“network: anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections” (Dr. Johnson; johnsonsdictionaryonline.com)
Geoffrey Chaucer is remembered as an innovator who made the first translation of one of his contemporary Petrarch’s sonnets into English, and who may have initiated the now-universal association of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love. He may also, in his poetic dream vision The Houseof Fame, have given us a premonition of the staggering power and potential for misuse of the modern-day internet. The narrator/protagonist of this poem, named Geoffrey, is taken to visit the goddess Fame by a giant eagle. Her palace, which he visits first, is impressive but disappointing, as Geoffrey fails to find what he seeks there. In the final 250 lines of the poem, he is taken to a nearby structure, which critics at least as far back as George Lyman Kittredge[i] have referred to as the House of Rumor. This is the section of the poem that forecasts the internet as we know it today.
The eagle chides Geoffrey on their first meeting for his introverted habit of coming home every night to spend the evening like a hermit (or scholar during pandemic lockdown) with his books. What Geoffrey needs, and what the eagle has been sent by Jupiter to help him acquire, are “tidings” of what is happening in the world outside. The Middle English word “tidinges” is glossed as “news” in the Norton Chaucer.[ii] The University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary [iii] suggests a variety of other meanings, including “report,” “information” (both specific and general), “message,” “announcement,” “gossip,” and “rumor.” All of these taken together seem to sum up the variety of things that people today search for on the internet.
The eagle tells Geoffrey that the House of Fame is located at a point equidistant from earth, sky, and sea, so that any spoken word from any of these locations must travel there. In the grand palace of Fame herself, however, Geoffrey does not find any of the “tidings” he seeks. He is then guided to another nearby structure, the so-called House of Rumor. Geoffrey labels it a “house,” and compares it to the labyrinth built by Daedalus in Greco-Roman mythology, but the term “House of Rumor” is never used in the poem. Critics have identified Chaucer’s source for this image with the house of fame described by Ovid in the 12th book of his Metamorphoses; although Ovid does say that thousands of rumors can be found there (“milia rumorum,” line 12:55), the goddess he places in charge is Fama (Fame), not Rumor.[iv]
The structure itself is sixty miles long, made of twigs. The twigs are woven together in a way that suggests baskets or cages to the narrator, and he notices thousands of holes throughout the weave. This presumably circular structure, formed of interlocking strands, is eerily like the visual depictions of the internet that are produced when it is imagined as a visible structure. The very name “internet” suggests such an interlocking construction to the mind. Today, we picture the strands in diagrams of the internet as the pathways along which our information travels, but for Chaucer, it is the holes in between the twigs that allow tidings to escape.
The entire structure of this house is constantly spinning, so fast that Geoffrey is unable to enter without the eagle’s assistance, and a loud noise issues from it. The noise the house makes as it spins is described first as resembling the sound of a stone flying from a catapult or that of a strong wind, but from inside come other sounds that Chaucer calls “gigges” and “chirkinges” (lines 1942-43), which Eleanor Parker in “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World” links to “tweets” and “Twitter”—after all, the entire house has already been compared to a bird cage.[v] The twittering sounds are presumably made by the tidings themselves, which Chaucer does seem to imagine like birds in a cage. In all, we are presented with a bewildering sense of speed and power associated with the house, coupled with the impression that the tidings, while they may be small, have a life and energy all their own.
The only way for Geoffrey to enter the structure is with the help of the eagle, who acts like a modern search engine. When he drops Geoffrey through a window, the structure stops spinning for a moment and allows his entrance. Inside, Geoffrey finds “tidings” of every sort—news about war and peace, work and leisure, life and death, loss and gain, and even about such things as weather and the prices of goods. All the tidings are being shared from person to person among a great crowd of figures that fills the space; Geoffrey had been told earlier by the eagle that these are embodied figures representing the people who first spoke the tidings down on earth. Like a game of “telephone,” the tidings are passed from ear to ear, growing with each repetition, until when each tiding reaches its full size, it flies through a window to spread itself freely—essentially “going viral.”
