Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Chaucer: The Book of the Lion

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


This is a phantom text, a piece that doesn’t exist any longer — Chaucer’s Book of the Lion, one mere mention of which is included among the literary revocations in his Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales. The work has been lost, presumably because it was such an early and already obscure artistic flop that it did not even merit inclusion in Chaucer’s previous autobibliographies: the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women (G 405-420) and the Introduction to the Man of Law’s Tale (B 57-85). It would be interesting, nevertheless, and possibly even useful to know more about this work, one which was substantial and memorable enough to have been referred to by title in the Retraction, unlike “many another book, if they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a leccherous lay” (I 1085).

Speculation about the nature of this lost work more or less died out about a century ago. In 1928, Victor Langhans capped a tradition reaching back to the days of Tyrwhitt in the late 1700s by postulating that the Book of the Lion was probably a redaction of Guillaume de Machaut’s “Dit dou lyon,” a courtly love allegory “written in a mode thoroughly compatible with that of Chaucer’s dream poems” and a work broadly circulated, as evidenced by numerous extant manuscripts. Critical consensus, if that is an appropriate term in this realm of complete conjecture, has adopted Langhans’ guess, despite the indication then that the Book of the Lion must have been an early work, composed before the poet outgrew the artificial genre, and one so aesthetically dismal that Chaucer suppressed it and all mention of it until on his deathbed when eleventh-hour guilt over the abomination demanded full bibliographical confession.

Langhans effectively subdued if not silenced the notion offered also in the 1920s by Aage Brusendorff, who thought instead that the Book of the Lion had been inspired (an inappropriate term, admittedly) by Eustace Deschamps’ “Dit du lyon” or “Fiction du lyon,” an incomplete but 2954-line atrocity of a poem.

The late Terry Jones (from the Monty Python group) was a legit medievalist and led a collaborative work titled Who Murdered Chaucer? (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2003) and speculates:

One scenario is that “the book of the Leoun” was a very late work — perhaps only just finished. Maybe he hadn’t circulated it to anyone yet, and the single copy, his working copy, was destroyed along with his other sole authorial copies.
Another scenario, however, is that “the book of the Leoun” was singled out because of its inflammatory content. If “the book of the Leoun” was a political allegory about the events of 1397 or 1399 which made Richard look good, and Henry IV and Archbishop Arundel look less than saintly, that would certainly have guaranteed its almost instant disappearance under the new regime. (331)

With Chaucer’s possible adaptation of those French sources,

plug in Richard II as the Lion, England as the island, and the rebellious magnates, Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick and co., as the envious wild beasts. The poem could have celebrated Richard’s final triumph over his enemies in 1397 with the deaths of Richard, Earl of Arundel and Gloucester, and the exiling of Archbishop Arundel and Warwick.
. . .
Or could Chaucer have only just finished writing “the book of the Leoun” when he disappeared? In that case, his subject might have been the ten years 1389-1399 as the lost Golden Age following Richard’s outmanoeuvering of the Appellants, and the usurpation as the time of violence and tyranny that comes after — and name your envious beasts. (334)

In the end,

There is therefore the possibility that “the book of the Leoun” was what got Chaucer killed. (335)

I’ve been very slowly writing an article on this lost work for years, following a conference presentation on the topic. It’s bound to be my next published Chaucer article, but time is the tormenter. In the meantime, you amateur Chaucerians can think this through logically (or at least associatively). When was the Book of the Lion probably written, roughly? Why? What was it about? And therefore, why do we not have it?

Seems self-evident to me….