Valentine’s Day, Geoffrey Chaucer, and My Students: a Fun Story!

(Mike DePung — Post II.9)

Funny Valentine’s Day story! (I think I owe you one after yesterday’s heavy duty post!)

When I taught British literature for seniors, I would always present a little bit of The Parliament of Fowls by Geoffrey Chaucer. Written in approximately 1381–1382, the Middle English language was a fun challenge for the students. I would let them play with the first few stanzas of this 699 line poem. I would tell them it is the first time in English literature that Valentine’s Day is associated with love and Cupid. Then, I would do a very brief version of the story.

The narrator, while never having been in love himself, knows an awful lot about it from books he has read. He has a vision, and in the vision, it is this time of year when all the little animals choose their mates and start their little animal families, especially the birdies.

Of course, they aren’t the only ones, because humans start feeling the love bug in the earliest stirrings of spring. And Cupid is there to help out — well, not really help out but rather use it to his advantage of using his petty, godlike cruelty against puny humans. He isn’t presented as some sweet little cherubic, angelic being, but rather the overbearing taskmaster of love, who does shoot arrows to afflict his targets with love.

However, they aren’t some cute Nerf mini-arrows; nope, they are made of material that is forged and filed. I would ask students what kind of material that might be. Metal. How big is the bow and how big and powerful must Cupid, referred to as “our Lord,” be to shoot metal arrows that have been hardened and sharpened with a file? Not only that, but his daughter, Wille, presented as the human will personified, double hardens the heads of the arrows. Why does she do this? What does this make it possible for the arrows to do?: “Some for to slay, some to wound, and some to carve.”

And then, the operations of Mother Nature in the bird, fowl, empire shows how those arrows might work. Before all the multitude of little birdies can start their little birdie families, they have to wait on a royal princess babe eagle bird to choose a mate. Three royal eagle dudes vie for her. The first one is very wealthy, very impressive, and the hunkiest of the three. He offers the princess half of his kingdom. All the lesser birds witnessing this go freakin’ crazy. “Take him! Take him!” they shout. She’s not ready yet.

The second bird is no slouch. He offers her his whole kingdom, his whole kingdom. The “silly geese” as well as all the others can hardly stand it. There’s almost a riot. “He’s the one. No need for the third. Choose him and let us go make our little birdie families.” Hubba! Hubba! “Nope. I want to hear the third guy’s offer.”

The third eagle, though royal, obviously isn’t the same caliber as the first two. “Look, Baby. I’m not as wealthy as those other guys. I don’t have kingdoms to give you, but what I have is yours. You have my heart.”

Pandemonium amongst all the birds of Nature gathered there. Mother Nature asks the royal babe bird which suitor she chooses. And this is where I would rile my classes up — in a good-natured way that they took in the right spirit!

I would tell the class this: “Look, guys in the class; I want you to understand how this boy-girl thing works. After those poor shmucks offered their hearts to this hot royal bird babe, she with coyness and sickening sweetness says, ‘You know what? I think I’ll wait till next year to decide.’ That’s what girls do to us. They make us promise them everything, pit us against each other, and then walk away from us, flipping their hair over their shoulders as they stomp our hearts into the dirt.”

OMG! The guys in class would all be grumbling, ready to participate in a mass uprising to drive the girls out of the room. And invariably, one or several of the girls in class would run to my wife’s office — she was a counselor at the school — and say, “Do you know what your husband just said about girls?!” We all had a good laugh. My girls knew I held no bias towards them. It was just great fun for us all.

So, that’s my Valentine’s Day story — at least one of them. I hope it was a great day for you.