Unfinished business | Daily News

Unfinished business

Mary C. Flannery on where Game of Thrones meets Chaucer

Well before the final episode of Game of Thrones aired on May 19, fans of the series had launched an online petition asking HBO to “Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers”. In the eyes of many viewers, this long-anticipated final season had fallen significantly short of what they had come to expect in terms of storytelling. Beloved characters were slaughtering others or being killed off with little or no warning, and long monologues were being substituted for carefully crafted plotlines. The creator of the online petition argued that the show’s writers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, had “proven themselves to be woefully incompetent writers when they have no source material (i.e. the books) to fall back on. This series deserves a final season that makes sense”. To date, the petition has acquired more than 1.6 million signatures, a number that continues to creep upwards, several weeks on.

One of the chief complications involved in televising George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has always been the fact that the book series is – as yet – unfinished. That it might remain unfinished is a persistent source of anxiety among Martin’s fans. In February 2018, Erik Kain wrote a piece for Forbes suggesting that fans of A Song of Ice and Fire should accept that Martin might never complete the series. As he pointed out, “Martin is no spring chicken at 69”; and, with more than one book left to write in the series, “It’s reasonable to worry that he might not be able to finish at this rate and equally reasonable to suspect he doesn’t much care”. Under such circumstances, what is a fan to do? Forced on the one hand to await the final books of a saga whose author may never complete it, and on the other hand to swallow a final season of Game of Thrones that may bear no resemblance to whatever Martin has planned for Westeros, they are in a lose-lose situation.

There may be some solace to be found elsewhere in English literary history, most particularly in the period that has inspired Martin’s series. While the Wars of the Roses served as the model for Martin’s violent political fantasy, it is the finished – and unfinished – work of medieval England’s most famous poet that springs to my mind in the wake of the Game of Thrones controversy. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote some of the greatest masterpieces of medieval English literature, several of which were unfinished at his death in 1400. The Canterbury Tales, on which so much of Chaucer’s contemporary reputation rests, includes only a fraction of what its prologue assures readers is to come. Each pilgrim is to tell two tales on the road from London to Canterbury and two on the return journey, but only some of them manage to tell a tale, and only one pilgrim – Chaucer’s avatar – tells two. Debate continues regarding what to make of the fragmentary Cook’s Tale, which begins in the mode of a bawdy story concerning a wayward apprentice and breaks off, perhaps mercifully, just as we are informed that his landlady “swyved” (screwed) for a living. At this point in the narrative, the earliest surviving manuscript of the Tales includes the rather deadpan marginal note, “Of this Cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore”. Did Chaucer not write any more of it? If so, why not? And should we feel relieved, or disappointed by the tale’s incomplete state?

Some medieval readers viewed the unfinished state of The Canterbury Tales as an opportunity to contribute their own narratives to Chaucer’s fictional tale-telling competition. John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes, completed roughly twenty years after Chaucer’s death, is written in this mode; its prologue casts Lydgate as one of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, where he meekly capitulates to the other pilgrims’ insistence that he tell a tale of his own. Other, anonymously authored “Canterbury tales” survive from the fifteenth century, including The Tale of Beryn (supposedly told by the Merchant), The Ploughman’s Tale and The Tale of Gamelyn, a romance included in twenty-five manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales as a kind of second, more salubrious Cook’s Tale.

The Canterbury Tales is not the only major Chaucerian poem to survive in apparently incomplete form.

The Legend of Good Women, Chaucer’s collection of stories about women betrayed by violent or unfaithful men, ceases abruptly after only a handful of narratives. And The House of Fame, a somewhat gnomic dream poem, breaks off just as the dreamer-narrator encounters a “man of greet auctoritee” – a medieval cliffhanger if ever there was one. William Caxton, the first to publish The House of Fame in print, lamented that he could “fynde nomore of this werke” in the manuscripts at his disposal. But rather than leaving his readers with a blank space, he chose to fill that space with a dozen lines of his own verse, which end with the unmistakably final declaration that “Thus in dremyng and in game / Endeth thys lytyl book of Fame”.

Not exactly a satisfactory ending, but an ending nonetheless. Like the viewers of GoT’s Season Eight, readers of The book of fame made by Gefferey Chaucer were left with a story that, while “completed” by its printer, remained unfinished by its author.

The fate of Chaucer’s unfinished works suggests there may be something to be appreciated in the peculiarly suspended state in which fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones currently find themselves.

Should Martin be compelled to abandon his saga for one reason or another, he can console himself with the knowledge that the unfinished state of Chaucer’s texts did nothing to prevent John Dryden from declaring Chaucer to be the “Father of English poetry”.

The Times Literary Supplement


 

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