“Go, litel boke, go, litel myn tragedye,” cries Chaucer at the close of his Troilus and Criseyde. As he hands his book off to the vicissitudes of manuscript production—memorably evoked in his poem to Adam Scriveyn1—the persistent fear that scribes may “miswrite the” or “mysmetre” the work troubles the poet’s mind.
Iteration is a problem. As is influence. Chaucer exhorts his book to be humble, not to envy Virgil, Homer, Ovid, Lucan, or Statius; rather, this little book is to kiss their steps. And yet, Chaucer, we know, surely did not “kis the steppes” of Boccaccio, his putative source. Rather, he audaciously re-writes the Trojan War as a romantic tragedy of Boethian proportions. Whereas his erstwhile follower John Lydgate loves the politics of Troy in his monumental Troy Book, Chaucer seems enamored with the politics of love. Questions of who “miswrite” what abound and increase. Writing in response to Chaucer’s seemingly unflattering portrait of Criseyde, Robert Hennryson’s Testement of Cresseid claims to pick up where Chaucer leaves off. Troy endlessly enchants English writers, and in the Trojan tradition we “so gret diuersite / In Englissh and in writyng in oure tonge.” Troynovant—whether London or not—rises endlessly in English.
“But ȝet to purpos of my rather speche:” what has this to do with Ivanhoe? Well. As we’ve worked on Ivanhoe, I’ve commented about the ways in which DH development reminds me of manuscript production.2 What strikes me about Ivanhoe is the way in which it embraces the most unruly, anxiety-inducing aspects of medieval textuality—the possibility of endless revision, perpetually unbound books.
Ivanhoe is a broad concept, and we have discussed many definitions of it over the past year. For me, Ivanhoe has become an alternate way of making meaning, a mode of communication that exploits ambiguities and varieties of meaning to create an open landscape in which “sentence” and “solas”—to reach back to the Chaucerian well—exist in dynamic tension and continually generate unexpected readings.
Perhaps Chaucer isn’t that worried at the end of Troilus. Perhaps he’s actually in on the joke. He exhorts his book to “subgit be to alle Poyesye,” a game Chaucer clearly understands to consist of adaptation and expansion. His prayer is simply “That thow be vnderstonde” but he leaves that understanding open. The book, once sent out into the world, takes on a life of its own.
Tuesday we launched Ivanhoe, our own little “go litel program, go, oure tragedye” moment. We did so with the understanding that were giving up absolute control over Ivanhoe, and I think we share Chaucer’s prayer—to be understood.
So. How should you use this little thing we launched into the world? Honestly, part of Ivanhoe is figuring that out yourself. There are “so gret diuersite” of ways to do Ivanhoe—as many as there are to do Troy—that really it’s up to each user. But maybe, it might be fun to return to Troynovant, or rather, to rebuild it.
Go, litel boke, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther god thi makere ȝet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make in some comedye;
But litel book, no makyng thow nenvie,
But subgit be to alle Poyesye,
And kis the steppes where as thow seest space
Uirgile, Ouide, Omer, Lucan and Stace.
And for ther is so gret diuersite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I god that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.
And red wher-so thow [MS ȝow] or elles songe,
That thow be vnderstonde, god I biseche.
But ȝet to purpos of my rather speche –3
Geoffrey Chaucer, “Chaucers Wordes unto Adam,” <http://www.bartleby.com/258/61.html> ↩
Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Barry Windeatt (London: Longman, 1984), < http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/Troilus/1:5.28?rgn=div2;view=toc>, V.1786-99. ↩