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The Tale ofBeryn and The Siege ofThebes: Alternative Ideas of The Canterbury Tales John M. Bowers Princeton University It is ,,fr to say that frw pcopk have ccad John Lydgate's Si,g, of Thebesor the anonymous Tale ofBeryn, two fifteenth-century attempts to continue the literary journey and tale-telling of Chaucer's unfinished masterpiece. 1 Yet in a real sense very few people have read The Canterbury Tales. What they have experienced is a modern fabrication by Skeat, Robinson, Baugh, Fisher, and other editors who offer the poem as a single work, albeit marred by gaps and rough edges, but nonetheless recounting what was said on a one-way trip from Southwerk to the outskirts of Canterbury. This is technically a fabrication because no surviving manu­ script arranges the fragments in an order which gives perfect geographical support to this design-not without the notorious "Bradshaw shift" -and no single manuscript, not even Ellesmere, contains all the tales and links to be found in a modern edition with its scholarly conflations. To recognize and investigate a recoverable "idea" ofthis assemblage, as Donald Howard has done so provocatively, really means to grant full confidence to the authority ofEllesmere, a manuscript that implies but by no means specifies a one-way journey. 2 His and other unity studies have 1 John Lydgate, Siege ofThe be s, ed. Axel Erdmann and Eilert Ekwall, 2 vols., EETS. e.s., nos. 108, 125 (London, 1911, 1930); and The Tale o/Beryn, witha Prologue ofthe Merry Adventure ofthe Pa,don erwitha TapsteratCanterbu1y, ed. F.J. Furnivalland W. G.Stone, EETS, e.s., no. 105 (London, 1909). Chaucer quotations and lineations are from Geoffrey Chaucer, The C omplete P oetryandPros e, ed.John H. Fisher (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977). 2 Donald R. Howard. 1he Idea ofthe Canterbury Tales (Berkeley: University ofCalifornia Press, 1976), pp. 212-13 et passim, accepts the Ellesmere order as the starting point for his critical discussion. In his chapter "The Idea of an Idea," pp. 1-20, he distinguishes an idea as something different from the author's intention, genre, style, language, tradition, values, mental archetype, and cultural mythology -yet including all ofthese: "This whole is an idea" (p. 19). 23 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER proceeded with the assurance that Ellesmere preserves the poet's own final arrangement ofthe Canterbury fragments, despite the fact that this confi­ dence was not shared by an earlier generation of textual scholars at work analyzing the full range of surviving manuscripts. Brusendorff, Tatlock, Manly, and Dempster reached a critical consensus in concluding that none ofthe manuscript sequences, however attractive, had any final authority in determining the order of the groups. 3 Largely excluding the testimony of these textual experts, unity studies have also tended to fall prey to a circularity in their own logic. A typical argument begins with the assump­ tion that there must be an orderly and meaningful arrangement ofdetails in the frame narrative, proceeds to set Ellesmere's time and place references in a naturalistic sequence-leaving the pilgrims unnaturalistically outside Canterbury (or the CelestialJerusalem) without the return to the Tabard announced in The GeneralPrologue-and then concludes that the frame narrative does indeed have an orderly and meaningful arrangement which gives rise to an aesthetic unity.4 3 Aage Brusrndorff. The Chaucer Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925),pp. 119-20, 125-26;). S. P. Tatlock, "The Canterbury Tales in 1400," PMLA 50 (1935):105-06, 131-33: John M. Manly and EdithRickert, eds., The Text ofThe Canterbury Tales: Studied on the Basis ofAll Known Manuscripts, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 2:475-94 (hereafter Manly andRickert): and Germaine Dempster, "Manly's Conception of the Early History of the Canterbury Tales," PMLA 61 (1946):384, 386-89, alluding to Tatlock, pp. 106, 131Robert A. Pratt, ''The Order of the Canterbury Tales," PMLA 66 (1951):1141-67, proceeds under the proviso that his conclusions have merit only "if Chaucer had a definite intention" (p. 1142). 4 The search for an aesthetic wholeness not based on the older principle of roadside drama was begun byRalph Baldwin, The Unity ofthe Canterbury Tales (Copenhagen:Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955), and has...


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