“Go right to the source and ask the horse…”

In Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale,” a knight enters the court of Genghis Khan upon a steed of brass, one of several gifts from “the kyng of Arabe and of Inde”:

This steede of bras, that esily and weel
Kan in the space of o day natureel—
This is to seyn, in foure and twenty houres—
Wher-so yow lyst, in droghte or elles shoures,
Beren youre body into every place
To which youre herte wilneth for to pace,
Withouten wem of yow, thurgh foul or fair;
Or, if yow lyst to fleen as hye in the air
As dooth an egle whan hym list to soore,
This same steede shal bere yow evere moore,
Withouten harm, til ye be ther yow leste,
Though that ye slepen on his bak or reste,
And turne ayeyn with writhyng of a pyn.
He that it wroghte koude ful many a gyn.

At the Tartar court, they’re amazed! Confused! Dazed! Bemused!

Swich wondryng was ther on this hors of bras
That syn the grete sege of Troie was,
Theras men wondreden on an hors also,
Ne was ther swich a wondryng as was tho.
But fynally the kyng axeth this knyght
The vertu of this courser and the myght,
And preyde hym to telle his governaunce.
This hors anoon bigan to trippe and daunce,
Whan that this knyght leyde hand upon his reyne,
And seyde, “Sire, ther is namoore to seyne…”

Yes, you read that right: not only can the brass horse fly, it can also dance.

So why am I all hung up on the dancing brass horse? Because it was one of the first things I thought of when I watched this video of the “Big Dog” from Boston Dynamics.

Of course, Chaucer’s lusty bacheler describes a steed of endless wonders: if you turn a key inside its ear, the horse becomes invisible, too. So when Boston Dynamics releases another, more perplexing video claiming to be showing off its stealth robot horse, you shouldn’t be surprised—even if Chaucer might have been. Life, were it by aventure, or sort, or cas, imitates The Canterbury Tales.

“Cartoon capers happen in reality…”

A while back, my neighborhood listserv was abuzz with important issues: road construction; the relative merits of rotisserie chicken; and, of particular interest to me, the sudden appearance of le renard.

Was he red? Was he gray? The neighbors didn’t know, but they analyzed his habits and traded fond tales with each sighting. They spotted him skulking through their yards, and they noticed his tail slipping furtively into the bushes at twilight. To my amazement, I saw him nearly every evening while walking on the side streets. Fleeting and indistinct, he was almost like something from a dream. Occasionally, he crept from the tree line; usually, he dashed from the grounds of the local schoolyard and hid himself deep in the woods. Once, I watched him trot up the sidewalk just like any other neighbor, happy and fat, a dead rat dangling from his snout.

Weeks passed. No one mentioned le renard on the listserv, and I stopped seeing him on the sidewalk. Our newcomer seemed to have gone.

And then, this week, he reappeared, darting in front of my car—just hours, I should note, after the block was infested by six-foot-high cardboard roosters.

At this point, I’m sure that you, dear reader, are thinking exactly what I thought: “Gadzooks, man, it’s like The Canterbury Tales have come to life!”

No, not the tales with all the farting and the saucy language, but “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” the story of Chaunticleer, the mighty rooster who defends the henhouse against the depredations of a fox. These days, I almost feel for old Chaunticleer, who was baffled by a creature in his dreams:

Me mette how that I romed up and doun
Within our yeerd, wheer as I saugh a beest
Was lyk an hound, and wolde han maad areest
Upon my body, and wolde han had me deed.
His colour was bitwixte yellow and reed,
And tipped was his tayl and bothe his eeris
With blak, unlyk the remenant of his heeris;
His snowte smal, with glowynge eyen tweye.
Yet of his look for feere almoost I deye…

Not nearly as perceptive as he is bold, Chaunticleer tries to divine the meaning of his dream. His wife thinks that her husband simply needs a laxative, the better “to purge yow bynethe and eek above,” but Chaunticleer is one erudite rooster. The barnyard sage delivers a dissertation on heeding the warnings in dreams, carefully citing hagiography, patristics, and Biblical lore—right before he’s distracted by a few spare seeds on the ground. Before the tale is over, though, Chaunticleer will encounter the monster from his dream; the conflagration to come, the Nun’s Priest tells us, will be of world-historical importance, a tragedy to rival the fall of Troy, the destruction of Charlemagne’s army, and the betrayal of Jesus Christ.

Can anyone doubt that similarly epic events are unfolding here on my sidewalk? A crafty fox, a giant cardboard rooster—you don’t need to be Chaunticleer, or even the Five Man Electric Band, to read those signs. No less a thinker than Chaucer himself might have suspected that something is up:

But ye that holden this tale a folye,
As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,
Taketh the moralite, goode men.
For Seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.

What is the moral of this tale, the “fruyt” to be plucked from this local drama, the grand doctrine to be drawn from this seemingly random affair? I haven’t the faintest idea—but often, in a neighborhood like this one, familiarity breeds so few surprises. Therefore: vive le renard! This time, I’m rooting for the fox.