When the lady Dorigen’s husband Arveragus goes off to battle, she worries about his well-being, eventually becoming fixated on how his ship will ever safely pass over the black rocks that surround Brittany when he journeys home. In the meantime, Arveragus’s squire Aurelius takes advantage of his master’s absence and professes his love to Dorigen. Appalled at the thought of infidelity, Dorigen exclaims she will only return his love the day that all the rocks of Brittany have disappeared. When Aurelius finds a way to make the impossible happen, however, Dorigen will have to choose between keeping her word and keeping her honor.
Form: Breton lai
“The Franklin’s Tale” is perhaps one of The Canterbury Tales that is most immediately appealing to modern audiences in terms of theme. The couple Arveragus and Dorigen open the story by professing their love to each other and establishing equality in their marriage. Arveragus will act as the superior to retain public opinion, but in reality the two will be a team. The idea is unusual not only for the Middle Ages, but also for Chaucer. Up to this point in The Canterbury Tales readers have been treated mainly to stories of evil wives, submissive wives, and the Wife of Bath’s sort-of-but-maybe-not-really-feminist wife.
The couple’s happiness is endangered, however, when Dorigen unwittingly walks herself into a terrible promise. She wildly exclaims to Arveragus’s squire that she will love him if only he can make the rocks of Brittany disappear and somehow, eventually, he does. Readers will initially notice that the magic of the tale is not particularly well-explained. How the rocks disappear, or at least seem to, we never know. It is also a question Dorigen, the one with most at stake, never asks. The focus quickly moves onto her dilemma: Does she keep her promise to Aurelius, or does she keep her promise (her marriage vows) to her husband?
Many modern readers would probably find the solution to this problem simple. Dorigen never actually “meant” her promise; it was the medieval equivalent of exclaiming “I’ll date you when pigs fly!” So that means she does not have to keep it, right? “The Franklin’s Tale” is not so sure. The second part of the tale is a complex exploration of the importance of language, the value of female “trouthe,” and the question of what men and women owe their spouses. Even if readers do not ultimately agree with the actions and conclusions of the characters, there is plenty of food for thought here.
“The Franklin’s Tale” wins my admiration for presenting a complex female character and for telling a story that combines both the darkness and light of human nature. It is satisfyingly balanced in a way that many of the tales are not. I would definitely consider the Franklin to be in the running for winning Harry’s story competition.