Oh god of knowledge and of light, Apollo, through your great strength, guide this last little book. Not that I shall fail to use all the poetical arts; but despite shortcomings in the rhyme and errors in the metre, make it agreeable; and see that I pay more attention to the meaning I wish to convey than to the style.
And if, divine virtue, you will help me to set down the things that are in my head – by this I mean, to describe the House of Fame – you will see me go swiftly to the next laurel I see and kiss it, for it is your tree; now enter into my heart!
When I had taken leave of this eagle, I began to climb towards the palace, finding the ascent difficult because the incline was steep and the ground was like glass; clearer than glass. My curiosity was aroused and I went down on my hands and knees to try to determine the type of stone from which it was made. It was ice. 'By Saint Thomas of Kent!' I thought, 'this is a poor foundation on which to build such a high structure; it should bring little glory to its architect, so save me God!'
Then I saw that half the rock was engraved with the names of people whose lives had been prosperous and their fame widely spread. But the names were difficult to read and one or two letters of each had melted away completely. I began to conjecture whether they might have been melted by heat rather than by the wind. For on the other side of the hill, which faced northwards, were written the names of many famous people from ancient times, yet they were as fresh as the day they had been written, and looked as though they had been engraved in that very hour. But I knew well what the cause was; they were protected by the shade of the palace that stood high above me and were engraved on so cold a place that heat might not deface them.
I set off up the hill and found at the top a building that was so beautiful that no living man could possibly have the ability to describe it adequately. The great ingenuity, intricacy, beauty and workmanship I cannot convey to you, my wits are not equal to the task. It was all of beryl; there were shrines, towers, halls as full of windows as there are snowflakes in a blizzard, chambers, pinnacles, gargoyles, all made from one solid piece of beryl. And in each of the towers were various rooms filled with ballad-singers and storytellers; I heard Orpheus playing sweetly and precisely on a harp, and lesser harpers sitting at his feet. There were all sorts of musicians, many thousands, playing flutes, horns and bagpipes, teaching love serenades, merry dances and bloodcurdling calls to war.
There were more people than there are stars in heaven. I saw minstrels, magicians, old witches, oracular priestesses, sorceresses, and religious men who knew all this sorcery. I saw queen Medea, Circe and Simon Magus; I saw, and knew by name, all those who had achieved fame through the magic arts, but to speak of all these people would take until doomsday!
I mused again upon the walls of beryl that shone more brightly than glass and began to explore further, finding the main entrance to my right; it was decorated with elaborate carvings such as I had never seen before, although fashioned by chance as often as by careful purpose. Passing these gold circles and florid ornaments quickly I dreamed that I came across many people shouting: 'Gifts, gifts, keep them coming! God save the lady of this domain, our own gentle Lady Fame!' and they all poured out of the hall, jingling coins and money. And some were kings in fine clothes and there were heralds calling the praises of rich folk and every man of them, I can tell you, was wearing a garment called a surcoat, richly embroidered, and none was like any of the others. But I am not about to describe all the devices that they wore on their coats, for I would find it impossible; men might make of them a book twenty feet thick I would estimate! Anyone able to do so could have picked out all the heraldic emblems worn since the birth of chivalry.
Lo! how could I describe all this? And what need is there to tell you that every wall and every floor was of gold half a foot thick, and gold as pure as the Venetian ducats of which my pocket is all too light.
But there was no crowding in this vigorous and pleasant place; and high up upon a dais, in an imperial seat of solid ruby, I saw a creature forever seated whom nature had created only once. At first I truly thought that she was so small as to be less than a yard in height, but after a while she grew so wonderfully that she touched the Earth with her feet and with her head she touched heaven. And there I saw a greater wonder still, looking into her eyes; but I did not count them all, for she had as many as there are feathers on a bird, or on the four beasts that honour God's throne, as John wrote in the Apocalypse. Her hair, wavy and curly, shone like burnished gold and she had as many ears and tongues as there are hairs on a beast. And on her feet I saw partridges' wings and Lord! the jewels and riches I saw on this goddess! And Lord! the harmonious melody of heavenly songs I heard sung around her throne, such that the palace walls rung. So sung the mighty Muse Calliope and her eight sisters, meek and humble; and evermore, eternally, they sung: 'Praised be you and your name, goddess of renown and fame.' And on her shoulders were the heraldic emblems of all those who had achieved fame; even of Alexander and Hercules.
From this dais stretched a line of pillars all the way to the door. First of all I saw, standing high upon a pillar of pristine lead and iron, Josephus of the Saturnian religion who told romances of the Hebrews, and he bore upon his shoulders the fame of the Jewish people. And beside him stood seven others, wise and worthy, to help him support such a heavy burden. And because they had written of battles and other ancient marvels, therefore was the pillar made of lead and iron, for iron is the metal of Mars, the god of battle, and lead, without fail, is the metal of Saturn, who has such a large wheel to turn. And standing in each row were many I could name and describe, although to do so would take too long.
