Dream Visions: Chaucer Style
To understand how the text of the House of Fame suggests an active investigation into the process of dreaming, it is important to understand the genre of medieval dream visions as well as the way Chaucer writes within the genre.
Here are some basics of the genre:
Triptych StructureChaucerian dream visions have a generally evident triptych structure in which the action of the story takes place. The story is broken up into three major parts, much like the three-paneled triptych art of the Middle Ages.
Waking and Dreaming NarratorThe story hinges on the juxtaposition of the waking and dreaming narrator. The narrator begins his story awake and in a state of reflection which often takes the form of recounting a tale that in some way that will foreshadow or comment upon the events of the rest of the poem.
The narrator wishes to fall asleep and will often state this desire directly. In the case of the House of Fame, the narrator readily falls asleep and proclaims, “Whan hit was night, to slepe I lay / Right ther as I was wont to done, / And fil on slepe wonder sone” (Chaucer ll. 112-114).
Falling asleep, the narrator transitions into the dreamscape where he will encounter various elements of fantasy. Immediately, the narrator of the House of Fame tells his audience “But as I slept, me mette I was / Within a temple y-mad of glass” (Chaucer ll. 119-120). This temple of glass is an example of an element of fantasy in the dreamscape that acts as an unrealistic manifestation of the dreamer’s waking knowledge of the real world. The temple of is made of an absurd material that entices readers into interpreting it. It is both a literary device and an interpretation of the unreality of dream experience.
Elements of FantasyThe narrator will encounter creatures, settings, and interactions augmented beyond the realm of reality. Similar to the way that Chaucer makes use of elements of fantasy in his dream visions, cognitive scientists have acknowledged the fantastic components of dreams in their own research. These elements of fantasy, as Ernest Hartmann discusses, have their roots in real dreams:We dream about setting, characters, and actions that may be a bit ‘far-fetched’—that remind us of waking material, but are stretched somehow. We dream not only of ordinary creature, but also of monsters and chimeras. We walk and run, but sometimes we also fly. We may dream of someone who appears to be two or more different people in our lives. (Hartmann 82)
Allusion as DeviceThe author also relies on classic literary sources alluding to stories from Ovid, Dante, and the classics, nodding to characters, themes, and events from their texts.
A Guide for the DreamscapeThe dreamscape will sometimes possess a guide figure that will help the narrator navigate the setting both physically and mentally. In the case of The House of Fame, the guide figure is an eagle whose feathers are as bright and gold as the sun itself (Chaucer ll. 500-508). This creature is another instance of unreality inside the dreamscape.
An Awakening: In Both Senses of the WordFinally, the narrator will awake from the dream and thus end the story. The House of Fame intriguing is that in all of the existing manuscripts, the story is unfinished. To this day scholars debate whether Chaucer had intended for the poem to be finished, but for our purposes it will be assumed that it was intended to be unfinished. With all of this in mind, one can begin to understand why authors like Chaucer wrote in the genre of the medieval dream vision.