Dr. Muriel Brown
29 November 2011
The Role of a Host: Supplying a Place
One of the most immediate obstacles in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is interpretation, or gloss. Besides the complexity of having fictional characters tell fictional stories,—as well as Chaucer being a character himself—there remains a figure who is the fictitious mastermind and judge of the tale-telling challenge: Harry Bailey, or more commonly, The Host. Inspired by Aristotle’s notion of ‘place’ (as put forward in the Physics), I believe that the Host acts less as a character, then as a boundary which provides an environment for the stories to be told (Aristotle). Surely, the people move and the stories vary, and to that extent it is a dynamic place which is provided. However, more than anything, the Host acts as a narrative mechanism that re-affirms or re-evaluates the travelers’ space (in regards to class) and time. Rarely will the Host supply any novel or insightful analysis, but rather serves to delimit the plot of the entire Canterbury Tales—thus adding another layer of complexity to an already narrative-excessive work of literature.
We can see the Host’s unique role being solidified at the commencement of the story—in fact it is he who initiates the whole tale-telling game. Harry Bailey owns the Tabard Inn, which strongly suggests the Host’s role as receiver and container. An inn is where a wide array of people stay and are treated hospitably—likewise, it is Harry Bailey who holds the narrative of the Canterbury Tales intact buy providing the rules—“Tales of best sentence and moost solaas”—as well as judging the tales (Chaucer 1.798). Also, since the Host is the last character to join, we do not know for certain if he is counted in the total number. This ambiguity reinforces my comparison between the Host and Aristotle’s ‘place.’ Place is not a thing; it has no extension; it simply is “that which surrounds that of which it is the place, and in no way belongs to the thing” (Aristotle 100). By making Harry Bailey’s enrollment ambiguous, we are forced to wonder if he is simply another part in the whole, or if he is somehow outside, supplying place for the whole. Finally, like Jesus (who is also ambiguously a presence, i.e. the Son, and an absence, i.e. the immaterial God Divine), he leads the pilgrims “in a flok” (1.834).
It is Harry Bailey who initiates the first story, and he does so in a very democratic way: drawing straws. Some could argue that this characterizes him as a virtuous, democratic man. However, it could also be argued that such a neutral, egalitarian method does not provide for much characterization—which reinforces my thesis that he is more of a neutral boundary than a full-blooded character.
After the Knight’s Tale, the Host seeks to have a balancing “quite” by having the Monk (someone of similar status) tell a tale (Chaucer 1.3119). This emphasizes the class-system of Medieval Times, i.e. the Host reminds the reader and the characters of their unique space within the place of the narrative that he provides. However, we can see that the Host is not any kind of all-powerful Host of the Canterbury Tales because he is immediately undermined by the intoxicated Miller. The Host simply states, “Thou art a fool” (1.3135). This chaos within the place of the narrative is symbolic of the chaos—or perhaps a better word is ‘tension’—between the classes in the Medieval Times (e.g. the peasants’ revolt of 1381). So while the Host remains a reminder of the boundary line of both the stories and the class-system, he cannot, like the society at the time, enforce the classes with absolute omnipotence.
Right after the Miller’s Tale, the Host permits the Reeve to tell one; however, he warns him to “tarie nat the tyme” (Chaucer 1.3905). Again, the Host seems to rest in a kind of liminal space on the boundaries of both the tales and the characters, reminding us of the rules and the classes. Certainly, any virtuous man would desire that the Reeve’s tale not follow in the vulgar trajectory set by the Miller. And we are reminded of this by the Host. Again, the Host adds another layer of meaning to the stories—the tales themselves are not simply independent pieces, but their meaning and value is entangled with the narrative of the journey and competition as well. The avant-garde French theorist Jacques Derrida stated about narratives, in general: “Any break in the movement of reading would settle in a counter-meaning, in the meaning which becomes counter-meaning” (4). The Host’s interruption/mediation of the stories infuses the whole Canterbury Tales with a counter-meaning—one of an enforcer, i.e. place.
Cynthia Richardson’s interpretation of Harry Bailey also emphasizes his role as a reminder of space and time while discussing his ‘exteriority.’ She states: “Harry Bailey represents the forces external to the artist that press him to be creative…[forces which include] confrontations by the artist of time, death, and his own mortality” (325). Her interpretation of the Host as a literary device which accounts for external needs resonates with my analysis of the Host as Aristotle’s ‘place’—that which is external to all. He is, as well, a reminder of time as he pushes them along and states the position of the sun. Whether this indeed is a metaphoric reminder of mortality, as Richardson suggests, is questionable, but either way the Host seems to assume a role of delimiter—setting the boundaries of the rules, classes, and time. What else delimits things in our lives except our confrontation with the limits of space, class, and time, especially regarding our death? His interrupting of the tales is a reminder of both the travelers’ position in respect to their limits, as well as our position as readers and interpreters of the Canterbury Tales.