I saw standing upon an iron pillar a Thessalian who bore the fame of Thebes on his shoulders, and the name also of cruel Achilles. And nearby, in faith! and high on a pillar, stood the great Homer, and others also, holding up Troy; so heavy was its fame that it was no easy task to support it. And I saw standing on a pillar of tinned iron the Latin poet Virgil who, for so many years, has borne up the fame of Trojan Aeneas.
Next to him, on a pillar of copper, was Ovid who wrote of Venus and has sown widely the name of the great god of Love. And for some reason this hall, which I describe, had grown in height, length and breadth a thousandfold since I had first entered.
Then I saw on a pillar of hammered iron the great poet Lucan, who bore on his shoulders, as high as I could see, the fame of Julius Caesar and of Pompey. And by him stood all the learned men who had written of Rome's mighty works, whom it would take too long to name.
And next to these, on a pillar of sulphur, as though he was mad, stood one who bore up all the fame of hell; of Pluto and of Proserpina, queen of this dark place.
What more can I tell? The hall was as full of those who have written stories of ancient times as there are rooks' nests in trees. But suddenly I heard a noise, like bees in a swarm, and looking around, I saw coming into the hall a mass of people from every region of the Earth, and they fell down on their knees before this noble queen and said: 'Grant us, bright lady, a request!' And some of them she granted and some she refused outright, and for some she granted the opposite of what they had asked; and as for her reasons, I have no idea, for these people, I well know, had each deserved good fame, but were variously treated, just as they are by Dame Fortune, her sister. Some said: 'Give us fame and renown for our good work.'
'I refuse,' she said.
'Alas!' they cried. 'Tell us why! Tell us the reason.'
'For it pleases me,' she said, and called her messenger to fetch Aeolus, the god of winds. Aeolus was subduing the winds to their distress, holding them down so tightly that they roared like bears, but he came at once and when he arrived at Fame's feet, he waited for her command.
Then came another huge company of good folk, who cried: 'Lady, grant us fame and renown!'
'No!' she replied. 'Your good works do not persuade me in the slightest to grant you fame. Instead, I shall give you infamy and a name to spit upon, although you have deserved much better. Now go on your way, for you have been served.' Aeolus took his trumpet and blew slander and undeserved shame, as swiftly as a stone cannon ball flies from a gun when fire has been set to the powder, and the smoke from it stank like the pit of hell.
A third company came and threw themselves on their knees and said: 'We have truly, each one of us, deserved fame, and implore you to let it be known!'
'I grant it,' she said, 'for it pleases me that your good work shall be known; and yet, you shall have better renown even than you deserve. Aeolus, put away your black trumpet and take the other one called 'Laud' and blow it so that their fame spreads throughout the world.' And so Aeolus blew.
And a fourth company came, though certainly they were few in number. 'Lady, we have tried to do good things but have acquired no fame. Please hide our works, for we did it out of kindness and for no other reason.'
'I grant all that you ask,' she said. With that I scratched my head and saw a fifth host fall to their knees, saying that they cared nothing for fame and had created the things they had for the love of God and for contemplation. 'What!' she cried, 'are you mad? No, your names shall endure, every one of you!'
A sixth company came. 'Mercy, dear lady; to be honest, we have done nothing to speak of and because of our idleness and lethargy no ladies have ever held any other wish than that we might die; but nevertheless, let it seem to the world that women loved us madly.'
'I grant it, by my truth!' she said. And with this a seventh rabble fell upon their knees: 'Lady, quickly grant us the same as you granted to that other lot!'
'Death on you!' she cried, 'every one of you, you indolent swine. You idle wretches. Do you hanker after such deceit? Men should hang you!' Aeolus leapt up with his black trumpet and let out a sound that travelled the world and was so full of cruel jokes that everybody began to laugh and shout at these rogues' expense. Then another company came; traitors, who had wickedly done the greatest harm that any heart can conceive, and they prayed that she might give them a good name.
'No,' she said, 'it would be an error. Although there is no justice in me, it pleases me that it shall not be so, and I refuse.'
Then there came leaping into the hall an unruly crowd, with everybody chopping everybody else on the top of the head and shouting: 'Lady dear, you must listen to us. In all truth, we are shrews, every one of us, and we take delight in wickedness; and for this reason we ask that our true nature be remembered and that our infamy endures.'
'I grant it, certainly,' she said. 'But who are you who speaks this to me, wearing striped hose and with a bell on your hood?'
'Madam,' he said, 'I am that rogue who burned the temple of...' but at this point I imagined that I turned around because someone who was standing behind me, I thought, had spoken to me, saying: 'Friend, what is your name? Are you here to receive fame?'
'No,' I said, 'certainly not. It is enough that after my death nobody shall have heard of me.'
'Then why are you here?' he asked.
'I will tell you,' I said. 'To learn something new, I know not what, tidings of this or that, of love or maybe of some other happiness. For certainly, he who brought me here said that I would see and hear some wonderful things in this place. But these things I've heard so far cannot be what he meant.'
