Month: September 2019

Chaucer’s Red Right Hand – Vengeance, Sin and the Plague

Often, I do this thing where, when I’m recommended a piece of music that I end up liking, I’ll deep-dive through that musician’s catalog for a while until they’ve become one of one of my favorites. I think plenty of people do that–how else should we appreciate a person’s music for ourselves?–and for me, over the past week, that’s been Nick Cave’s music. Cave is a musician from Australia who rose to prominence at the tail end of the post-punk movement; forming The Bad Seeds in the mid-1980s, the group has released 17 full-length albums as well as a handful of live recordings. This week, I’ve been listening to a track called “Red Right Hand” on repeat, and, in preparation for this assignment, considered analyzing it alongside the Canterbury Tales as a way of engaging the latter work through comparison. I know it’s a bit silly, but I have my reasons for drawing these–admittedly a little contrived–connections between both works. The first reason is that I haven’t had the chance to engage in any piece of media for a while, so I wanted to use this assignment as an opportunity to focus on a few things about the song and the Canterbury Tales together. The second reason is that, the way I chose to analyze it, I found more than a few similarities between the Tales and “Red Right Hand,” and that a record of my observations might help someone re-evaluate or reinterpret these works. Regardless, I felt that it was a unique opportunity to have some fun with this post while also fulfilling my academic responsibilities!

In short, “Red Right Hand” is a song about a mystical encounter with a mysterious figure. I say “mystical” here because the song possesses a slightly unnatural quality to it that’s a little difficult to describe. Sonically, the music sans lyrics sounds slow and menacing, rooting the audience in the dark world that Cave and his band create. Meanwhile, the central figure, (“a tall handsome man… with a red right hand”) of the song resembles “characters” from other Bad Seed hits like “the Carny.” In both songs, the role of the Carny and the Man are symbols: personifications of a moral (Sorrow and Greed, most likely) more than they are realistic portraits of people who might exist in our world. Cave’s lyrics offer a more convenient summary of this idea to his audience: “he’s a god, he’s a man / he’s a ghost, he’s a guru,” and the power of this conflicting image coupled with the strange and ambiguous detail about his hand automatically conjures an image of something otherworldly and evil. It reminded me a lot of the character Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; even at a glance, the physical description of the Judge (and Cave’s “tall, handsome man”) tells you that he is unambiguously nasty. The audience knows not the trust these men, and in Cave’s case, it is a good instinct to follow: verses 3 and 4 show that the Man is trying to broker a deal with the narrator wherein he trades money (“stacks of green paper”) for unspecified favors. This, we figure, can lead to bad places, and of course, that is something that the “Pardoner’s Tale” examines as well.

An overwhelming number of internet scholars never fail to observe that the phrase “red right hand” originates from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The term in the original context represents an act of vengeance perpetuated on Heaven’s disobedient angels by God himself, and was a translation of a Latin phrase attributed to Horace. Therefore, there is another level of religious symbolism present in Cave’s creation. The Man’s motivations are shady; for him to possess a “red right hand” is unsettling and clearly a great turn of phrase, but the exact meaning here is unclear. Perhaps the Man is motivated by greed, or out of a perverse desire for power over other people, but one can’t really call these motivations “vengeful.” On the other hand, I believe that the Pardoner’s Tale contains its own version of the “red right hand” that might constitute a thematic similarity between it and Nick Cave’s song. I only began to research this after I had heard the song, but I had the idea that medieval plagues would have been seen as godly acts of vengeance in predominately Christian societies. When we discussed the bubonic Plague and Boccacio, we understood that the Decameron was written at a time where it was easier for people to interpret the plague as an act of god rather than one of natural circumstances: our Decameron introduction noted that some thinkers, like Konrad von Megenburg, “concluded that society itself had caused the plague by its sinful behavior,” leading Boccacio (and presumably Chaucer) to insert similar views into their most prominent works.

