The Book That Had To Be Written

          Hi! I'm Dolores Cullen and my passion for Chaucer began when I was a middle-aged undergraduate--an English major taking the "required" Chaucer course. At first the Middle English scared me. Then something clicked; the vocabulary became stimulating; the images, challenging.
          Questions nagged me, especially concerning the ambiguities and the make-up of the pilgrim group and their descriptions--a hired cook with a running sore? a man with wide, black nostrils? When I’d draw attention to what seemed oddities, I was told, "That's just the way it was." That didn’t help. The Canterbury pilgrims passed in unending review before my mind's eye. Then, one evening, I suddenly had the answer. What a perfect topic for my term paper, I thought.
          When I asked my Chaucer professor how to go about organizing these multilevel images, he asked if I meant an allegory. “Yes!” With an indulgent smile, he cut short our conversation, stating Chaucer did not write allegories. But medieval readers had delighted in the challenge of a double meaning! I had to tell someone what was in my head or I'd burst. Another Chaucer professor, at first, appeared intrigued. But when I got to the pilgrim identities, he cautioned, "Mind your humility."
          Having disconcerted two professors, I took stock. I wasn’t discouraged. Far from it. I was enthralled by Chaucer. [Besides, I was not in awe of professors. I’d been married to one for years. Many of my friends were professors. I knew they were human, perhaps even fallible.] I went to work on my own, guided by a great book on literary research that approved of “skepticism” of long-venerated opinions.

          I pursued all things medieval. The religious aura of many alternate images added a new dimension to the Tales, but I had misgivings. Would my research damage Chaucer's reputation? The college chaplain gave me the words that continue to guide me: “Never fear the truth.”
          Then a truly wonderful thing happened. Virginia Hamilton Adair, now a recognized poet, was the instructor of the bibliography course that facilitated work on the Senior Project. On a 3x5 card she handed me, I wrote that reading Chaucer caused double mental images for me. I wanted to understand the secondary images. On the bottom of the card she wrote "Fascinating!"
          When the project was completed, the project advisor wrote a long letter attempting to "dissuade" me from continuing my pursuits. Professor Adair asked to read the finished product, and her reaction brought me hope--it was the most original thing she'd seen in ages. She advised I get a Ph.D. My unhesitating reply, "No." Undaunted, she offered Plan B: organize articles for journals. If my name was seen frequently, “they” would have to take me seriously. I set right to it.
          A neat little piece about Chaunticleer, the rooster, was accepted. Then I explained a portion of Sir Thopas; it was also published. Next, I tried a more complicated topic—the explication of a second meaning in Chaucer's “Litel Jape" (little joke). The "joke" didn't make it; a hidden meaning wasn't valued. For another article I was advised to reduce the content to a "'glossary' of obscenity," which wasn’t what I had in mind.

          I entered a Master's Program and responded to a "call for papers" from a Christian literary group. I was eager to introduce the concealed image within Chaucer’s Host, guide of the pilgrims. The paper was accepted. I had to be certain that the word “host” would bring an image of Christ to the fourteenth-century mind. I discovered that the Feast of Corpus Christi, celebrating the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic Host, was the most elaborate of medieval feast days—grander than Christmas or Easter. Enough said.
          After the conference Professor Adair advised me to send my paper to the journal of the sponsoring society immediately. I did just that. One reviewer said the paper could result in a revolution of Chaucer studies. Another recommended the journal "not touch [this] with a hundred foot pole." The hundred foot pole won. That convinced me that 12-15 pages could not make a proper case. I would have to write a book.

          Some have tried to save me from my own enthusiasm. Others have worked to maintain the status quo. But through the years Virginia Adair has been an inspiration. (I once told her that if someone would just prove to me that I was wrong, it would save me a lot of work. She found the statement foolish--she was right.) She has shared the excitement of the quest, the discoveries, and the desire to give what I see to others. Pursuing Chaucer is a captivating game; his carefully chosen words are the source of the captivation.
          After numerous rejections while trying to find a publisher, I received a letter that read, "I wish [my brother] had lived to read your book." John Daniel (of Daniel & Daniel) had understood. His late brother was a medievalist. Three Chaucer books later, John continues to be my publisher.
          I haven't changed much. I still talk about Chaucer at any opportunity. I rate the thrill of hearing Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony for the first time, or hiking the Grand Canyon, second to Chaucer. He is the most exciting intellectual adventure of my life.

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