'No?' he said. And I answered, 'No, by God! For I have known since I was a little child that people desire praise and a lasting name, although I had no idea how or indeed where fame was achieved until now.'
'I know well the things you want to hear,' he said. Come with me and have no fear, for I shall lead you to where you will hear many things.' Then I went with him out of the palace. And standing in a nearby valley I saw a building so strange that the house of Daedalus, that was called the Labyrinth, could not have been so wonderful to look at nor so curiously constructed. For constantly, as swiftly as thought, this outlandish house turned about and was never still. And there came from it a noise that was for all the world like the roaring of a stone when it is propelled through the air from a siege engine.
And this house was made of withies and wicker, like the material men make into cages, panniers and baskets; and in addition to the rushing noise of a stone, and the wickerwork, this house was full of things hurrying, with loud creakings and many other movements, and it had as many entrances as there are leaves on the trees during the summer and on the roof could be seen many thousands of holes to let out the sound. And throughout the day and night these doors were left wide open; there was no porter to admit or bar the passage of conversation and there was no rest in that place nor any time at all when it was not brimful of news – news of wars, of peace, of marriages, of journeys, of delays, of death, of life, of love, of hate; and lo! this house of which I write, let me make it absolutely clear, was not small, for it was sixty miles in length and although the timber was of no strength it was built to last! – to last for as long as Fortune, who is as much the mother of events as the sea is of wells and springs, is pleased to see it last. And it was shaped like a cage.
'In all my years,' I said, 'I have never seen such a house as this.' And as I pondered over this, I became aware that my eagle was perched high upon a stone nearby, and I went over to him and said: 'Let me stay a little longer, I pray you, and for God's love, let me see what wonderful things lie in this house, for yet, perhaps, I might learn something from it, or something that I will like, before I go.'
'By Saint Peter! that is my intention,' he said, 'and the reason why I am loitering here! But one thing I must tell you; that, but for me taking you inside, you could never contrive any device to enable you to perform this feat for yourself, because the place whirls about so quickly. But since Jove, through his grace, wishes to bring you final comfort with such sights and sounds as might gladden your heart and alleviate your despondency, he has told me to help and advance you with all my power, and show you where the greatest instruction is to be had, as you shall soon see.'
With this he snatched me up between his toes and took me through one of the windows I had seen in the building – and immediately all seemed still and nothing appeared to turn or to move at all; and he set me down on the floor. But such a throng of people as I saw roaming about was never seen before, and never shall be, for certainly there cannot be this number on the whole Earth, not of all the creatures that Nature has ever formed. I hardly had a foot's breadth of space to stand up in, and every person that I saw was whispering secretly into his neighbour's ear, or else spoke openly like this: 'Don't you know what has happened?'
'No,' said the other. 'Tell me!' And he told him and swore that it was true – 'He said this,' – 'he did that,' – 'this will happen,' – 'that's what I heard,' – and all the folk who are alive would not find the cunning to describe all the things I heard there. But the most wonderful thing was this: that when someone had heard something, he would pass this news to another with some embellishment, and in less time than it takes to ride a furlong this news would have quickly been passed on and on and recounted faithfully, both the truth and the falsehood, whilst being embellished even further and growing all the time, like a careless spark that grows at last to engulf a whole city in conflagration. And when it had run its course and grown out of all proportion, it would rise towards a window and pass through even the tiniest crevice to facilitate its escape.
As I watched, I saw an outright lie and a certain truth meet one another by chance at a window as they both prepared to fly from the building; and when they met they prevented each other from leaving and pushed one another aside crying: 'let me go first!'
'No, let me! And I will make sure of it because I shall never leave you but be your own sworn brother! We will each meddle with one another such that no man, however angry, shall have only one of us but both at once to companion his belief.' In this way I saw truth and falsehood merge together and fly out as a single tiding; and in this way every piece of news was carried through the holes straight to the House of Fame, the lady Fame; and she gave each a duration, some to grow and then quickly diminish to nothing, others to behave otherwise, and all to be blown about by Aeolus. I saw twenty thousand in a single flight.
And lord! this house was at all times brimful of sailors and pilgrims with their bags full of lies; and thousands of courtiers, messengers and pardoners and other Christian men with their boxes crammed full of untruth. And as I went about as quickly as I could, doing my best to try to discover what I wanted to learn, something that I had heard about but which I will not now divulge – for there is no need, other people can sing it better than I, and all the straw in a barn will be uncovered sooner or later – I heard a great noise in the corner of the hall where men were reciting poetry. I went to look and everyone was running as fast as they could, all shouting, 'What's going on?' and when they were all in a heap, the ones behind began climbing over the ones in front in order to get a better view, scrambling up through the noise and treading on each other's feet and stamping as men do for eels. And at last I saw a man whom I had no business seeing, but he seemed to be commanding great respect...
...because that man was myself. 1∩
The menskful wight tho tales kepe · ful dernly and ful yerne
Shal wite the lay of Briton clerkys · and ancien sothe shal leren.
Translation and retelling of Chaucer's The House of Fame copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2016