I’ll use this assumption to begin into my analysis of the “Pardoner’s Tale,” and make several observations about the tone of the story in my continued effort to compare it to “Red Right Hand.” Plague imagery is prevalent throughout the Pardoner’s Tale, where gluttony, drinking, and gambling all become explicit targets in the Pardoner’s Tale as examples of dangerously sinful behavior. Moreover, these actions accordingly serve as the pretext (i.e. all that is required) for Death to seek out and dispose of the sinner; I think we can agree that Death, whether an independent entity from or a servant of the Christian God, is a believable extension of God’s wrath or righteous anger: his “red right hand”. Furthermore, Chaucer’s version of vengeance interests me a great deal because of other ways it is explored in the “Pardoner’s Tale.” The three main characters of the “Tale” are miscreants-turned-murderers by the end of the tale, and they, like Milton’s angels, are lured to rebellion against the word of God by their desire for earthly/material favor: Wealth and Power in Chaucer’s case. Their disobedience incurs a very specific and classical form of punishment, fitting more in line with Milton’s “red right hand” than Cave’s chosen symbol for a “Faustian” contract.

However, I also believe that Cave’s subject matter, which exaggerates the characteristics of a corrupt or evil negotiator, remains a relevant source of comparison for other key reasons. In the “Pardoner’s Tale,” the three criminals originally set out to kill Death after losing a close friend. Along the way, they encounter a mysterious Old Man, who advises that “you shall [Death] find” at the base of a nearby oak tree. Instead, they are led to an enormous cache of gold coins. The “righteous” people of Chaucer’s time rightfully would have seen this scenario as something to avoid, the same way that any Bad Seeds’ listener begins to feel unsettled by the subject of Cave’s song. We see in both cases a figure who disguises a negative outcome as a positive one, ensnaring a number of unlucky and unwilling participants. In Chaucer’s case, the Old Man has often identified as a figure of Death because of his motivations for leading the three men to their demise, but there are numerous other interpretations as well. Alternatively, I would propose a possible reading in which the Pardoner inserted himself into his tale as the Old Man/Death. It’s an unflattering assumption, but Chaucer’s portrait of the Pardoner makes him out to be a man who constantly tries to profit from the Christian belief in sin and Death; who better to play a character who profits off of human ignorance than a person who does so professionally in Chaucer’s world? In any case, the character is just ambiguous enough for us to identify the threat, but not so specific that we can agree on a definite source for its malice.

I’ve already discussed how the same idea applies to Cave’s character, and I think its an applicable comparison here because of their respective significance in both stories. All in all, there isn’t much more that I think I can say about the two together! I wish there was a little more that I could have read by way of comparisons between the song and the “Pardoner’s Tale,” but I still believe that it was a fun way to draw connections between things I’ve read and listened to!


Chaucer, Martin, and the Church.

One of the core parts of a fantasy novel, really honestly like any form of fiction, is tropes. Recently, tropes have gotten a bad rep, and I don’t think that’s particularly fair. 

First, I guess I should explain what a trope is. The simplest explanation is this: a trope is a commonly used idea or plot point in fiction. 

Think a young, nobody guy that suddenly receives a magical weapon and must now go save the world.

Am I talking about Luke Skywalker? Harry Potter? Literally so many other characters? That’s a trope.

There are plenty of videos on youtube that talk about them but I have an issue with the fact that most of these refer to tropes as “cliches” which, again, I don’t think is fair. Especially if you’re going to automatically say all cliches are bad. They’re not. I promise. Tropes done badly are bad because the writer messed up, not because the device is bad. 

Now that I have established what a trope is, I can talk about what I ACTUALLY want to talk about which is the deconstruction of tropes. To understand what it means to subvert, or change, a trope you need to know what they are in the first place which is why I wasted that time up top giving a brief explanation of the concept. Because, I believe to properly deconstruct tropes you need to understand them, maybe even love them. 

We could say, easily, that one of the first examples of a deconstruction of a trope is in The Canterbury Tales, though I will add that it’s not REALLY the same because the tropes would not have been…y’know…tropes. At that point. They were characters, ideals, plots, that would later go on to become tropes. The shining knight of “The Knight’s Tale” or the drunken laborer of “The Miler’s Tale.” All of which would become VERY common parts of stories. But, let’s say there are some common character types at the time of Chaucer writing, religious folks mostly or tales of morality such as the play Everyman. Within The Canterbury Tales, there is STILL deconstruction of those ideas. 

