Fantasy Vs Real Life: Questioning the Alchemy in Canterbury Tales
In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer portrays the actual practice of alchemy to be a ruse. In the Canon Yeoman’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale, transformation is merely an illusion when one attempts to go against the forces of nature. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, an old lady transforms into a beautiful young wife only through magical forces. The principle of alchemy, however, becomes a reality in these three tales when individuals themselves change. The only transformation humans are capable of exerting must come from within.
In the Canon Yeoman’s Tale, the audience is immediately made aware through the yeoman’s warning that alchemists are false, deceiving liars for their practices. The yeoman begins his tale by discussing the debt he is in for taking part in this sinful occupation. As Frank Schleicher writes, “He reveals the truth about his former employer and the Canon rides away ‘for verray sorwe and shame’” (63). Alchemy is a “slidynge science” because alchemists take the gold of pilgrims and turn it into nothing. The placing of the gold in the pot only creates an illusion that the gold is purified. The easily fabricated illusion therefore introduces the complication that nothing is what it seems to be.
The yeoman’s lengthy expression of penitence, however, indicates that a transformation has taken place within his own character. In these terms, the Canon is a legitimate alchemist, because his sinful teachings lead to the yeoman’s epiphany that he must leave his lifestyle and repent. Upon separation from his employer, Schleicher argues: “He has made the first step toward genuine conversation. He has renounced the sin he has lived by for so long and begun the movement toward full and complete penitence” (63). The change in the Yeoman’s character begins with his confession to all the pilgrims on the journey. He is eager to reveal the truth about alchemy because he is ready to leave this lifestyle of sin:
And yet, for al my smert and al my grief, / For al my sorwe, labour, and meschief, / I koude neverre leve it in no wise. / Now wolde God my with myghte suffise / To tellen al that longeth to that art! / But nathelees yow wol I tellen part. / Syn that my lord is goon, I wol nat apare; / Swich thyng as that I knowe, I wol declare (VIII 712-19).
The Yeoman reveals the difficulty of leaving the occupation until now, but his confession remains genuine. Schleicher points out the interesting way in which the teller begins to react to his Tale: “No fewer than three times in the second part of his story, the Yeoman interrupts himself to proclaim that he has grown tired of his Tale” (66). These interruptions hint that the guilt and shame is too heavy for his heart, so much that “it dulleth me to ryme.” He appears desperate for forgiveness after realizing he has spent a great portion of his life serving the false Canon and lies of alchemy. Schleicher’s assertion — “The planned retelling of his sinful craft has worn down the narrator. He wants out. He wants to be done with it” (67) — is efficient in illustrating the yeoman’s internal transformation. Guilt resulting from the sinful practices that the Canon has taught the yeoman brings this change, as well as the change in his desires.
In the Franklin’s Tale, the completed task of moving the rocks on the shore is no more than an illusion created by a magician. Dorigen playfully gives this task with the intention of it being as impossible as fulfilling Aurelius’s request to be with him. Aurelius, fervent, prays to Apollo, the god of poetry, to transform the scenery of the shore so as to have no rocks. Apollo refuses to answer his prayer, for it is, as Sandra McEntire asserts, “an act completely against the process of nature” (150). Aurelius immediately turns to his brother, a clerk, for help achieving this transformation. Aurelius’s brother takes him to a clerk whose specialty was performing the science “by wiche men make diverse apparences.” This science is comparable to the practice of alchemy, in that both create false illusions for monetary profit. McEntire argues: “In their game of creating illusions, the clerks and the squire take from the woman the foundation of her experience: what she can see with her own eyes. What the men intend the woman to see, not what really exists, or the meaning of this existence, is the new agenda” (151). The clerk does not possess the power to go against the processes of nature, nor does he understand them. “He gathers no herbs or roots or rocks, engages in no activity, does nothing to effect a change in the created reality. He only utters words, makes equations, calculates the stars, and ‘thurgh his magik,’ whatever that may be, makes it seem that ‘alle the rokkes were aweye’” (151). The clerk is not a real alchemist; he is only capable of creating a false illusion. His inability to transform the scenery on the shore reinforces McEntire’s assertion that we are not capable of transforming matters we have no control over.
Aurelius’s change of heart (to willingly leave Dorigen with her husband) shows that a transformation within him has taken place. When Aurelius returns to Brittany, he wastes no time in notifying Dorigen of the completed task. When Dorigen tells Arviragus what happened while he was gone, he advises that holding her promise is more important than the shame he will face. When Aurelius learned how well Arviragus accepted Dorigen’s promise and how he sent her to fulfill it, he is astounded. “He affirms his concern for her honor, and at the next holds her to a standard he himself has failed to keep. Honor itself is illusory, a perception of the self by others, an appearance” (153). McEntire argues that Aurelius’s nobility is merely an illusion. However, some transformation had to have taken place within Aurelius for him pass his opportunity with Dorigen. He realizes that he should be noble because it is the right thing to do: “Thus kan a squire doon a gentil dede / As wel as kan a knyght, withouten drede” (1543-44). At the beginning of the tale, Aurelius paid no attention to the couple’s marriage vows. He was eager to be with Dorigen and was ready to “work hard to repay his debt to the magician even to the shame of beggary” (155). At the end of the tale, however, he refuses Dorigen’s submission to him because he has realized the importance of her marriage vows with her husband. He is now willing to endure the same suffering as Arviragus. It is Arviragus’s nobility that has changed Aurelius, making Arviragus the alchemist in this tale.
In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the old lady’s transformation into a beautiful wife is not a reality because it is performed through the forces of magic. No other characters inflict this transformation on her. The only real alchemy that takes place is the purification of the knight, a former rapist:
And so bifel that this kyng Arthour / Hadde in his hous a lusty bacheler, / That on a day cam ridynge fri ryver / And happed that, allone as he was born, / He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn, / Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed, / By verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed (III 882-88).
At the beginning of the tale, the knight is aggressive and exerts a form of power over his rape victim by forcing her to have sex with him. When the knight must discern the truth about what women want, he must turn to women for help. The old lady, who spared the knight’s life by providing him with the answer to the queen’s question, asked to be married to him in return. The knight, unhappy, becomes “constreyned” in their marriage. After realizing his misery, she gave him the option of having her “foul and old,” but a “trewe, humble wyf” or “yong and fair” but unfaithful. The knight’s genuine answer indicates a transformation within his character:
My lady and my love, and wyf so deere, / I put me in your wise governance; / Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance / And moost honour to yow and me also. / I do no fors the wheither of the two. / For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me (III 1230-1235).
He begins to respect her, giving her complete sovereignty in their marriage. The wife, the alchemist in the tale, has humbled the knight. Ironically, however, she does not change herself. She doesn’t transform to a both beautiful and young wife until he gives her the power to choose for herself. She maintains a power over the knight by confining him in their marriage, which does not change.
Chaucer’s portrayal of alchemy in The Canterbury Tales is a warning to his audience that not everything is what it seems. In the Canon Yeoman’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale, misunderstandings occur because of the tricks that the Canon and the clerk perform. They are not capable of transforming what goes against the processes of nature; they merely create illusions. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the old lady changes her appearance through magic, but does not change internally. The only real alchemists are those who inflict change on another’s character. In these terms, alchemy becomes a reality in all three tales.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Complete. Ed. Larry Benson. 3d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
McEntire, Sandra J. “Illusions and Interpretation in the ‘Franklin’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review. 31.2 (1996): 145-163.
Schleicher, Frank N. “The Yeoman Transmuted: An Evaluation of Penitence and Poetry.” Essays in Medieval Studies. 3 (1986): 60-77.
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