Some of the tidings Geoffrey observes are true, and some are false. Both are being spread with equal enthusiasm. We are not told how Geoffrey is able to tell the difference, but within the dream vision, it is apparently obvious. He also notices that, as they try to escape through the spaces between the twigs, sometimes two tidings will become stuck as they squeeze through the same hole, so that he sees many instances in which a true tiding and a false tiding become stuck together and intermingled so that no one henceforth will be able to separate them again. All of this seems to be a very prescient depiction of the way that information both true and false is spread on today’s internet with incredible speed, growing and changing as it is repeated so that it is very difficult to tell whether much of it is true, false, or a blend of both.
Living and working in London as he does, Geoffrey would already be positioned to hear most of the tidings spreading through his world. The intervention of Jupiter and his giant eagle seems unnecessary just to bring Geoffrey news, and in fact he never gains any concrete tidings within the confines of the poem. The true gift that he is being given may be this, even temporary, ability to discern the difference between true and false tidings, which those who encounter the tidings after they escape the House of Rumor clearly cannot do. Nor, unfortunately, can many users of the internet in our own day.
Chaucer’s poem, which he left unfinished, does not manage to provide a satisfactory solution to the problem. As Geoffrey is walking around listening for tidings, his attention is drawn by a loud noise in the corner where love tidings are shared. Everyone in the structure rushes to this corner, pushing and straining to hear some important announcement. In the last lines of the poem as we have it, a figure appears that Geoffrey says he cannot identify, except that “he seemed for to be/ A man of gret auctoritee” (“great authority,” lines 2157-58). As soon as a “great authority” appears, someone whose word seems to represent true and reliable information, the entire structure of the House of Rumor apparently collapses—or at least, Chaucer has no more to say about it. For hundreds of years, readers have debated Chaucer’s intended identity of this “great authority.” Users of today’s internet likewise seem unable to identify yet still seek an authoritative source of information that would have the power to quell rumor and uncertainty. If our culture could find such a universally recognized source as an alternative to our current twittering, buzzing, rumor-laden communications, many of our cultural conflicts might even vanish, like a dream in a dream vision poem.
Angela Fulk, Ph.D. Dept. of English SUNY Buffalo State
[i] Kittredge, George Lyman. Chaucer and His Poetry. Harvard UP, 1915.
[ii] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Norton Chaucer. Edited by David Lyman. Norton, 2019. All quotations from Chaucer are taken from this edition.
[iii] Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001. Online edition in Middle English Compendium. Ed. Frances McSparran, et al.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/>. Accessed 05 May 2021.
[iv] Ovid. Metamorphoses. The Latin Library. thelatinlibrary.com. Accessed 6 May 2021.
[v] Parker, Eleanor. “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World.” History Today. historytoday.com/out-margins/chaucers-post-truth-world. Accessed 6 May 2021.
Considering this semantic range, a trǫll is not much more specific than the general concept of a “monster” that encompasses everything from sorcerers to goblins and giants to dragons. As we have seen, the medieval tradition bears out the vagueness of this term as a category of being. While the giant-trǫll may be one of the most common applications of the term in saga literature, modern representations of trolls suggest far more uniformity than evidence from medieval literature demonstrates.
However, even the modern sense of troll retains some flexibility, for in addition to the giant-trǫll, much smaller goblin-like representations of trolls (manifesting in the modern troll doll phenomenon) also features prominently in modern medievalism from early modern fairy tales, like those in the Grimm brothers‘ and Hans Christian Andersen‘s collections, to contemporary fantasy literature and film.
Perhaps the most infamous subcategory of internet troll, which has come under intense scrutiny as a result of their involvement in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, is the Russian troll. The involvement of Russian trolls (and bots) has received a share of credit for Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hilary Clinton, and the president’s critics have alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, which resulted in a special investigation by Robert Mueller centered on whether there was a conspiracy (with Russia) or obstruction of justice on the part of the administration. This produced the famous Mueller Report that indicted 13 Russian nationals linked to tampering with the U.S. election. This Russian strategic operation was organized by the Internet Research Agency, which CNN describes as “a Kremlin-linked Russian troll group, [which] set up a vast network of fake American activist groups and used the stolen identities of real Americans in an attempt to wreak havoc on the U.S. political system.”