The Host makes mention of time in the Introduction to the Man of Law’s Tale. The narrative states: “Oure Hooste saugh well that the brighte sonne/The ark of his artificial day hath ronne/The ferthe part/…It was ten of the clokke, he gan conclude” (Chaucer II.1-14). He goes on to tell the pilgrims about how time bounds all of us. Again, this emphasizes my thesis that the Host operates as a reminder of the limits of experience in space and time, similar to Aristotle’s place. He then mimics a lawyer when requesting that the Man of Laws proceed on with what is the meaning of the Host’s place: tale-telling. One could interpret this mimicry as further evidence of the Host’s hospitality for the pilgrims—hospitality being a prerequisite for place. At the end of the tale, Harry Bailey affirms the good nature of the tale—insofar as it aligns with the rules of his place—by stating, “This was a thrifty tale for the nones!” (II.1165). This reinforces the idea that the Host is hospitable to that which adheres to the rules/limits of his place, i.e. the rules of “sentence and solaas.” Immediately after this, the Parson rebukes the Host for being profane, and the Host in turn derisively calls him a “Jankin” and a “Lollere” (II.1172/1177). This shows his boundaries as far as class is concerned. Again, we can see the Host reinforce the ‘external’ state of space (i.e. class) and time.
We can see the Host continue his role by moderating the interruption in the Wife of Bath’s Tale by the Friar and the Summoner. However, I believe he reaches his most intriguing characterization at the end of the Clerk’s Tale about Griselde. It is at the end of this tale that the Host first starts intimating, or at least suggesting, the nature of his personal life through ambiguous comments about his wife. He states that he would never want his wife to hear of this tale, and then quickly moves on as if to ignore his outspokenness. Then the Host asks the Merchant to “telle us part” of the sorrow he has experienced with his horrible wife (Chaucer IV.1242). While this might seem to contradict my claim that the Host is not so much a character as he is a boundary for the tales, I believe that this in fact supports my position. If I were to continue with the notion that the Host, as the external boundary, metaphorically accounts for the exteriority of the pilgrims and their society, then by disclosing this unfortunate state of marriage, we are gaining a wholly external notion of marriage than we would otherwise get from the tales alone.
This can be best seen as an exterior contrast to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. Tara Williams suggests that the Host acts as a real-life (and in that sense, exterior to the tales) testament to the “community” against shrewish wives (he is in the company of the Clerk, among others). Williams claims that his interruptions about his intolerable wife “undermine the singularity of the Wife of Bath…[who is] the only female narrator to speak of her personal experiences.” Similar to Derrida’s notion, the Host’s interruption serves as a mediating counter-meaning which “suggests that…the Wife of Bath belongs to a community of wives” (383). By operating outside of the tales, the Host accounts for the exteriority of the pilgrims, much like place accounts for the external limits of that-which-is-contained.
We see further this kind of mediation after the Merchant’s Tale. The Host explains how he has “a wyf…/a labbyng shrewe is she/ and yet she hath an heep of vices mo” (Chaucer IV.2427-29). Again, these words undermine the Wife of Bath’s statements and help to account for whatever the pilgrims themselves cannot account for, yet does exist in their place—that is the role of the Host. By relating a contradictory, and real, example of a shrewish wife, he makes the pilgrims aware of the space in which they live, i.e. the real and complex web of class and gender tensions which cannot be accounted for by either the Host or the Wife of Bath alone. Like Aristotle’s conception of place, the Host is the boundary for all that is contained in the Canterbury Tales, and he makes this known by acting as an external force to the tales as seen through the undermining example of his wife.
Another interesting moment happens when the Host seemingly modifies the rules of the competition. During the Franklin’s interruption of the Clerk, the Host says, “Ech of yow moot tellen ate leste/A tale or two, or breken his biheste” (Chaucer V.697-8). While one might argue the literalness of his statement, it is obvious inaccurate. Instead of four tales a piece (two there and two back), the Host seems far more lenient/realistic in his desire for merely one or two. While his statement of the rules aligns with my overall interpretation, I think his revision adds a new dimension: the Host, like the experience of the space and time that he is containing, is dynamic—the place is adapting to the contained objects in order to be more hospitable to them. It is becoming obvious to the Host that there will not be enough time for the initial four stories, so, as the de facto master of the Tales, he modifies the rules accordingly.
