Chaucer's world in The Canterbury Tales brings together, for the first time, a diversity of characters, social levels, attitudes, and ways of life. The tales themselves make use of a similarly wide range of forms and styles, which show the diversity of cultural influences which the author had at his disposal. Literature, with Chaucer, has taken on a new role: as well as affirming a developing language, it is a mirror of its times - but a mirror which teases as it reveals, which questions while it narrates, and which opens up a range of issues and questions, instead of providing simple, easy answers.
One of the first books of travel, giving European readers some insight into the unfamiliar world of the Orient, was published in 1356-67 in Anglo-Norman French. Called simply Travels, it was said to be by Sir John Mandeville, but a French historian, Jean d'Outremeuse, may well have written the book. It is a highly entertaining guide for pilgrims to the Holy Land, but goes beyond, taking the reader as far as Tartary, Persia, India and Egypt, recounting more fantasy than fact, but containing geographical details to give the work credence. Mandeville's book whetted the Western European reader's appetite for the travel book as a journal of marvels: dry scientific detail was not what these readers wanted. Rather it was imagination plus information. Thus, myths of 'the fountain of youth' and of gold-dust lying around 'like ant-hills' caught the Western imagination, and, when the voyagers of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries found 'new worlds' in the Americas, these myths were enlarged and expanded, as Eldorado joined the Golden Road to Samarkand in the imagination of readers concerning distant lands.
The fairy or fantastic world replaces the classical Hades (or Hell) in Sir Orfeo, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes this fantasy element to new heights. Sir Gawain is one of the Knights of the Round Table, the followers of King Arthur, who is so much of a presence in English history, myth and literature.
Pearl introduces an original story, in a form which was to become one of the most frequent in mediaeval literature, the dream-vision. Authors like Chaucer and Langland use this form, in which the narrator describes another world - usually a heavenly paradise - which is compared with the earthly human world. In Pearl, the narrator sees his daughter who died in infancy, 'the ground of all my bliss'. She now has a kind of perfect knowledge, which her father can never comprehend. The whole poem underlines the divide between human comprehension and perfection; these lines show the gap between possible perfection and fallen humanity which, thematically, anticipate many literary examinations of man's fall, the most well known being Milton's late Renaissance epic, Paradise Lost.
The range and variety of Chaucer's English did much to establish English as a national language. Chaucer also contributed much to the formation of a standard English based on the dialect of the East Midlands region which was basically the dialect of London which Chaucer himself spoke. Indeed, by the end of the fourteenth century the educated language of London, bolstered by the economic power of London itself, was beginning to become the standard form of written language throughout the country, although the process was not to be completed for several centuries. The cultural, commercial, administrative and intellectual importance of the East Midlands (one of the two main universities, Cambridge, was also in this region), the agricultural richness of the region and the presence of major cities, Norwich and London, contributed much to the increasing standardisation of the dialect.
Writers in what we now call the Middle English period (late twelfth century to 1485) did not necessarily always write in English. The language was in a state of flux: attempts were made to assert the French language, to keep down the local language, English, and to make the language of the church (Latin) the language of writing.
As we have seen, French culture and language interacted with native English culture for several generations after the Norman Conquest. A common word such as 'castle' is a French loan word, for example; and the whole romance tradition comes from the French. But this sensibility, culture, and language becomes integrated with native culture. As well as the beginnings of what came to be called a courtly love tradition, we can find in Early Middle English (around the time that Layamon was writing Brut) the growth of a local tradition of songs and ballads.
The concept of an author, the single creative person who gives the text 'authority', only comes later in this period. Most Old English poetry is anonymous, even though names which are in no way comparable, such as Caedmon and Deor, are used to identify single texts. Caedmon and Deor might indeed be as mythical as Grendel, might be the originators of the texts which bear their names, or, in Deor's case only, the persona whose first-person voice narrates the poem. Only Cynewulf 'signed' his works, anticipating the role of the 'author' by some four hundred years.
Beowulf stands out as a poem which makes extensive use of this kind of figurative language. There are over one thousand compounds in the poem, totalling one-third of all the words in the text. Many of these compounds are kennings. The word 'to ken' is still used in many Scottish and Northern English dialects, meaning 'to know'. Such language is a way of knowing and of expressing meanings in striking and memorable ways; it has continuities with the kinds of poetic compounding found in nearly all later poetry but especially in the Modernist texts of Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Joyce.
Old English poetry also contained a wide range of conventional poetic diction, many of the words being created to allow alliterative patterns to be made. There are therefore numerous alternatives for key words like battle, warrior, horse, ship, the sea, prince, and so on. Some are decorative periphrases: a king can be a 'giver of rings' or a 'giver of treasure' (literally, a king was expected to provide his warriors with gifts after they had fought for him).
Old English poetry is characterised by a number of poetic tropes which enable a writer to describe things indirectly and which require a reader imaginatively to construct their meaning. The most widespread of these figurative descriptions are what are known as kennings. Kennings often occur in compounds: for example, hronrad (whale-road) or swanrad (swan- road) meaning 'the sea'; banhus (bone-house) meaning the 'human body'. Some kennings involve borrowing or inventing words; others appear to be chosen to meet the alliterative requirement of a poetic line, and as a result some kennings are difficult to decode, leading to disputes in critical interpretation. But kennings do allow more abstract concepts to be communicated by using more familiar words: for example, God is often described as moncynnes weard ('guardian of mankind').
I had not particularly liked the way in which he wrote about literature in, and I was always on my guard if not outright hostile when any tincture of 'deconstruction' or 'postmodernism' was applied to my beloved canon of English writing, but when Edward talked about English literature and quoted from it, he passed the test that I always privately apply: Do you truly this subject and could you bear to live for one moment if it was obliterated?