“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is an early example in English literature of the personification of domestic animals in order to reflect upon human behaviour. This takes the form of an animal fable, reminiscent of the ancient Greek Aesopica. The protagonist is the rooster Chanticleer, described as a fine specimen who is “great at crowing”, has a comb “redder than fine coral”, with gold feathers “flaming bright” and is the proud master “of seven hens, all there to do his pleasure” (215). These vivid and overtly sexual descriptions seem to parody the extravagant style found in courtly romantic poetry.
In this passage of Beowulf, we witness the hero’s struggle against Grendel’s mother, the second of the three monsters in the epic poem. He has dived below the water to seek her out, and she has dragged him to her lair. The passage begins with a description of the “water-hag, damned thing of the deep” (1516-1517) and Beowulf’s initial attempt to strike her with his sword. In addition to the four-beat alliteration that pervades the entire poem and gives it an inexorable rhythm, there is an example of kenning here, with his sword Hrunting referred to as his “battle-flame” (1522). This use of kenning gives the weapon a greater stature than just an ordinary sword, yet unfortunately even this great named sword, a gift from Unferth, is unable to do any damage. This is described with the “battle-flame refused to bite” and “the edge failed its lord in his need” (1524-1525), increasing dramatic tension in this scene by giving rise to the possibility that Beowulf may not succeed.
This passage comes quite close to the end of The Odyssey, immediately after Odysseus has taken his revenge on the suitors who have been pursuing his wife in his absence. The suitors are lying in a bloody heap on the floor, and Odysseus asks his son Telemachus to summon Eurycleia, his nurse, because he is keen to extend his revenge upon any unfaithful serving women. After such a bloodthirsty and merciless scene, this passage provides some insight into Odysseus’ justification for his actions, and serves to maintain the audience’s sympathy for him and his plight. The theme of revenge in The Odyssey reaches its climax in Book 22, and this passage represents a pause between two acts: Odysseus’ revenge upon the suitors, and Telemachus’ revenge upon the serving women.
Throughout history, English texts have often utilised supernatural or spiritual themes as core plot elements. For the reader, an interpretation of such a text may view these either as literal aspects of the story, or as semantic devices used by the author to stimulate deeper levels of meaning. The 17th century texts of Macbeth (Shakespeare) and Paradise Lost (Milton) use the supernatural and spiritual respectively to shape the narrative. In addition, these are both canonical works that have been widely discussed and interpreted by readers over a long period, and are still actively studied today. For this reason, these two works provide definitive examples of how the supernatural and spiritual can be represented and how this representation can be used to create narrative meaning for the reader. Macbeth tells a story of human temptation and weakness using the supernatural as a key plot element, whereas Paradise Lost is an epic in which the spiritual intertext of the Bible is used to comment upon the nature of humankind, society and politics.
The tragedy of Macbeth contains a number of supernatural elements and the foremost of these is the three witches. The play opens with the poetic verse of the witches and this places their supernatural influence at the centre of events. Macbeth’s first line, “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.39) is a direct echo of the witches’ opening chant, “fair is foul and foul is fair” (1.1.11). According to Kranz, the effect of this echoing is that “a close and mysterious connection between the hero and supernatural hags is established well before the actual staged temptation of the former” (346). Shakespeare’s placement of the witches at the forefront of events is key to shaping readers’ interpretation of the text.