Author(s): Rosie Bell
Copyright holder(s): Rosie Bell
Ever since early in the fourteenth century, when Fortune as Dame makes her first appearance in written form, she has been given prominence over all her associates. In "The Kingis Quair", Venus, the goddess of love and Minerva, the goddess of reason, although both are very powerful, have to show their subservience to Fortune. In many cases, Fortune is seen to be an adversary. In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer makes the remark "Wele fynde I that Fortune is my fo." However she appears, it is obvious that she has no small influence on British literature. In their turn, most of the great writers of our land have paid her the homage which is her due. Men like Gower, Barbour, Spenser and Shakespeare have felt her influence.
The fortune tradition goes back much further, however. In "The Battle of Malden", Byrtuoth declares that, despite the reversals of Fortune, one must stand with a "stiff upper lip." "Beowulf" and his cohorts were seemingly beset on all sides by the cruelty of Fortune but managed to triumph in the end. In poems like "The Wanderer" and "The Ruin" the "ubi sunt" theme which comes via the Norse "Edda" is underlined: ("where have all the flowers gone!") The tradition of the bēot, the vaunt is also present, where one must stand up against seemingly impossible odds - like Satan in "Paradise Lost". "The Wanderer"'s hero can also be paralled with James in "The Kingis Quair". Both have had a reversal of fortune, from good to bad, both have been deprived, in one way or another, of the companionship of their friends but both, through experiencing hardship, exile and the transcience of nature, win through. Their experiences have led them towards wisdom and a better understanding of life.
In "The Kingis Quair" it is interesting to note how the Narrator parallels himself with Boethius. Whilst the king is imprisoned, he picks up a book to read which is written by one who was himself a prisoner. This passage is very important to the poem, as it sets the mood. Boethius has very strong views on pre-destination which must have been well known to literate people of James' day. It is difficult to reconcile the notion of "wyrd" or pre-destination with freedom. If the stars, or God, or Fortune determine what is to happen, how can we be free to choose? According to James, Boethius was exiled, like him, and "forjugit" by fortune. It was perhaps "fortunate" for James that Boethius was first translated into Anglo-Saxon by Alfred, another kingly poet!
It is when James picks up the book to induce sleep that he begins to ponder on the unreliability of Fortune:
"...on hir tolter quhele every wight cleverith in his stage... more, the prynce than the page..."
He recognises that Fortune takes no consideration of rank. If she favours you, a change for the better will result
"as Fortune lykith thame sche will translate." V. 8
Fortune seems to favour the lower orders of life as:
"...bird, beste, fisch eke in the see, they live in freedom ... and I, a man, and lakkith libertee!" V. 27.
The abrupt shift to God in V.28 is indicative of the symbiotic nature of James' deities. The Christian God is given as much credit for the prisoner's circumstances as was Fortune earlier:
"... Gif God me had devisit to lyve my lyf in thraldome thus and pyne..."
In the poem we find many mixes of Christian and pagan theology. In many ways, they are interchangeable and complementary. Minerva quotes from the book of Ecclesiastes, the poet swears by Christ then addresses the goddess of Wisdom. The dream-sequence in the poem can be seen as a communication from God. Many people in James' time saw dreams as divine visions. The sequence begins with a light coming in at the window, which is evocative of this point of view. It could also be argued that the light could be seen as the light of love, or the light of reason, which two abstractions are just about to be given form: love is to be personified as Venus and reason as Minerva.
The two sisters, Venus and Minerva are necessary to James' future happiness. Love must always be tempered with reason if true happiness is to be achieved. However, "over and above" these two, fortune must be courted. A desire to serve Venus is not always accompanied by good fortune. Before going on to seek fortune, the Dreamer receives instruction from Venus and Minerva on themes of endurance in love, self-knowledge and an understanding of fortune.
Venus seems to be on the side of the Dreamer. There is a suggestion made that he will occupy the highest stage of love.* Venus promises that, if he and his lady are faithful to her, they will live forever as "goddis in this place." After this favourable treatment, Venus sends the Dreamer off to consult with her sister, Minerva. To accompany him on his "aventure" she gives him Gude Hope, one of her many attendants. After having satisfied herself that the Dreamer's passion is "consonent to virtue" (Irving) Minerva promised that she would help him with Fortune. Minerva then goes on to display her wide worldly knowledge. She discusses with the Dreamer the doctrine of fate and free will. She comes down heavily on the side of free will, telling him that the fate of man is not necessarily ordained by the "hevin" that sometimes "man has in him self the chose and libertee to cause his awin fortune..." She goes on to discuss the omnicience of God and Fortune's weakness in this field, then surprisingly, explains that man has limited omniscience and can sometimes win Fortune over
"Pray Fortune help, for wich unlikely thing full oft about sche sodeynly doeth bring." v. 150.
Symbolically, Minerva furnishes the Dreamer with transport in the form of a beam of light and sends him off, still in the company of Gude Hope, to seek for Fortune. This point is crucial to James' future happiness for wisdom and good will together make good fortune. When James is in the hall with the fortunate lovers in the House of Venus, Gude Will stood with them
"... to talk and play."
Perhaps it was the influence of Gude Will that made Fortune treat the Dreamer so favourably when he at last encounters her in
"a round place and a wallit"
This locus seems to be tailor-made for James' requirements. The dream-sequence begins, in misery, when the poet is confined within a tower
"forwakit and forwalowit."
and ends, with a promise of joy, when he meets Fortune in her round place.
These towers can be seen as being representative of captivity. The theme of captivity permeates throughout the poem. It is captivity in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. The action of the poem begins with the speaker as an actual prisoner, enthralled by his enemies. After he sees the lady, the thralldom transfers to her
"...sudaynly my hert become hir thrall..." V. 41
Those in love can expect to experience real captivity. What is most surprising, in the light of his own previous opinion of Fortune and the admonitions given about her by Venus and Minerva, is his agreeable treatment by Fortune. After being cast as the real "villian of the piece" she disappoints us by her anticlimactical behaviour. We can tell by the language used that she is an important personage. She is described by McDairmid as "brusque and peremptory in speech." However, of her two faces, she has chosen to show the kindly one to the Dreamer. She even helps him onto her wheel.
This dream leaves the Dreamer wondering if it is
"... from the Hevin a visionne?" V. 175.
If it is a vision, is it a message of deliverance? It would seem to be because a real message is sent by his lady which he regards as divinely inspired
"... in the hevyn decretit is the cure."
He learns that unhappiness can sometimes lead to happiness, perhaps pre-empting Shakespeare in Henry IV II
"Out of this nettle, danger we pluck this flower, safety."
The lesson to be learned from the poem is surely that love and freedom together makes for complete happiness and that love is more powerful than Fortune although affected by it.
* In the house of Venus there are three stages of love and the highest place is reserved for those who keep their faith in love into old age.
Bibliography: The Kingis Quair Ed. McDiarmid
Anglo-Scottish Literary Relations - G. Kratzmann.
The History of Scottish Poetry. Dr. David Irving
Lecture notes on "ubi sunt" theme, Beowulf, etc etc.
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Dame fortune. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 23 February 2024, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=908.
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