An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 4, 2018

6th Biennial Chaucer Celebration, Arizona State University, March 23, 2018

6th Biennial Chaucer Celebration, Arizona State University, March 23, 2018
Reviewed by Chad Crosson (

Organized and led by one of Arizona State University’s own Chaucerians, Professor Richard Newhauser, the 2018 6th Biennial ASU Chaucer Celebration emphasized the important and necessary work of introducing a younger generation not only to the works of Chaucer, but to the humanities more generally. I need not belabor how critical it is at this moment to cultivate an appreciation and understanding of what the humanities offer to a younger generation and to our communities at large. The ever-shrinking job market and English departments have been points of anxiety for some time now. Therefore, I was delighted to see the auditorium mostly filled, not just with academics like myself, but a host of fresh-faced high school students from the local communities - Newhauser had extended the invitation to this year’s Chaucer Celebration to local public high schools so that students with a developing interest in Chaucer and the humanities might attend.

The morning thus began appropriately with a reading by YA novelist Kim Zarins, who, with smiles and encouragement, acknowledged these young students at the opening of her reading. Zarins’ book, Sometimes We Tell the Truth, offers a 21st-century retelling of the Canterbury Tales, which takes place (appropriately for that morning’s younger audience) on a school bus during a field trip to Washington D. C.; and the chapter Zarins selected to read revealed to me the knowledge and interest she must have in her young readers. Indeed, if nothing else revealed the extent to which Zarins understood her audience, the fact that she transformed the Franklin’s Tale into a rendition of Harry Potter fanfiction - narrated by a young student pilgrim - did. I smiled, listening to her excerpt, remembering fellow writers from my own undergraduate years and the attention they gave to the reading and writing of Harry Potter fanfiction. And those familiar with that genre and the Franklin’s Tale would have been pleased by Zarins’ choice to make potions instructor Severus Snape the “tregetour” (illusionist) who agrees to help a young Aurelius win his love through deception. Of course, this portrayal would not be complete without Snape’s sneering words of warning that winning love in such a way does not typically work as planned. Consequently, Zarins’ version of the tale reached its audience with a thoughtful mixture of serious and morally complex teen romance, along with a subtle and quirky humor that never allowed one to take the drama too seriously. In short, she recreated for her audience how many might imagine that Chaucer himself entertains - with concerns of human and moral significance, all while not losing sight of the offbeat enjoyment this art might afford.

The second and final presenter was Patience Agbabi, who has received wide recognition as a former Poet Laureate of Canterbury, and who read from her latest book, Telling Tales, a poetic reimagining of Chaucer’s poems and characters through the lens of contemporary genres. Agbabi wasted no time hooking the attention of her audience by opening with no less of a gregarious character than Harry Bailey himself - master of ceremonies - transforming his bravado into her own masterful performance of London grime (a musical genre influenced by hip hop, and composed in the parlance of contemporary East London), in rhythm-filled, rhyming couplets, which I would like to imagine that Chaucer himself would have particularly enjoyed.

From beginning to the end of her readings, Agbabi had the enormous talent and ability to keep everyone in keen anticipation of her next poem. In fact, I do not believe that I have observed seen high school students so taken with a poetry reading. To see them (perhaps unexpectedly) moved and inspired by poetry was its own treat. But just as great of a treat was to witness the range of Agbabi’s poetic retellings of Chaucer’s Tales, retellings which spanned the world of rap / hip hop / grime, 1960s Soul, elegy / monody, and dramatic monologue (to name a handful); her book thus presents its own modern miscellany of popular genres.

I would also like to take a moment to appreciate the way Agbabi handled material from what may be considered Chaucer’s darker work, namely, the Prioress’s Tale - subject matter that many would not have blamed her for leaving out. However, Agbabi took a tale of anti-semitism - with the murder of a Christian schoolboy in a Jewish ghetto - and created a darkly moving poem based on true events, in which a young, black Londoner, murdered on the streets near his home, speaks through her poem. Silence permeated the auditorium as we listened to the voice of a dead youth offering a last appeal of love and farewell to his mother. Such a poem, of course, is timely for a young American audience beset by gun violence, and it became all the more apparent the way in which the “medieval” can be an excellent tool to explore contemporary socio-political issues. Yet Agbabi did not allow her audience to remain in one emotional or intellectual space for long, as she soon transitioned to both a humorous and meditative portrayal of the Wife of Bath, placing her in Nigeria, the prior home of Agbabi’s own parents. It was refreshing to hear the Wife live again and loom large in an entirely new cultural context, and speaking for a new female experience. Indeed, this retelling reminded me how important it is that we continue hearing from the Wife of Bath, especially as another generation of feminists struggles to be heard.

All this brings me to a larger consideration of the value of medieval studies and medievalism to a contemporary culture now more than ever in need of self-reflection. Without making it explicit, the readings that morning explored the potential of medievalism to capture imaginations and thereby potentially capture support for both medieval studies and the humanities; retelling Chaucer allows one to touch directly on contemporary issues through narrative rather than critical essays, thereby reaching a more diverse audience. As Carolyn Dinshaw has so insightfully argued, the idea of multiple temporalities co-existing allows for one to provide commentary (or social critique) on the other - as we may also recognize how the “medieval” has perennially created such opportunities: whether in thinking about torture (e.g., “getting medieval”) or in creating fantasy (e.g., Tolkien-based films) that showcases a fictionalized medieval world that distances the present (real) life, even as it still reflects that life. Interpreting the present through the past and the past through the present is one hallmark of medieval writing, as Dinshaw astutely observes regarding Sir John Mandeville, who “for the most part...interprets the others that he encounters in his eastward travels as versions of himself and his own culture,” creating an “asynchronous now.”[1] Likewise, today’s recreated “medieval” (exemplified by these readings) provides the fictional occasion to think about current events or to offer apparent modes of escapism that never really escape the present. Put another way, these readings suggested how the medieval has become not just a recreated past but an alternative space, one which has the capacity to defamiliarize the contemporary culture and philosophy introduced to that space. The question that naturally arises is, by defamiliarizing (or perhaps re-familiarizing) the present through the past, might we be better able to reflect on our current times?

Such ideas of multiple temporalities and an “asynchronous now” were difficult to miss at this gathering of ASU’s Biennial Chaucer Celebration. Indeed, what better demonstration of how temporalities meet than by witnessing two contemporary authors render Chaucer for an audience composed largely of high school students, who are themselves potentially fans of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, and all the conceptions and misconceptions those works present of medieval temporality. Zarins and Agbabi memorably revealed the many ways in which these temporalities might crossover: whether through contemporary fanfiction, based on both Chaucer and the fictionalized “medieval” of Harry Potter, and spoken by youthful narrators; or through various geographical spaces and musical genres that reinvigorate the Canterbury pilgrims through contemporary and multicultural voices. In all, Newhauser, Zarins, and Agbabi are to be commended on multiple fronts, not only for introducing Chaucer’s work to a new generation and cultural context, but also for demonstrating so immediately how Chaucer (and the “medieval”) still speaks to the social, political, post-colonial, and racial experiences of our times. Regardless of the academic interests we may have in fictional reimaginings and youthful retellings of the Tales, or representations of Harry Bailey as a suave hip hop artist with a charming swagger, I left these readings satisfied at observing a younger generation taken in by the vivacious and edifying spirit of Chaucer’s tales and poetry - and isn’t that really a good thing for everyone?

[1] Dinshaw, “All Kinds of Time,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer (2013), 3-25, at 10.