In broad terms, the prologue to the Legend of Good Women, can be seen as Chaucer’s retrospective on his long career as author, compilator, imitator and translator. It is clear to see that he is satirising the tradition of authorial humility, declaring that his ‘wit be lite’ (LGW 29), as at this point in his career he had attained the highest patronage an author could acquire in the land. Chaucer is confident of his literary abilities and instead is looking at his legacy from a fresh perspective. Alceste examines retrospectively on the work that his has done:
He hath in prose translated Boece… Hym oughte now to have the lesse peyne; He hath mad many a lay and many a thyng. (LGW 413, 420-421) The labour that he carries out is not merely story telling but is something meaningful and beneficial to the English corpus as a whole. His work is to plough the fields using his knowledge of the books ‘I me delyte, And in myn herte have hem in reverance’ (LGW 30-31) to make them fertile for new thoughts and contemporary ideas to be grown. Chaucer’s mission is to sift through these old books and using his discretion as ‘lectoris arbitrium’ which is ‘the freedom of the reader to pick and choose among a compilations contents’ (Lerer 63) to produce a work which is the embodiment of quality and artistic integrity – an embodiment of the ‘pleyn text’ and the ‘naked text’ that he endeavours to expose. Chaucer is fully self-conscious of the different roles that he has served to play and defends himself through the voice of Alceste in the prologue:
‘He may translate a thing in no malice, But for he useth bokes for to make, And taketh non hed of what matere he take… He ne hath don so grevously amys To translate that old clerkes wryte, As thogh that he of maleys wolde endyte.’ (LGW 341-343, 349-351) Chaucer here understands his subjectivity as an author, translator and general mediator of stories. He is somehow apologetic to the reader for this subjectivity; it is impossible for him to reveal the naked text, because he will always be intricately bound into it.
Chaucer simultaneously affirms and queries the distinct roles played by “auctor”, “compliator”, and “lector” in the construction of literary meaning, and in the process he invites later poets, scribes, and imitators to participate in the creation of that meaning (Lerer 64). Chaucer sees himself in a servile role, doing an honoury duty to elevate the English vernacular, as Alceste states it: ‘To serven yow, in preysynge of youre name.’ (LGW 403-404). He intrusively comments on his functions and ultimately his main objective is in praise of the English vernacular itself; to reveal it and proliferate its literary use.
By the end of the prologue, Chaucer seems to have reached a resolution on his anxieties over his influences and responsibilities as an author. Disparaged by the God of Love, and defended by Alceste, in an act of unintentional parroting the speaker in the poem awakes to immediately pen the dream vision that he has just had, thereby continuing the tradition of imitation and unwitting plagiarism. And with that word, of slep I gan awake, And right thus on my Legende gan I make. (LGW 544-545)
There is a tone of urgency in the final lines – he is obligated to commit these tales to pen and immediately sets about to execute this work. It is as if he feels that this task has been specifically set out for him to complete and he must do this ‘labour’ as he refers to it. Chaucer is comfortable as an author who mediates between texts, and ‘is at once a reader, a translator, a critic and a producer of texts.’ (Desmond 62). Using the physical image of the book, Chaucer is authorised as a writer; for he has read and digested them and is now ready to sow the grain of their contents for his readership to ingest. Chaucer’s fear and anxiety of misrepresenting this information that he has gained is nullified by the end of the prologue as he realises that he is preserving old thinking and in doing so sustaining literature.
Carlson, David R. ‘Thomas Hoccleve and the Chaucer Portrait’. The Huntington Library
Quarterly 54:4 (1991): 283-300.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. ‘Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn’. The Riverside
Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. 650.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. ‘Prologue to The Legend of Good Women’ [G Text]. The Riverside
Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. 588-603.