Unfinished Quests from Chaucer to Spenser
Abstract: Late medieval English texts often represent unfinished quests for
obscurely significant objects. These works create enchanted worlds where more always
remains to be discovered and where questers search for an ur-text, an authoritative book
that promises perfect knowledge. Rather than reaching this ur-text, however, questers
confront rumor, monstrous babble, and the clamor of argument... read more, which thwart their efforts to
gather together sacred wholeness. Yet while threatening, noise also preserves the sacred by
ensuring that it remains forever elsewhere, for recovering perfect knowledge would
disenchant the world. Scholarship on medieval noise often focuses on class: medieval
writers tend to describe threats to political authority as noisy. These unfinished quests,
though, suggest that late medieval literature's complex investment in noise extends further
and involves the very search for the sacred, a search full of opaque language and unending
desire. Noise, then, becomes the sound of narrative itself. While romance foregrounds
questing most clearly, these ideas appear in a variety of genres. Chapter 1 shows that in
the House of Fame rumor both perpetuates and undermines knowledge, so sacred authority must
remain beyond the poem's frame. Chapter 2 juxtaposes the Parliament of Fowls and the
Canon's Yeoman's Tale, in which lists replace missing quest-objects, the philosopher's
stone and certainty about love. Chapter 3 centers on Piers Plowman, which becomes
encyclopedic as one attempt to "preve what is Dowel" leads to another, and Will never
definitively learns how to save his soul, the knowledge he most wants. Chapter 4 turns to
Julian of Norwich's search for divine "mening" and her confrontation with an incoherent
fiend, an anxious moment that aligns her with these less serene contemporaries. Chapter 5
argues that Thomas Malory's elusive, noisy Questing Beast at once bolsters and undermines
chivalry. The final chapter looks ahead to Book VI of The Faerie Queene, where the Blatant
Beast, a sixteenth-century amalgam of the fame tradition and the Questing Beast, menaces
Faery Land yet, as a figure for poetry, also contributes to its enchantment. In trying to
locate and maintain the sacred, these unfinished quests evoke worlds intensely anxious
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2016.
Submitted to the Dept. of English.
Advisor: John Fyler.
Committee: Kevin Dunn, Judith Haber, and James Simpson.
Keywords: English literature, and Medieval literature.read less