Reading · Teaching

Context is Key, or Where’d I Leave My Chaucer Goggles?


So I changed my new mantra from Context is King to “Context is Key” because nothing that sweeping needs to be gendered, and because I really think it works like a key. I’m thinking about how we use the text to read the text, how some works teach us how to read them, how scenes and characters mean different things if they come after others and you’re cued to them, and how deep reading of an author or a work can give you a particular view of the world.
There’s a lot there, but it’s all connected.
As a grad student in Medieval Studies, I didn’t have to mess with theory very much. Most of it was written way after my stuff, and so only marginally applicable. Just like you can’t reach back and call Chaucer a feminist when he would have had no concept of what that meant, it’s not really fair to judge a medieval poem by a 20th century theory.
But you can judge it by its own standards. I like the idea of using the text to view the text. Beowulf, for instance, offers a basic case to begin. The poem opens with a description of an ancient king, Scyld Scefing (or Shield Sheafson, if we modernized it), and some events of his life. His name is a train wreck, obviously–one that would have gotten him beaten up on Anglo-Saxon playgrounds–unless we read him like a mythic hero-king: one who provides both protection (he’s literally a shield) and sustenance (providing, for example, a sheaf of wheat) for his people. We get a brief biography, then he never comes up again, but he does set a standard from which we can judge Beowulf as a hero-king.
Other poets aren’t as brazen about giving directions to read their work, but they kind of do anyway. After reading Chaucer’s “Friar’s Tale,” where the devil refuses to claim a horse when its carter verbally damned it to hell–on the grounds he didn’t literally mean it–readers of the “Franklin’s Tale” are ready to criticize Arveragus for making his wife keep the little oath she made “in play” over her wedding oath, because even the devil recognizes intent—certainly her own husband should.
So some books teach us how to read them. By the end of a book, we’re keyed to subtleties the author couldn’t have made use of before, at least not to as great an effect.

But some authors also teach us how to read the world. After fifteen years of teaching Chaucer, I have learned to see humor in unconventional places, to look for patterns, and to judge intentions. Edmund Spenser has taught me to expect to find magic everywhere. Ovid has helped me view the world as interconnected and constantly changing, and to value change as refreshing, even rewarding. I think of this like putting on glasses in a process similar to when critics read from a particular theory’s “lens.” So if you need me, I’ll just be over here polishing my Chaucer glasses, trying to filter some sense out of the evening news.