Academic journal article Text Matters

Geoffrey Chaucer's the Merchant's Tale, Giovanni Boccaccio's the Tale of the Enchanted Pear-Tree, and Sir Orfeo Viewed as Eroticized Versions of the Folktales about Supernatural Wives

Academic journal article Text Matters

Geoffrey Chaucer's the Merchant's Tale, Giovanni Boccaccio's the Tale of the Enchanted Pear-Tree, and Sir Orfeo Viewed as Eroticized Versions of the Folktales about Supernatural Wives

Article excerpt

The three tales that this paper is concerned with use the motif of enchantment. They are also clearly erotic, and their most intensely erotic aspects and scenes are clearly associated with that motif of enchantment. So the most obvious question that imposes itself is about the link between eroticism and enchantment. This link is, in a sense, obvious and trivial if we consider the basic definition of the verb "to enchant," even when used in its mythological and folkloric sense, namely "to exert magical influence upon; to bewitch, lay under spell," and even more so when the word is used in its more general and loose sense "to charm, delight, enrapture" (Oxford English Dictionary).

Chaucer himself talks, in his The Knight's Tale, about "The enchauntementz of Medea and Circes" (l. 1944) in a strictly erotic context when describing the temple and nature of Venus, the goddess of love, whose devoted servants Medea and Circe, both powerful witches and enchantresses, no doubt were. They were also both famous as ancient embodiments of the archetype of the femme fatale, that is of a dangerous and irresistible woman who seduces men to bring about their undoing, even though of Medea we often say that she reveals her dangerous aspect only as a reaction to having been shamelessly deceived by the man she chose for her lover or husband.1 As regards Circe, she is, as is well known, in the habit of turning men into swine, which indeed might be interpreted as an ironic and quasi-puritanical metaphor of human sexuality whereby the behaviour of even highly civilized persons becomes reduced to mere animal instincts. Circe would then be an allegory of the dehumanizing power of sexuality, an allegory perhaps based on a misogynistic idea that this power is a female weapon used to turn men into women's abject slaves and kept animals. An interesting embodiment of the Circe archetype is the character of Acrasia from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. She is an enchantress inhabiting the so called Bower of Bliss into which she attracts unwary knights who become her toys, and she turns them into beasts when she is bored with them. They become so beastly that they resent being restored to a human shape and they long for relapsing into an inhuman condition (Spenser 137-39).

Let it be also noticed that there is a significant lack of symmetry between the terms "enchanter" and "enchantress"; the latter seems to be much more often used in an erotic context than the former. A male enchanter is usually a magician performing various tricks by means of genuine magic or sleight of hand, while the female enchantress is nearly always a femme fatale, who may use magic, in its basic or metaphorical sense, but only for the purpose of achieving an erotic success. Enchantment then functions in practice as a term referring mainly to the supposedly female style of playing erotic games.

And yet, if we have a look at the way the motif of enchantment is used in folktales, we notice that it almost never refers to the act of falling in love, or becoming erotically fascinated by somebody. The male hero does indeed often fall in love with a woman who has something to do with enchantment, but usually in the sense that she has already been enchanted when she meets the male protagonist, and "to be enchanted" in this context means to be transformed, usually by a malicious sorcerer, or sorceress, into a supernatural creature that can sometimes appear in its human form, but very often appears in the form of an animal, typically, in the case of enchanted women, as a swan, or some other bird.2 At the same time, it still remains true that it is dangerous to fall in love with an enchanted character, no matter whether the one who becomes enamoured is a man, and the object of his love a woman, or rather a female monster, or the other way round. We might risk a statement that, in folktales, the enchanting characters (in the sense of possessing great sex-appeal) are usually also the ones who have been enchanted (in the sense of being transformed into a non-human, or not entirely human, creature). …

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