Middle English Ariadne – a Chaucerian Heroide (20th November 2019)

Theseus and Ariadne
Theseus abandons the sleeping Ariadne. The goddess Athene watches, while Hypnos drops water from the River Lethe across Ariadne’s brow. Source: Red Apulian Greek vase (ca. 400 – 390 B.C) held the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Link.

Next meeting: Wednesday 20 November, 15.10 – 17.00, in Room 1.02 of the John Percival Building.

Ariadne – daughter of King Minos of Crete and half-sister to the Minotaur – is known for her long symbolic association with the labyrinth and spools of thread, and for her decision to help the iconic hero, Theseus, escape the former using the latter. After being famously deserted by Theseus, she became the wife of the god, Dionysus, who immortalised her in the stars. As a princess of Crete and granddaughter of the sun god, Helios, Ariadne is also part of a family of complex female characters, all of whom are powerful and unafraid to transgress the bounds of nature – most notably, her mother Pasiphae, whose desire resulted in the conception of the Minotaur. Other female relatives include her sister, Phaedra; her aunt, Circe; and her cousin, Medea.

It is difficult to date the Heroides exactly due to Ovid’s habit of returning to and revising his texts, but it is thought to represent some of his earliest work, estimated as between 25-16BCE. Sequentially, the epistolary collection is thought to come after the Ars Amatoria. In the Heroides, Ovid gives the women control of writing their own stories at a crucial juncture in their narratives, providing insight into the psychological trauma each of the women are experiencing at that moment. The letter from Ariadne to Theseus is the tenth included in the Heroides. It focuses on one specific moment in the Ariadne myth, that when Ariadne awakens to find herself abandoned on Naxos and her subsequent lament as she watches Theseus’ ship depart. The epistle in the Heroides is not the only time Ovid tells the Ariadne myth, but it is the longest version. The profound intertextuality of the Heroides is demonstrated in the manner the Ariadne story in the Ars Amatoria is split: it begins with the introduction of Ariadne and narration of her desertion on Naxos by Theseus (Ars, ll. 1.527-36); an interruption follows, describing Silenus and the Maenad, and introducing the god, Dionysus (Ars, ll. 1.537-48). The myth concludes with Dionysus’ appearance to the abandoned Ariadne and the offer of marriage that saves her (Ars, ll. 1.549-64).[1] Notably, it is from the moment Ovid leaves Ariadne weeping in Heroides X that he recommences with her story in the Ars Amatoria, creating a clear narrative link between the two. Ovid also briefly recounts the Ariadne myth in theMetamorphoses, where she bridges the gap in Book VIII between the longer tales of Minos and Scylla, and of Dedalus and Icarus (Met., Bk. VIII, ll. 169-182).

The Heroides has long been considered the major source for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women (c. 1380-87), an assessment apparently supported by the poet-narrator of the Legend when he identifies the ‘epistel of Ovyde / Of trewe wyves’ (TLOGW G-Prologue, ll. 305-6) as a primary source of auctoritas. This is reinforced again in the ‘Legend of Ariadne’, readers are again directed to Ovid’s versions of women, ‘In hire Epistel Naso telleth al’ (TLGOW, l. 2220). Nonetheless, while all but one of the women in the Legend are found in Ovid, four of them are not in the Heroides – demonstrating that the Heroides are just one of a number of sources Chaucer draws upon in crafting his own versions of the legends of classical women. In the same way the Legend constructs itself as a response to the anti-feminism of Chaucer’s earlier Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1381-86), the Heroides were viewed in the Middle Ages as a response to Ovid’s ‘arguably anti-feminist’ Ars Amatoria.[2] Both texts have been considered among the less impressive works of their respective authors.

Due to its many paradoxes and difficulties, Chaucer’s Ariadne has been on the receiving end of more dedicated criticism than any of the other women in the Legend. Observing that the sole reason for Ariadne’s inclusion in the Legend is because she has been abandoned, Simon Meecham-Jones writes, ‘It is curious, then, that the woman whose conduct, albeit fortuitously, adheres most closely to medieval and Christian models of female patience has been so roundly condemned by critics.’[3] Unlike other figures in the Legend (such as Medea or the sisters, Philomela and Procne, who violently enact revenge upon their male abusers) Ariadne’s reaction to her abandonment is limited to her lament. Perhaps this is because she is confined to the island, or perhaps it is because she will shortly be rescued by the wine god, Dionysus. Regardless, her inaction has not protected her character – R. W. Frank viewed Chaucer’s Ariadne as a ‘grotesque’, and twenty years later, Sheila Delany reinforced that notion in her description of Ariadne’s exaggerated physical reaction as ‘more appropriate to a village girl than to a princess’.[4] The critical condemnation and neglect suffered by the Chaucerian Ariadne is not dissimilar to the decline suffered by her character in the Middle English period. In contrast to her influential Latin predecessors, the Middle English Ariadne is a minor character, leaving Chaucer’s Ariadne (for all the challenges it presents) as her most pronounced appearance.

Topics/questions for discussion:

  1. What is the purpose of the extended opening of Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Ariadne’ that focuses on Minos?
  2. What genre is the ‘Legend of Ariadne’? Is it hagiographical? Romance? Dream vision?
  3. Is Phaedra’s speech in the Legend a surprise? What difference does it make to our idea of the typical version of the Ariadne myth to have Phaedra be the one to come up with the plan to free Theseus?
  4. What do we think of the poet-narrator?
  5. What is the role/purpose of the gaoler?
  6. One of the criticisms that has been often levelled against The Legend of Good Women is that it just is not good. Does this criticism stand up either:
    1. As poetry?
    2. As a version of the Ariadne myth?
    3. As a retelling of the Heroides?
  7. Consider Ariadne waking up in the Legend Ariadne waking up in the Heroides – Sheila Delany describes the Ovidian version in the Heroides as ‘little short of farcical’ and suggests Chaucer successfully captures and reproduces the comic effect Ovid intended.[5] Is it comical, or something else?

[1] Despina Keramida, ‘Heroides 10 and Ars Amatoria 1.527-64: Ariadne crossing the boundaries between texts’, (2010), p. 50.

[2] Florence Percival, Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 173.

[3] Simon Meecham-Jones, ‘Intention, Integrity and ‘Renoun’: The Public Virtue of Chaucer’s Good Women’, The Legend of Good Women: Context and Reception, ed. Carolyn P. Collette (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006), p. 145.

[4] R. W. Frank, Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 122; Sheila Delany, The Naked Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 209.

[5] Sheila Delany, The Naked Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 209.


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