They All Laughed When I Sat Down to Write: Chaucer, Jokes, and the Short Story
The great mother of invention gave birth to fraternal twins: storytelling and joking. The ambiguity that jokes and stories share allows both joker and storyteller to get away with murder. The joker pleads, "I'm only kidding. It was only a joke," while the storyteller wriggles off the hook by saying, "Come on; it's only fiction." In writing fiction, the author weaves an intricately beautiful lie--a metaphoric reality--so that the story will be taken seriously. The author plots in order to perpetrate a story on the audience, to hoodwink it into acceptng the fabrication as real. To be successful, the author must take storytelling seriously and, at the same time, take delight in playing a practical joke on the audience. This is as true for that trickster Mark Twain as it is for Geoffrey Chaucer, who instructs us in the Prologue to "The Miller's Tale" not to take his brilliant narratio seriously. After all, he announces, "I'm only playing a game." This is a tongue-in-cheek bit of instruction, surely, for Chaucer sets the stakes in some of his games fairly high.
Since both joker and author must enjoy being playful, it makes sense that Thoth, the god of writing in the ancient world, is also the inventor of play--the one who puts play into play. The Latin word for "story," geste, produces the modern English jest, a kinship that surfaced in English as early as the time of King Aelfric, who uses the word racu in some places to translate the Latin historia and in other places to translate commoedia. Thus, the word racu is defined in Anglo-Saxon glossaries both as "narration" and "laughter." Anglo- Saxons refer to their poets as "laughter-smiths" and "minstrels"--singers of stories--and most often as purveyors of laughter, gleemen. But a great distance separates funny stories, or even laughter-smiths and gleemen, from actual joking. And it is that elusive creature, the joke, I want to track. It is almost inevitable that the joke and the short story should emerge at the same moment. That