Article Series - Chaucerizing
My Chaucer’d Scalzi made a fair bit of noise hereabouts last week, and many folks have written to ask for a bit more. In craven heat for such attention, I could hardly wait to do another. The question was, what to Chaucer?
Several kind readers made several kind suggestions — and one unkind one — but one distant reader sent something even more convincing than a blog-post comment: an autographed copy of his latest book, humbly offered up to the venerable altar of Middle English literature.
Bribery, as any of my students can attest, will get you next to nowhere with me. I agreed to take the book — thanks! — but I wasn’t about to promise a thing. To receive the Chaucer treatment, the book was going to need to be good.
Well, I’m pleased to report it is. Jay Lake‘s Mainspring is a terrific novel: full-to-bursting with images wrought from the purest strains of the fantastic. Not that I’m surprised. This is, after all, Jay Lake we’re talking about, a man whose mind is Nile-like in its regular productivity. Indeed, I can hardly give more credit to this book than to say that Mainspring is singularly Lakean. (Hey, I’m already inventing verbs, so why the hell not adjectives, as well?)
More than being just a good book, though, I’ve found that Mainspring speaks to the Chaucer muse (who is a portly fellow with a wry wit): with its “clockpunk” universe of celestial gears and airship navigation, the novel often reminded me of Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, which is coincidentally considered to be the oldest surviving “technical manual” in English. As such, I chose the following passage, from chapter 4, for a bit of fun. (And thanks, again, to Mary Robinette Kowal for the excellent Bayeux-based book cover.)
Iay Lake, Maynryng:
Approaching seventeen degrees latitude, Hethor saw the Equatorial Wall for the first time in his life. He and de Troyes were up in the navigator’s rest, reviewing the basics of a sextant, when de Troyes stopped what he was doing, picked up a telescope, and pointed it south.
Seventene degrees latitude approchynge, Hethor sawe th’Equinoccial Wal for the first time on lyve. He and de Troyes weren up on the gydes reste (“navigator” is a 16th century adoption), forto studien the symplicites of an astrelabe (the sextant was invented, I think, by Tycho Brahe; but it is very much based on the astrolabe, which was clearly known to Chaucer), whan de Troyes cessed what he was doynge, y-picked a bras-and-glas, and loked sowth. (Telescopes are obviously post-medieval — their use associated primarily with post-Galilean times — so I’ve posited a compound that might have occurred to ol’ Chaucer. My term also has the benefit, I think, of being easily shortened: Lake will later use the term “scope”; I can replace this with “glas.”)
“Here,” he said after a moment, handing the telescope to Hethor. “Tell me what you see.”
“Heere,” quod he aftere a moment, yevynge the bras-and-glas to Hethor. “Telle me what seestow.”
“A line of clouds on the southern horizon.” Hethor swept the scope. “But it’s a huge storm.”
“I se a lyne of clowdes on th’orisonte southern.” Hethor sweped the glas. “Hit is a grete storm.”
“Biggest storm the world’s ever known,” said de Troyes with a laugh. “A hundred miles of brass-topped rock, haunted by ghosts from every age. It will never blow over, not while God’s universe yet runs onward.”
“The gretteste storm to the worldis knowynge,” quod de Troyes with laughtere. “An hundredth myles of bras-crouned rokke, moche haunted by goostes from everiche age. Hit wol never blowe aweye, not while Goddes creacioun renneth onward.” (Chaucer did use the Latinate term “universe,” but he used it only in the sense of something being “universal,” not meaning “the whole of everything.”)
“That’s it,” Hethor breathed. Somehow he’d expected forests of monkeys, exotic crystal cities, wizards’ palaces. Not just a smudge where sky met horizon.
“That is it,” Hethor brethed. Somdeel he had bene expectaunt to se wodes ful of apen (“monkey” is post-medieval, coming from Arabic), cristall citees, palyces of magiciens. Not just a blotte where sky met th’orisonte. (Of all the terms in this snippet, “smudge” gave me the most trouble. It’s a late entrant into English, and I found it difficult to think of a suitable synonym. I decided, after much deliberation, to use “blot” — Chaucer would surely associate the distant, dark smudge on the horizon in terms of an ink-stain upon the clouds, dripped from the pen of God.)
“Keep an eye to the south,” said de Troyes. “The Wall grows closer day by day.”
“Kepe eyen to the sowth,” quod de Troyes. “The Wal neeryth from daye to daye.”