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Is the con artist entirely at fault? The artist only paints a picture that may well be very desirable, but the choice is up to the observer to blindly follow the artist in the need for a pleasing fantasy or not. In the John Gower’s “Tale of Nectanabus”, the sorcerer Nectanabus, shows to Queen Olimpias and King Philipp, fantastical, wonderful dreams of a gods, prophecy, and strangeness in hopes that he can have sex with Olimpias and advance self-serving desires. However the problem is not only Nectanabus’s trickery, but also the problem of human desire, the need for an amazing future no matter how imaginative it might be. The King and Queen both want to believe in this unbelievably good fortune of prophecy when instead they should be doubtful. Their hunger to believe, to live in a fantasy, blinds them to the truth. This tale warns that humans need to be on guard against deceit by others like Nectanabus, who claim to be the voice of fate or gods. It also tells us to be aware of our own greedy desires to believe in such fantastic prophecies, because once people get so caught up in believing such falsities, they lose the ability to see the bigger picture, to foresee potential dangers in the future.
Queen Olimpias is the first in the story who gets caught up in the imagination and excitement that Nectanabus creates. The queen shows hints of her human weakness to believe in the fictional ideas that Nectanabus implants after he tells her of how a god “He schal asone of you begete, / Which with his swerd schal winne and gete / The wyde world in lengthe and brede”(6.1935-37). Gower notes that Olimpias in her mind, “She wiste litel what he mente, / For it was guile and sorcerie, / Al that she tok for prophecie(6.1950-52). Here Olimpias does not carefully consider the scenario that Nectanabus is a total fraud, instead she takes it as “prophecie”. She does ask for proof which comes later in her dream, but this scene shows that she has ingrained urges to believe in exciting tales. She becomes lost in the feeling of happiness at the thought of giving birth to a wonderful king. Olimpias, as a member of the ruling class, dangerously chooses to be so optimistic about a questionable prediction rather than be cautionary. It seems strange and contrary to reason and wisdom that a person readily believes that a great ruler will come out of such hypnotic visions. This scene shows the Queen’s unawareness of how she hungers for situations and information that is fantastical in nature, hopes for the best future, and in her pursuit, she loses sight of how stupid that really is. Nectanabus penetrates her dreams in which she “lai stille and nothing cride”(6.1990) when he seduces her, and then sees herself “With Childe anon hire wombe aros / And sche was wonder glad withal”(6.2000-1). In this instance, the vision that was predicted happens and strangely she does not question it. Even though her stomach expands right away, it seems she is “wonder glad withal”. This yearning for sense of wonderment and awe is what blinds her judgment. When the actually impregnation does happen “sche soffreth al his wille, As sche which wende nought misdo”(6.2082-3). Here the text states that she desired all his will and that she thought nothing was wrong. Her will to believe in fiction happens so because it is so much more interesting and fantastical but it blinds her and shows her lack of wisdom. This tale illustrates how one should not envelop themselves so much in the pleasures of experiencing fiction since it clouds reasoning and blinds one to the underlying purpose of the fiction weaver. Although good eventually does come out of this, the intentions and mindset from both parties are selfish and makes one wonder how effective rulers can be when their minds are oblivious to a bigger picture of reality.
Everyone supposes the king to be a wise ruler but King Philipp in the Tale of Nectanabus also falls prey not just to a conjurer’s magic, but to his own wishful interpretation of seemingly supernatural events. The strange dream the king sees from Nectanabus’ is that of a dragon between him and the queen, the god Amos, a lion with a sword who sets a seal on his wife’s womb. It is Amphion, clerk of the king who interprets this dream first as A god hath leie be thi wif And gete a sone, which schal winne The world and al that is withinne.
