“What are you teaching fall semester? Anything good?”
She flopped down at the empty desk next to me, an open invitation to expand the commonplace greeting into a real chat. I responded in kind, propping my feet up on my low filing-drawer, the kind that rolls, especially when I kick it.
“Actually yes. Brit Lit I. It’s been a while. And you know me; that means I get to spend the summer acting as if I’ve never read any of it before…”
“Buying new books.”
“Probably, yes. And–”
“Rearranging the shelves,” she went on.
“Why do you ask me things if you’re just going to tell me what I’m going to do?” I complained.
A slow smile. “Because it’s funny. Because it’s easy.”
“Some day your naturally lazy tendency towards cheap amusement is going to get you into trouble. Anyway I–”
“I absolutely hated Chaucer. You do have to do Chaucer, don’t you?”
I laughed to myself. “Not like you’re going to let me finish, but there’s a story behind that…”
“I would have been disappointed if it were a Yes or No question,” she said straight-faced.
“My first reaction, as a Trained Professional, addressing you, The Layman–”
“Only in this room,” she noted, waving a hand around at my literary piles of stuff and my framed full-color map of Beleriand, “could a person with my qualifications be considered a Layman.”
“Lawyers are not strangers to Planet Literature,” I said sententiously. “C.f. Portia. But neither are they natives.”
“You’ve only gone native; you weren’t born,” she said and scratched the side of her nose, as if aware of the oxymoron. “So you were about to yell at me for hating Chaucer?”
“Nothing so simple. I said, as a Trained Professional, it is certainly my Obligation to yell at you for hating Chaucer, but only if said hatred were the result of an ill-informed prejudice against Stuff With Hard Words In It.”
“Bizarre words. Hard, I could handle. But not outlandish. What the hell is ‘Whylom?’”
“How do you remember that? I don’t remember that.”
“It’s stuck,” she said. “Like a traumatic memory. Why do you wince every time somebody in the math department talks about multiplying negative numbers?”
“Point,” I said. “Anyway. Assuming you’re going to let me get to my point. I, too, hate Chaucer. But it is a perfectly well-informed opinion, built upon years of study and research–”
“Don’t,” she said. “You know perfectly well it’s because of some weird aversion, like the color of the classroom in which you first read Canterbury Tales.”
“If only it were so simple. Oh, it is so much more poignant and tragic. I hate Chaucer, my darling friend, because he is famous, and revered, and admired, because he picked the right king. And it wasn’t like he picked him anyway; his wife’s – are you ready for this? – His wife’s sister was the third wife of John of Gaunt, who was the father of the Right King.”
“Who was the Wrong King?”
“Not the horse, a horse guy.”
“Three – lemme think – four generations up. I think. Wait. Yeah, Three.”
“You realize the validity of your entire argument hinges on you getting that right.”
I tossed an eraser. “Disregarding the horse guy. Let us restrict our compare-and-contrast to the first cousins, therefore within the same generation: Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV.
“They each had pet poets. Kings so often do. Richard’s was a guy. A Saxon guy. He wrote a poem called Pearl. Do you know what we call him? The Pearl poet. He also wrote Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight. So sometimes we call him the Gawaine poet. There’s fame for you. On the other hand, Henry’s pet poet, his second stepmother’s sister’s husband, is ‘our Cousin Chaucer’ and gets frigging famous for–”
“Alliteration,” she jumped in.
I half rose in my chair. “But that’s just it!” I screamed. “Chaucer didn’t write alliterative poetry. The Pearl poet did. Why? Because that’s good, old fashioned, Anglo-Saxon stuff. But NO, Mr. I’m-Really-Norman-Which-Practically-Makes-Me-French has to write la-di-da poetry that rhymes, as if any half-wit couldn’t make a Latinate language rhyme, when every word ends in a frigging vowel…”
“I don’t think that’s French,” she put in.
“I don’t care. I’m making a point.”
“You’re making a scene.”
“It’s June. There are no scenes at a college in June. Merely intellectual discourse.”
“So, if I may redirect. You do not teach Chaucer.”
“I do not.”
“But you teach the Pearl Gawaine guy.”
“The half-forgotten anonymous victim of the brutal regime change, yes. Well, the regime change. I think two guys died.”
“What do you tell the kids?”
“Exactly what I told you.”
“In those words? And nobody’s complained yet?”
“It gets laughs,” I noted. “You should approve.”
“Not my idea of an easy laugh. Too much history involved. Jo, you can’t not teach them Chaucer because you’re sympathetic to some pathetic Anglo-Saxon.”
“Say that again,” I challenged. “Faster.”
“Sympathetic-pathetic. How much Anglo-Saxon do you cover, anyway?”
“Um, all of it.”
“Is that even possible?”
“Watch me,” I said.
She glared steadily at me.
“All right, maybe one short lyric,” I said.
“Make it a nice one,” she urged. “And just read through the General Prologue.”
“And you claimed to hate Chaucer,” I said.
She stopped. Blinked.
“I feel so manipulated,” she said.
“I win,” I said.