I first read The Vision of Piers Plowman sometime late last year. Months later, I decided to go through and read it again. The first time I read it, I only read about half before other obligations took my time away; reading it was slow going due to the complexity and so I wasn’t feeling the pace and quit. Even so, I loved what I did read and decided that should the remainder of the poem be as great as what I had read, I would create some project-based loosely from the poem. Hence, why I am only just now getting around to publishing my initial thoughts on the poem. Also hence, why my upcoming project concerning Piers Plowman exists– because that remainder was indeed as great as the first half.
For anyone who hasn’t read the poem, be prepared to be surprised when going through the text. Written as a protracted allegory combining politics and theology, the text is always speaking of “something else” when major characters take the stage. Since I haven’t yet done the scholarly response to this work, I will not try and wax eloquently on it but I will say that the density is plain.
Ultimately, the text is a social commentary. Told through several “steps,” it follows an unnamed protagonist as he dreams and encounters various characters– virtues– modeled after theological concepts. Each dream takes him deeper down the rabbit hole of enlightenment before the poem culminates in a re-examination of the crucifixion and End Times narrative. It is an epic adventure eerily reminiscent of High Fantasy.
My own response to the poem was at times mixed all though over-all very positive.
Because the poem is focused on pontificating on moral living while occasionally taking aim at the unrighteous way in which medieval life was conducted, the protagonist will often encounter a virtue. This is all well and good except for when that virtue goes on an exacerbating monologue that goes on and on. One such monologue lasts literally an entire chapter– a whole chapter consisting purely of one character speaking.
Most of the time, this is not the case, but even so it does nothing to erase the fact that the poem relies heavily on long-winded lectures. Sure, we can’t judge a medieval text too harshly for not conforming to modern ideas on narrative and dialogue, but a little less lecture would have been nice, even if I understand why lecture prominently featured.
When the text isn’t lecturing, the dream-world envisioned by the protagonist as he probes the world and comes to know the mysterious figure known as “Piers,” is a fascinating place that is easy to imagine as a prototypical “Middle Earth” or “Narnia” (if you were so inclined). Classes and allegory combine to create a familiar environment but one just out of reach enough for it to be coded as a fantasy. If you have read Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, then you will begin to understand the social and class nature of the text even if Langland uses a different, more pro-poor approach, than The Father of English.
Technically, this is only my 1.5th reading of the text so I will not pretend to have any high-minded ideas about the texts. All the same, I am looking forward to my forthcoming creative project adapting this text to a game-like structure; even though this upcoming game is not a scholarly undertaking, it is one that I feel will perfectly accompany another reading as I feel-out the points capable of more deeply engaging the text with our own time.
As odd as it sounds, reading through Plowman reminded me a lot of reading the Bible; with so many theologic and philosophical references, the text would truly take a firm, unwavering, protracted commitment to even begin to understand. I think this is why I have singled it out for a creative project because, sure, one could sit down and study all the references individually… but that would take a long time and not many people are likely to take the bait. But if you were to study it as part of a fun, artistic endeavor, then it becomes more likely people will give it their time of day.
In any case, my early engagement with Langland’s masterpiece has only just begun. I foresee myself doing much more with Plowman in the future, so in the meantime, we will just have to be patient in the exact ways those studies happen and enjoy the ride meanwhile. In the end, I would recommend Plowman to anyone who has an interest in medieval literature, even if the text is more complicated than what we might initially expect.