The final work in this series exploring avian motifs takes its title from Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, in which the rooster Chauntecleer nearly meets his doom after a fox uses flattery to overcome his natural wariness, only to be flattered himself by the rooster into permitting Chauntecleer to escape. The tale warns the reader to beware of flattery, to be discerning as to what is real and what is not:
For seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To our doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stile.
In the Christian tradition, the cockerel is a symbol of Christ, celebrating the arrival of light after darkness, but also carries a tragic resonance, as in in Matthew 26:34, the cock’s crow reveals both Christ’s powers of prophecy and the fallibility of human faith and loyalty to Saint Peter:
Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.
In modern popular symbolism, the ‘cocksure’ ‘cock of the walk’ carries resonances of confidence, pride or even arrogance, while in Eastern symbolism it indicates masculinity, honesty and courage. Chauntecleer thus offers us a picture of, and some questions about, integrity: what does it mean to see things clearly, to sort the grain from the chaff, to be courageous but not arrogant? To stand by one’s beliefs and not quail in the face of overwhelming pressure to conform? Especially in our post-truth, post-subjectivity, deconstructed era of multiple publicly-constructed selves, then, Chauntecleer is both the most intimate, questioning and profoundly public-facing of the Parliament of Fowles series. The cockerel asks us: what, if anything, about the seemingly outmoded Christian/Enlightenment subject merits salvaging or even reconstruction?
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