So you’ve just finished reading The Consolation of Philosophy, and you want to know what to read next (one of the first things people learn about Boethius is that he was enormously influential). Since you spent all day observing his Feast Day on this October 23rd, you’re looking for more reading material. Well, you’ve come to the right place.
- Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight’s Tale, and, really, everything he wrote.
Chaucer translated the Consolation himself into Middle English, a scholarly and careful translation that showed how much he admired the work. Chaucer was moved by many themes in Boethius, but above all it was the honest recognition of suffering and the struggle to deal with it intellectually that I believe moved Chaucer’s pen to compose some of the finest Boethian poetry in existence. He also had a magnificent handle on the humor in Boethius.
- Dante’s Commedia
Dante mentions his debts to Boethius explicitly in the Convivio, and his use of Beatrice as a mentor figure, Virgil as the wise pagan, and the penetrating insight into the self-destructive effects of evil breathe fully in the wisdom of Boethian moral philosophy.
- Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur
Malory is to my mind the great captstone of Arthurian literature, looking back at a long line of poetic treatment of the Arthurian materials. Boethian philosophy, it has been shown, reached as far back as the original great Arthurian story, The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. As a work that meditates on the whole legacy of Arthuriana up to that point, Malory creates a City of Godesque survey of the mythology, bringing a beautifully Boethian understanding to the way in which religious truth can be illuminated by efforts of the imagination.
- Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia
This is a bit of an obscure one, but Bernardus Silvestris is a sadly underread author (I recommend the translation by Winthrop Wetherbee). His Cosmographia features a powerful, feminine personification, Nature, who contributed much to the medieval understanding of nature as a concept, and who integrated the Boethian view of education (and storytelling’s role in the liberal arts) into the pedagogy of the 12th century.
- C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, The Silver Chair, Perelandra, Pilgrim’s Regress
Lewis himself put Boethius in the list of the top ten most influential writers on his thought (outside of the Bible), and integrates Boethian thought into many of his stories. How the texture of a philosophical argument can become inspiration for the journey of heroes is a powerful component of the Boethian legacy in Lewis’s writing.
- George MacDonald’s Phantastes, At the Back of the Northwind, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie
MacDonald was a sublime thinker on the subject of the imagination, and much of his meditation on the subject on “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture” resonates with Boethius’s consideration of the subject. What MacDonald picked up on more than almost any other writer, even more than Lewis but perhaps not so much as Tolkien, was that The Consolation of Philosophy is a fairy tale, and just so MacDonald has many fey maidens who instruct elfin knights in the truths of Faerie.
- Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Beren and Luthien, and On Fairy Stories
Tolkien’s OFS defines a fairy tale as a Fantasy, a product of the rational imagination, which produces the effects of recovery, escape, and consolation, which leads ultimately to joy. This is the precise pattern of the Consolation, and Tolkien knew the Old English translation written either by King Alfred or one of his courtiers. Tolkien’s Nazgul are drawn from Augustine’s and Boethius’s description of evil (especially book 4 of the Consolation), and the One Ring’s effects resonate with Boethius’s understanding of the negative effects of wealth. Also, the Consolation is a deeply theistic text rife with imagination which has an impressive female gift giver and yet never explicitly mentions Christian doctrine, in spite of Boethius as an author of Catholic theology. Just so, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings leaves religious doctrine deeply in the center rather than in the surface language of his work.
- John Kennedy Toole, The Confederacy of Dunces
This is a bizarre, uncomfortable, wild read that highlights the humor in Boethius’s Consolation even more than Chaucer. It’s a bit of a narrative mess, but it’s a text that every Boethian should be familiar with. Just make sure you bring a strong stomach.
- John Milton’s Paradise Lost
Like Boethius, Milton sought to justify God’s ways to men. He didn’t share some major aspects of Boethius’s theology, but ironically, though less orthodox than the theologically stern Roman philosopher, Milton actually worked more of Scripture into his poetic approach to the problem of evil.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Coleridge mentions Boethius just a few times in his massive Biographia Literaria, and yet does so in a context that directly implies favor for Boethian styles of writing. Perhaps the greatest Anglican poet of them all, Coleridge adopted a prosimetric style in the Rime, perhaps his most famous poem, and the Ancient Mariner’s curse to wander the world and tell everyone about his story whether they want to hear it or not sounds familiar to anyone who knows an ardent Boethius scholar (we’re all a little rabid). I recently showed this connection at a conference panel on Boethius, so you’re at the cutting edge of Boethian scholarship! Yay!
That is just a small taste of the good things one can read as a Boethian – and if you’ve read some of these already, congratulations – Boethius is already in your life. Maybe when I get a chance I’ll write on some more Boethian authors. In fact, looking at this list i notice they’re all men, so next time I do this, I’ll make it exclusively female Boethians! Gotta love lists.