Friday, April 07, 2006

The black rocks of Brittany

In The Franklin’s Tale Chaucer describes the sadness of Dorigen as she stands on the high cliffs of Brittany looking out at the ships, thinking about her husband who has left her to win renown in England. The sight of the black rocks reminds her of the dangers of such a journey:

But whan she saugh the reisly rokkes blake,
For verray feere, so wolde hir herte quake
That on hire feet she myghte hir noght sustene.
Thanne wolde she sitte adoun upon the grene,
And pitously into the see biholde…

She cannot understand why God created such a beak, treacherous landscape and concludes

“… wolde God, that alle thise rokkes blake,
Were sonken into helle for his sake!
Thise rokkes sleen myn herte for the feere!”
Thus wolde she seyn, with many a pitous teere.
Hir freendes sawe that it was no disport
To romen by the see, but disconfort,
And shopen for to pleyen somwher elles;
They leden hir by ryveres and by welles,
And eek in othere places delitables.

So she avoids the black rocks in favour of more pleasant places, but she cannot forget them, and when a suitor, Aurelius, declares his love for her, the faithful Dorigen dismisses his attentions with a comment that he would have to destroy the coastal rocks before she could be his. Dorigen is then reunited with her husband, but in the meantime Aurelius has found a magus who can help cast a spell to create the illusion of a changed landscape. Dorigen is horrified when she sees that the rocks have disappeared, but eventually all ends well, with Aurelius accepting that Dorigen truly loves her husband and releasing her from the pledge.

Real and illusionary landscapes of Brittany play a central role in this beautiful story. The image of Dorigen standing on the headland seems to come from the Romantic period, but her attitude to the black rocks reflects a very pre-Romantic distrust of such dangerous landforms, whose very appearance suggests that they would be better “sonken into helle”.

Edward Burne-Jones, Dorigen of Bretagne longing for the safe return of her husband, 1871

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