumstance of the Chaucer sequence is a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The structure is a literary conceit, because while it may reflect the make-up of Chaucerian society, across the many and varied classes of the late medieval period, the work may not entirely reflect an entirely probable social arrangement. The people riding along the road to Canterbury may well have kept themselves to themselves. Social distinctions and barriers were likely to have been observed, in actual life. This case is made well by the scholar F.N. Robinson, in his introduction to his own edition of the Tales. He wrote: “Whatever the reason for its adoption, the device of the pilgrimage is one of the happiest ever employed in a collection of stories. It afforded Chaucer an opportunity to bring together a representative group of various classes of society, united by a common religious purpose, yet not so dominated by that purpose as to be unable to give themselves over to enjoyment.” But Robinson adds: “Whether such a company would ever have mingled as Chaucer’s pilgrims do, or would have entered upon such a round of story-telling, it is idle to discuss, and as idle as to question whether or not the speakers could have been heard from horseback on the road. Literal truth of fact the Canterbury Tales obviously do not represent.” The circumstance of a linked story sequence, then, has only to be convincing enough to generate acceptance among the reader or the listener. It must not seem so improbable as to raise objections. This can also be seen with Boccaccio’s Decameron ( circa 1348 to 1352), a collection of one hundred stories, told by young ten Italian nobles, who are escaping the ravages of The Black Death. We do not have to accept that Boccaccio had any contemporaries in mind and, in any case, real-life plaque survivors would probably have more on their minds that swopping stories. However, the literary conceit is not really questioned, and it is effective. The Black Death also adds an eschatological note to The Canterbury Tales, – the threat of plaque was a fact of fact of life for both Chaucer and Boccaccio. Eschatology is defined by the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind, or a belief concerning death, the end of the world, or the ultimate destiny of humankind; specifically : any of various Christian doctrines concerning the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, or the Last Judgment”. It is originally, then, a Christian world view with a global application: namely that the “last days” are near and the world will end. The order of society will break down and, perhaps, high and low will even speak to each other and swop tales on the road to Canterbury. The element of eschatology in The Canterbury Tales has not been missed by scholars of Chaucer. Ronald B. Herzman and Richard Kenneth Emmerson in their study, “The Canterbury Tales in Eschatological Perspective” (1988) say of the Pardoner’s Tale: “The rioters are representative of moral decline often associated by chroniclers with the plaque and destruction.” The three rioters set out to kill Death under a tree but find only gold, which is death in disguise. Through their own individual bad faith, all three will die. And what about Death when he is not in disguise? Chaucer portrays him as an old man who directs the rioters to the tree and so deceives them. The old man is a very old man indeed; he’s almost decomposing before the rioters’ eyes: “Lo, how I vanish – flesh, and blood, and skin… Alas, whan shall my bones been at reste?” Earlier, however, when Death is described in the tavern, the link between him and plague is made, unmistakably – He hath a thousand slain this pestilence….” Elsewhere in art, there is a strong, unflinching focus on death in the fourteenth century, following the Black Death. This focus is evident in the emergence of so-called cadaver monuments, where the human body is shown in states of decay, bringing to mind again Chaucer’s description of the old man, in the Pardoner’s Tale. Robert S. Gottfried in his 2010 work, “The Black Death” writes: “Funerary monuments were comparatively scarce before the Black Death. After the plaque…their themes changed. Many brasses showed shrouded, macabre corpses or skeletons with snakes and serpents surrounding and protruding from their bones; on their faces were grisly toothy smiles.” There is a stone cadaver monument in Tewkesbury Abbey, and it was erected by Abbot Wakeman for himself. It is rather late for a cadaver monument, dating to 1539, but it remains a powerful if chilling commentary on the vanity of human hopes and ambition. This particular monument inspired the Peterloo poet, Gary Bills, to write “A Medieval Monk Has Doubts” for his 2001 collection, “The Echo and the Breath”. Bills in this poem emphasises the loss of faith that must inspire such a monument; it is a loss of faith in the value of material human existence, when the body must come to such a state; and the image of decay must, invariably, raise doubt that personality can survive physical death . Bills writes: “You see how well one mason caught decay? Fat vermin, on thin limbs, appear to sway Aggressively, or cower at our tread. I feel the lobworm slide across my skin, The viper on my brow. No godly spell Can raise a man so broken; and the smell Is breathed, of dust and candle, fear and sin….” And with a nod to material human existence, Bills goes on to praise: “…Those pleasures we adore, and never too much: Communal food and wine; the sudden mirth That makes the best of us…” That phrase, “the sudden mirth/That makes the best of us…” could serve as a timely reminder that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, however eschatological some of them may be, are also replete with amusing anecdotes, for that the journey to Canterbury is hardy a sojourn through a vale of tears. My project concerns another story sequence, “Bizarre Fables”, of which I was the co-plotter and illustrator. My husband, Gary Bills, wrote those stories. At present, although there is a general medieval or Renaissance atmosphere to the tales, there is no linking theme – no one circumstance to explain why the stories should run together. In this sense, the sequence is incomplete. There are currently eight tales but there could be more. That is down to Gary Bills. Part of my involvement at this stage, however, is to search for the credible circumstance that will turn a collection of stories into a viable circumstance sequence. Chaucer had the pilgrimage and Boccaccio had the Black Death in Florence. I recognise that the link between our stories needs to be more contemporary, and I will use, to some extent, Millennium consciousness to form that link. Many of the stories were created just prior to the turn of the Millennium, when the mood, at least to judge from some books and media reports, was certainly eschatological. The so-called - and heavily prophesied- Millennium Bug was talked about in near-apocalyptic terms. The author Michael S. Hyatt in “The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos” wrote: “The Millennium Bug is a sort of digital time tomb. When the clock strikes midnight on January 1, computer systems all over the world will begin spewing out bad date – or stop working altogether. The result is going to be a billion times worse than the worst computer crash you have ever experienced.” Then there was a Nostradamus prophecy to worry about, that: “In the year 1999, in the seventh month, from the sky will come the great King of Terror….” While most rational people were surely not expecting the end of the world, the chance to see a full solar eclipse in August 1999 seemed to add to an end of Millennium feeling that this was indeed a time of great change. I saw that full eclipse with my husband, in Romania, and the strangeness of the experience fed into the first of the Bizarre Fables, “The Blanket of the Moon”, which is the story of a lasting eclipse which allows the selfish dead to rise again. They are walking cadaver monuments, draining hope from the living, in a topsy-turvy world where dark is light. I propose, however, that the linked sequence will begin and end with the figure of “Grandma”. She too was inspired by our experience of Romania in that she represents traditional folk values. She tells fortunes, she inspires music, she heals with herbs and she is wise. She is the antithesis of the mechanised and digital world, and that is why, for my promotional material to generate publishing and production interest in the Bizarre Fables, I plan to represent her in puppet form, including shadow puppetry, which will be photographed. She will be an illustrated figure, including on the front cover, which I am designing. Grandma lives in a scary, invaded world where soldiers can arrive out of the blue and kill. Therefore, I see her as a contemporary figure, and she is a challenged figure. She possesses a natural sensibility in a world where, more and more, human existence seems to be unnatural; when dogma and doctrine often replace compassion. Post 9/11, the world has certainly changed, with a sense, perhaps, that the old order and its securities are slowly falling away. In such as challenged world, Grandma’s voice deserves to be heard. It is my task to make that happen. Heather Bills-Geddes. BA (Hons), PG-Diploma, MA in creative media.
Note: The idea of linking all the stories with a narrative structure inspired by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was something I disscused with my husband Gary Bills. It remains an idea for the future.