Here one of the king’s subordinates views the extraordinary dream as a blessing in disguise rather than just a disguise. Although the king says he is “doubtif of this dom”, I think the seed of imagination has been sewn in his mind. It does not help either to have subordinates unable to see through guile and possible they themselves are willfully accepting of such positive interpretations because they also fancy the fantastical. Here, the clerks accept such extraordinary ideas probably due to the hopeful thought that their kingdom and empire might enlarge exponentially. Not only that, but they can possibly gain favors with the King for being heralds of good tidings. The problem here is not whether the fortune actually happens or not, but that everyone appears to look after themselves and seek the easy way out. The people in this tale do not seem to be capable of weighing different possibilities or considering that an alternate, more bleak meaning towards dream events. Again, in another scene, King Philipp and his subjects witness a dragon transform into several other creatures and by the end of the performance the King thought, “For thanne he knew wel, as he seide, / Sche was with the childe with a godd”(6.2214-15). Here, the king’s selfish imagination gets the better of even though the visions appear fantastical, they do not seem rational. The king and his clerk also witness after that a pheasant that lays an egg that cracks open to reveal a serpent inside that eventually dies soon after. The king’s clerks sees this as a prophecy that Alexander “Him schal befalle, and in yong age / He schal desire in his corage[…]To torn agein into the lond / Wher he was bore, and in his weie / Homward he schol puison deie”(6.2241-45). The response is that “His jalousie hath al forgete”(6.2249). It seems here that the King satisfies himself with the thought that Alexander will die young, thus alleviating his jealousy of someone surpassing him in might. This exemplifies the self-righteous of people in this tale especially the King. Rather than think about the good or bad that Alexander will bring into the world, Philipp concentrates on this small and petty worldview of how he will appear in comparison. This does not appear to be the characteristic traits of a good leader. A good leader has a healthy amount of doubt, is not shallow in his interpretations, and has the wisdom to see the larger worldview that does not just benefit themselves. The King and his clerks seem content only to dwell in assumptions that benefit themselves and that in turn may lead to poor governance and bad kingship.
However the shrewdest and most selfish of all the characters in this tale and an example of a bad king is Nectanabus himself who was the king of Egypt. Nectanabus like Philipp and Olimpias, builds up a fantasy world that he is not aware of because he get so caught up in building his own little world of lies. He flees from Egypt, when Thurgh magique of his sorcerie Wherof he couthe a gret partie, Hise enemys to him comende, Fro who he mihte him noght defende, Out of his oghne lond he fledde; And in the wise as him dredde
Here, Nectanabus cowardly flees away from Egypt and tosses away his responsibility as a King to protect the welfare of the country. When one thinks of honorable acts, abandoning one’s country probably is not one of them. With all his power, Nectanabus only thinks for himself and wellbeing, the consequences are great for a nation but benefits him. Even though an important historical outcome is born from Nectanabus’ trickery and sorcery, the issue lies in whether his intentions are good natured, ethical, and fit for a king. It appears the evidence overwhelmingly shows his simple selfish nature in passages such as “Nectanabus hath that he would: / With guile he hath his love sped, / With guile he came into the bed, / With guile he goth him out agein”(6.2094-97). Nowhere in the tale does Nectanabus try to look at the bigger picture, or the consequences, or benefits that his actions will bring into the world. He simply fulfills his lustful desires and moves on. This does not qualify as responsible behavior and eventually results in his death. The narrator states that Nectanabus has a narrow-mind when he says “As thogh he knewe of all thing; / bot yit hath he no knowleching / What schal unto himself befalle”(6.2295-97). His selfishness and sense of self-importance causes this narrow mindedness. In the end his own son kills him to test his prophecy. The king and queen choose a fictional interpretation out of the assumption that it benefits them. Nectanabus chooses lives his whole life on the assumption that sorcery and manipulation as an easy way out of a problem. Nectanabus chooses the interpretation that life does not require anything greater than feeding one’s own bodily desires. When problems get real like an invading army or a sense that his son might kill him, he fails comply because he does move beyond petty uses of sorcery. He is an example of an unfit man blindly wielding too much power for selfish intents and the consequence is that we have leaders who are not wise, who do not look out for the greater good.
The “Tale of Nectanabus” illustrates the flaws in leaders and kings who seem to inhabit a worldview that only they matter. I think the tale encourages humans to be more aware of what and how they choose to believe in, and how they and others interpret the divine. Moving beyond petty wants and desires allows a good leader to be more wise about himself and his place in the world.
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