Article Series - Chaucerizing
It’s no secret that among my favorite people on the planet is Mary Robinette Kowal. She’s been ripping up the proverbial charts of the speculative fiction industry of late, with awards (little ol’ thing called the Campbell) and book deals and generally exquisite swellness. She was even recently nominated for a Hugo (!), for her excellent short story “Evil Robot Monkey.”
I offered to Chaucerize something of Mary’s, and she left it up to me to determine what it would be. I naturally chose her Hugo-nodded tale of a monkey and its potter’s wheel. So here, on the occasion of her moving into a new domicile, is a loosely Chaucer’d snippet from “Evil Robot Monkey,” which I suggest you read in full (in Modern English, naturally) just as soon as you finish up here:
Mary Robinette Kowal, “Yvele Metal Ape”
In the corner of his vision, the door to his room snicked open. Sly let the wheel spin to a halt, crumpling the latest vase.
In the corner of his visioun, the chamber dore openyde. Sly letteth the axeltre turn to an ende, foldynge the latteste vesselle. (Mary’s vocabulary is strikingly old; that is to say, she uses fewer post-medieval words than most of us do. That said, “spin” as a verb in the 14th century really only applied to spinning wool, “crumpling” is 16th-century word, and “vase” didn’t make it into our language until the 17th.)
Vern poked his head through. He signed, “You okay?”
Vern pouked his heed thourh. “Thu art wele?” he shewede.
Sly shook his head emphatically and pointed at the window.
Sly shoke his heed pleynedly ond poynted at the glas.
“Sorry.” Vern’s hands danced. “We should have warned you that they were coming.”
“Soory.” Vernes hondes daunsed. “Of that comynge oughte we to have y-tolde thee.”
“You should have told them that I was not an animal.”
“Oughtestow to telle hem that Y am nat a beest.”
Vern looked down in submission. “I did. They’re kids.”
Vern lokyd doun servyse-lyche. “Y dede. They were yonge.”
“And I’m a chimp. I know.” Sly buried his fingers in the clay to silence his thoughts.
“Ond Y am ape. Y knowe.” Sly beried his fyngres in cley to queynte his mynde.
“It was Delilah. She thought you wouldn’t mind because the other chimps didn’t.”
“It was Delilah. She thoghte thu nouldst care by cause the othir apen dide nat.” (Alas, “chimpanzee” appears in English in the 18th century, borrowed from the native tongue of Angola.)
Sly scowled and yanked his hands free. “I’m not like the other chimps.” He pointed to the implant in his head. “Maybe Delilah should have one of these. Seems like she needs help thinking.”
Sly skoulede and pulled his hondes fre. “Y am nat of oon kynde with othir apen.” He poynted to the chip in his heed. “Delilah ought to have oon of thise. Hit semys she nedys help to thenche.” (The word “implant” ain’t in Middle English.)
“I’m sorry.” Vern knelt in front of Sly, closer than anyone else would come when he wasn’t sedated. It would be so easy to reach out and snap his neck. “It was a lousy thing to do.”
“Y am soory.” Vern kneled bifore Sly, clossere than otheres would come whan he nas nat slepynge. Hit wolde be to symple to reche and breke his necke. “Hit was a lowsy thyng to do.” (Sedation isn’t something Chaucer would really be familiar with, so I opted with a generic idea of sleep.)
Sly pushed the clay around on the wheel. Vern was better than the others. He seemed to understand the hellish limbo where Sly lived–too smart to be with other chimps, but too much of an animal to be with humans. Vern was the one who had brought Sly the potter’s wheel which, by the Earth and Trees, Sly loved. Sly looked up and raised his eyebrows. “So what did they think of my show?”
Sly posshed the cley aboute the quele. Vern was betere than the otheres. He semed to onderstonde the hellysshe lymbo where Sly leved: to skilfulle to be with othir apen, bot to beestliche to be with men. Vern was the oon who had y-broughte Sly the potteres quele that, by the molde and tres, Sly y-lovyd. Sly lokyd up and raysed his browes. “What dide they thenche of min pleye?”
Vern covered his mouth, masking his smile. The man had manners. “The teacher was upset about the ‘evil robot monkey.’”
Vern coveryd his mouth, hidyng his lippes. The man had maneres. “The techer was dis-esed of the ‘yvele metal ape.’” (A lot of mind-wringing about what to do with “robot.” Clearly the word isn’t in Chaucer’s dialect in the slightest. I substituted “metal” here, but I’m just not pleased with it: Sly isn’t actually a robot, I don’t think. He’s not mechanical. I just couldn’t come up with something better — though I probably will about 10 minutes after I post this.)
Sly threw his head back and hooted. Served her right.
Sly threwe his heed bak and laugheth. Hit was the ryghte ordre of thinges. (The verb “to hoot” carried wholly negative connotations until the 20th century, so I dumbed the text back to laughter. As for the more expansive second sentence, the line is largely quoted from Chaucer’s translation of Boethius; it seemed so fitting that I couldn’t help but use it.)
[Edited to add cover art from Mary herself; thanks, Mary!]