The first examples come directly from the “General Prologue” of the story, where Chaucer introducers his characters and the reason they’re together. Both of the characters are religious men, a friar, and a monk, and both of them are far from the holy man ideal that would have been overt in many morality plays or texts of the time. The monk is described as being very well dressed, with many horses, and loving hunting. The text goes so far as to say he “gave not a plucked in for that text” (line 13.) So, he’s not exactly a high holy man. Then comes the friar, who is explicitly said to take money from rich people to make himself rich while he ignores the poor people that may actually need his guidance because they cannot pay him. So, that’s great, good things happening here. For sure not at all a HUGE drag on the Catholic Church and indulgences (when priests and others would take money from parishioners and say that money would get them into heaven.) 

It would not at all be a leap to see how these two men, men of the church, being corrupt signals something greater. The idea that the Catholic Church is infallible, it isn’t, because it is run by men like these who use that religion to enrich themselves. 

This may be common enough for us now, specifically when it comes to organizations such as the church, but what about the less common deconstructions? Or, at least, the ones we are less likely to see as deconstructions? Such as, oh IDK, high fantasy based on a combination of the War of the Roses and climate change? 

I mean A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, obviously. (As a quick note, I won’t talk about the show because I deeply hate it but that’s on me.) 

There are some obvious ones about, like, the government in general, but I’m not gonna talk about those I want to talk about CHARACTERS. 

Actually, more specifically, two relationships and how they’re deconstruction of class fantasy tropes in the same way that Chaucer was deconstructing morality play tropes with the monk and the friar. Renly/Loras and Jaime/Cersei (Jaime/Brienne too but it’s a different trope) both function as deconstructions of Courtly Romance ideals. 

Forbidden love between a royal and a knight is an INCREDIBLY common idea dating all the way back to stories about King Arthur (Guinevere and Lancelot, anyone?) But these two ships have some obvious, uh, differences. One of them is a gay relationship, not something you’re likely to find being explicitly written in a courtly romance. The other is incest and also, just, a really wild relationship in every possible way. 

But, honestly, that’s a way different and longer post so I’m not gonna dwell on them just wanted all of you to have to deal with the knowledge that Jaime and Cersei are Lancelot and Guinevere equivalent. Let that live in your brain forever like it lives in mine. 

Obviously, the Chaucer tropes and what Martin is using are very different, but my interest lies less in WHAT tropes are deconstructed more in…like…what it means, if that makes sense. It doesn’t but I’ll try and explain. Those ideas, religious men of valor and courtly romances, are fundamental tropes. They have defined much of the stories we use. Despite having nothing in common in form they are similar in impact, is what I mean, I guess. Both stories show romanticized or normalized versions of an idea, religion or love or honor or really so many things, and tear those things down.

Within A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s notable that the primary church of the Seven Kingdom, the Seven, is a corrupt organization, all of the septons (priests) we meet are either using the religion to enrich themselves or using it to enact a violent agenda. The High Septon is, after all, responsible for unleashing the Faith Militant, the people going around fighting and killing for the church (Martin,) and the Silent Sisters are responsible for torture and the Walk of Shame that Cersei must undergo, and she is far from the only one they put through that, just the POV character we read about. That is hardly a great view of the dominate organized religion of the time. Just like Chaucer talking about not the IDEA of god but the domination that the Catholic Church has on religion. 

What is the Faith Militant but a version of the Crusades? What about the Silent Sisters? How many horror stories are about nuns? A LOT. 

Without Chaucer taking the forms of ideal religious men and smearing dirt just ALLLLLLLL over them would trope deconstruction evolved in a way that allowed Martin to make his version of the church? Obviously, there’s no way to know for sure but I like to think not, that there’s some alternate universe where Chaucer decided to write these men different which meant that the way our literature has developed is completely different. 

Or, think of it this way, someone had to pave the way, right? Towards being able to overtly comment on the crimes of the church, or really any organization, and the first steps towards that were unlikely to be explicit. They were going to be hidden, something that requires deeper reading, something like The Canterbury Tales, not something like A Song of Ice and Fire which needed the framework that made subversion of accepted tropes to even work. 

Anyway, long story short, read the books because the show sucks and I will fight Benioff & Weiss in hell! 


Work Cited


Chaucer, Geoffrey, et al. Reading Chaucer: an Interlinear Translation of Selections in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th Ed. W.W. Norton, 2006.

Martin, George RR. A Feast for Crows. Bantam Books. 2011.