Now in 2020, the U.S. again finds itself in yet another battle against Russian trolls and the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Russian trolls seem to be focused on antagonizing and disaffecting groups and individuals thereby turning Americans on Americans, as the Mueller Report outlines a “strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system.” Although Russian virtual propaganda and social media trolling certainly may have fanned the flames, the sad truth is the the fire was already burning. What’s worse, anyone and everyone arguing online becomes a potential Russian troll, providing scapegoats and discrediting of the hard work and dedication of many Americans calling for social, racial, environmental and economic justice, and necessary reform to meet these needs.
As the loudest and most provocative views often receive the most traction and attention, especially on social media, internet trolls—whether an operative from the Internet Research Agency or simply troubled person lashing out online—cast long shadows, effectively silencing all those softer voices and further destabilizing civil discourse.
In both medieval literature and modern times, we must fight the trolls and the horrors they bestow upon human society. While I am suggesting a sort of call to action against internet trolls and trolling, it is expressly not a call for tone-policing. Critique, even the sharpest criticism—especially of public officials and elected representatives—must be uncensored so the people may speak freely and in whatever (and whichever) language they choose, whether vulgar or polite in tone. However, I am suggesting that we consider changing our rhetorical strategy as a nation and a world.
Legendary heroes often fight trolls by matching their strength and ferocity, by fighting fire with fire, but I believe a different path might be more efficient. Perhaps it is cliché for a medievalist to suggest a hagiographical approach, but I would contend that we could learn a lesson from St. Juliana’s contest with a demon (267-558) in the Old English Juliana by Cynewulf recorded in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS3051). As a medieval saint might when facing a devil, I believe that it is often best (and more rhetorically effective) to match vice with virtue, anger with empathy, belligerence with amicability and hate with love in order to transform political conversations in America toward more ethical practices.
This rhetorical strategy, meeting vice with virtue, is the centerpiece of the late classical Christian epic, Prudentius’s Psychomachia, often regarded as the first medieval allegory which establishes the robust tradition which follows. In the Psychomachia, demonic vices fight against saintly virtues in what amounts to a battle for the soul of humanity, a phrase which is repeatedly invoked regarding our current political moment. Although the Psychomachia frames its narrative in reductive notions of good and evil, it nevertheless argues that the strongest way to combat monstrous vices ira “wrath,” superbia “pride,” luxuria “luxury” and avaritia “greed” is with inverse behavior, in other words, the heroic virtues of patientia “patience,” humilitas “humility,” sobrietas “sobriety,” and operatio “service.”
We might also note that in the Hobbit, the grey wizard Gandalf initiates and perpetuates an argument between three stone-trolls in an effort to stall and prevent the monsters from devouring Thorin’s company (ch 2: “Roast Mutton“). Gandalf’s ventriloquism mirrors the trolls‘ level of discourse, and eventually not only does their bickering delay their eating the dwarves, it causes the trolls to forget about the approaching dawn, which turns them to stone. Perhaps there is something of a serendipitous metaphor in the argument between the wizard and the trolls in the Hobbit, which suggests that in order to overcome trolls, one must beat them at their own game and hope they self-destruct.
Indeed, like Grettir wreaking vengeance upon the trǫllkona mikil “great troll-woman” in Grettis saga (ch. 65), it may be that sometimes the only way to respond to a troll is to retaliate in some form. But there is also another kind of strength, kinder but no less powerful. While it is often impossible to starve trolls by ignoring them, and acknowledging that no single strategy will always prove effective, it may nevertheless be that the most productive way to defeatinternet trolls is through sustained civil discourse in the spirit of generosity. In other words, kill them with kindness.
PhD in English (2020)
University of Notre Dame