The Host continues his role of delimiter and enforcer of the boundaries of his place when he emphasizes the intensity of the Physician’s Tale—it is pushing him, much like the readers, to the limit, and it is his duty to level it with his criticism (similar to what he does to the Wife of Bath). Perhaps one of the more interesting moments is his brief analysis of this tale: “Hire beautee was hire deth” (Chaucer VI.297). Certainly, this is an odd way to interpret the tale; one might call this a very weak interpretation, in fact. If gloss, or interpretation (ironically, this word can also mean “deception”), is such an important part of The Canterbury Tales, then we must pay special attention to any ostensible instance of it. I believe it is congruent with the Host’s position to offer (what I consider to be) an especially poor interpretation. Like the limits of anything, his interpretation pushes us back towards the tale itself, re-emphasizing not only our need to interpret, but the very presence of conflicting interpretations that make up this story. The Host’s analysis serves merely as a limit that says we should not look for the characters’ explanations of their stories as authoritative. So, like that of ‘place,’ the Host serves more as a narrative tool, then as a character. We also see an example of a weak interpretation following the Shipman’s Tale when the Host curses the monk and states how he was the victor, when it was arguably the merchant’s wife.
The Host’s role becomes exceptionally emphasized during his confrontation with the Pardoner. At the end of his blasphemous rant, the Host viscerally rebukes him. Glenn Burger comments how “the more the Pardoner can be maintained as an absence of potency, the more the Host can assert his own masculinity and moral authority…[and can] construct himself as the moral physician to the pilgrimage” (1146). Burger mentions the physical jibes the Host utilizes to emasculate the already effeminate Pardoner. By becoming the authority of the pilgrimage, the Host further reinforces his role as the container, perhaps now with a more moral flavor. Regardless, it is the Host who acts as the leveler—he decides what is acceptable in his ‘place.’
The Host’s treatment of Chaucer’s character is a particularly humorous touch. After Chaucer-the-character gets partway through Sir Topaz, the Host berates his rhyming, equating it to “rym dogerel” (VII.925). This insulting of the author-as-character conveys the general complexity of the interpretation with the Canterbury Tales—who do we trust: the Host, Chaucer, or the character of Chaucer? How can we tell them apart? Regardless, it is obvious that the Host is portrayed as the authority, like he has been since the beginning, but this bit of inter-textuality (i.e. the competing texts of the characters’ tales, along with the Host’s interruptions and the allusion to the real author himself) pushes us back to the only stable authority we have, i.e. the Host. He remains at the boundaries of our understanding.
The Host continues to play his role as the tales wind down. He mentions his wife again after the Melibee Tale. He restates the rules after the Monk’s Tale, to which he states: “als it is a peyne” (VII.2786). The Monk’s tales were certainly in need of his leveling—they were too serious, with no pleasure. When the Canon Yeoman arrives, the Host acts as the representative for the group and leads the interrogation of the strangers. Since he is indeed Aristotle’s ‘place,’ he is the boundary, and as such, he is the first person whom any strangers entering the ‘place’ must meet.
Finally, as the tales draw to a close, the Host initiates the last tale, and it certainly appears that everyone has reached the absolute limit of the place of the Canterbury Tales. Ending the game, the Parson states: “Fulfilled is my sentence and my decree/I trowe that we han herd of ech degree/almost fulfild is al my ordinance” (Chaucer X.17-19). To this, the Host requests him to “Ne breke thou nat oure pley” (X.24). The Host can sense that the people contained in his place are about to leave—symbolically referring to the end of the story—and suggests to us in this quote that the Tales are in jeopardy of being broken. Indeed, the Parson does not even tell a tale proper, but instead gives a type of non-fiction sermon—the Host’s power has been relinquished and now all that is left is this final, unorthodox ‘tale.’ The Host’s last words even make mention of both time and space, further solidifying his (now finished) role as the container of both time and space for the pilgrims: “Hasteth yow; the sonne wole adoun/Beth fructuous, and that in litel space/And to do wel God sende yow his grace!” (X.70-72).
The Tales, as far as the Host is concerned, have ended. Since the last tale itself defied the rules of the Aristotelian place that the Host offered, there is no longer any reason for the Host to make mention of himself at the end of the Parson’s Tale. Instead, we simply get a statement by, who we assume, is the author himself. Although the Host (i.e. he-that-provided-for-the-tales) is gone, the problem of interpretation lingers, and now without even a narrative authority, the author’s statements seem even more ambiguous—we are truly unbounded now, just like the book became once Chaucer published it.
Aristotle. Physics. Trans. Joe Sachs. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. Print.
Burger, Glenn. “Kissing the Pardoner.” Modern Language Association 107.5 (1992): 1143-1156. Web. 22 November 2011. Retrieved from JSTOR.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Choreographies. Trans. Christie V. McDonald. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.
Richardson, Cynthia C. “The Function of the Host in the Canterbury Tales.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language: A Journal of the Humanities 12 (1970): 325-344. Web. 15 November 2011. Retrieved from EBSCO.
Williams, Tara. “The Host, his Wife, and their Communities in the Canterbury Tales.” The Chaucer Review 42.4 (2008): 381-408. Web. 17 November 2011. Retrieved from EBSCO.