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Tales of the Senate

Senator Byrd makes curious use of Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale."

12:00 AM, Jun 20, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Having purchased the poison, the young villain crossed the street to a winery where he purchased three bottles--two for his friends, one for himself. After he left the village, he sat down, opened two bottles and deposited an equal portion in each, and then returned to the oak tree, where the two older men did as they had planned. One threw his arm playfully around the shoulders of the third, they buried their daggers in him, and he fell dead on the pile of gold. The other two then sat down, cut the bread and opened the wine. Each took a good, deep swallow, and, suffering a most excruciating pain, both fell upon the body of the third, across the pile of gold. All three were dead.

BYRD'S STATEMENT does not draw any express connection between the "Pardoner's Tale" and the filibuster agreement; no connection is apparent. Indeed, it's difficult to follow Byrd's train of thought. Nevertheless, Byrd's use of the tale is revealing, though not in the way he intended.

Byrd cites the "Pardoner's Tale" as a kind of scriptural authority. He proudly steps into the shoes of the Pardoner in telling the story. Chaucer's Pardoner, however, personifies corruption. His trade is the sale of indulgences for sin and fraudulent holy relics to unwitting dupes. Chaucer introduces the Pardoner in the "General Prologue" (lines 669-714) to the Canterbury Tales as a vain, effeminate, and depraved character, singing a love song to the disreputable ecclesiastical official riding with him. "I think he was a gelding or a mare," Chaucer observes of the Pardoner. The Pardoner's outward appearance mirrors his soul. Chaucer notes the object of the Pardoner's game: "To win some silver, as he right well could . . . " He is the fourteenth-century version of a confidence man and a thoroughly vile character.

The Pardoner plies his trade with brilliance. In the "Prologue to the Pardoner's Tale," the Pardoner candidly explains the elements of his performance and the keys to his success, of which the memorized story he tells is crucial. Its theme is always "greed is the root of all evil," but he also discloses his own hypocrisy on that score:

What? Think you because I'm good at preaching
And win me gold and silver by my preaching
I'll live of my free will in poverty?
No, no, that's never been my policy.

The Pardoner then launches into the story told by Byrd. It is a story with many analogues, antecedents, and successors in world literature--think of the B. Traven novel or the Humphrey Bogart film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre--but the version told by the Pardoner is widely recognized as a masterpiece. It is, as Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon, "in its way unsurpassable, at one of the limits of art."

Yet the Pardoner's story as retold by Byrd is not the end of the "Pardoner's Tale." At the conclusion of the tale, apparently carried away by his display of his own prowess, the Pardoner invites the pilgrims to buy some of his allegedly holy relics. He asks the pilgrims' host to be the first buyer, as he is "most enveloped in all sin." The host, however, has accurately sized up the Pardoner and replies:

"Why, you would have me kissing your old breeches,
And swear they were the relics of a saint,
Though with your excrement 'twere dabbed like paint.
By cross Saint Helen found in Holy Land,
I would I had your ballocks in my hand
Instead of relics in a reliquary;
Let's cut them off, and them I'll help you carry;
They shall be shrined within a hog's fat turd."

It's a shame Senator Byrd pulled up a little short of the end of the "Pardoner's Tale." In his notes on the "Pardoner's Tale" in the New Cambridge Edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, editor F.N. Robinson comments:

Both the Prologue and the Tale of the Pardoner are apparently delivered while the pilgrims are still at the tavern . . . So a story which is in large part an attack upon gluttony and revelry is told in a tavern by a man notoriously addicted to the vices he condemns.

What is the moral of this story? As with all good stories for adults, you can draw your own conclusion.

Scott Johnson is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.