Jerusalem, Wittenberg, the Barossa, Oberammergau

Chaucer

Passion Play: The Oberammergau Tales, Valerie Volk, Wakefield Press

Pilgrimages are not generally thought of as the stuff of Protestants or non-believers. But many in our modern society do still go on pilgrimages, even if they are not named as such. For some, it may be war sites or art galleries. For Lutherans, the destinations may be Jerusalem, Wittenberg or the Barossa.

Valerie Volk’s book centres on a pilgrimage of sorts to Oberammergau in Germany, famous for its passion play held every ten years. She has taught The Canterbury Tales for many years, and models her book on Chaucer’s famous depiction of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales, as scholar Sheila Fisher tells us in the introduction to her recent translation, is something of a neglected classic, even while we are given endless variations of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. But Chaucer’s work is extraordinary – innovative in its use of language and its introduction to English of new modes of poetry, and in its variety of portraiture. Volk’s book is not innovative in this sense. She replicates Chaucer’s series of life sketches, and is perhaps brave (in our modern, poetry-allergic era) in sticking to verse. However she innovates by placing the characters in a new time and place – the wife of Bath becomes a modern day gold-digging husband chaser, the cook is a celebrity chef, the ploughman is a Wimmera farmer of Silesian stock, and the squire is a punk with a drug habit. It would be a shame if the structure of the book put readers off, because this is a skilled and forceful rendering.

Chaucer’s work displays a bawdy medieval sensibility (much like Luther’s sometimes alarmingly scatological sense of humour). Pious readers may also be unsettled by Volk’s occasional crude language and frank discussions of sexuality. These pilgrims are not model citizens. They are scheming, sceptical and flawed. Or sometimes just earthy. Volk’s intention is to give us real people just as she gives us “types”, and she ventriloquizes masterfully as she inhabits the headspace of each individual, giving them realistic life stories and unique voices. As popular historian Peter Ackroyd notes of Chaucer’s originals, these characters are both “highly individualised and typically representative”.

As with Chaucer’s characters, there is appearance and there is reality. As with most (all?) of us, there is brokenness that has been badly patched or papered over. These pilgrims have vulnerabilities they cannot share, and pain that is pushed down out of sight. On display is a Lutheran idea of sin as a state rather than an individual act; of the sinner being “miserable” (as we in the Lutheran Church used to confess it), in the sense more of “sad” than “irredeemable”. Volk’s pilgrims display a world-weary emptiness and displacement, sometimes masked by bravado, but they are somehow drawn to this two millennia-old story of brokenness and redemption that is re-enacted at Oberammergau. They have an inkling that while this religious stuff should be for people other than themselves, there may just be something in it.

(This review appeared in the July edition of The Lutheran)

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