The Dream-Vision in Medieval English Literature


The authors writing with the dream-vision device follow a predictable pattern: a solitary male narrator, searching for answers falls asleep and is taken on a dream-journey by a learned guide. It may be tempting for modern readers, who have encountered centuries of dream-themed stories, to disregard this technique as a weak literary device. Perhaps it was employed solely to unburden the author of the usual constraints of reality or to free him from the personal liability of controversial statements. However, medieval dream-visions are more than just a random compilation of bizarre discourses or an easy way to dodge critics. By using a pattern familiar to the reader, the dream-vision becomes a purposeful device to draw the audience into an examination of common philosophies and ideas, while simultaneously providing entertaining fiction.

The Narrator

In dream-vision texts the dream is employed, firstly, to address the personal concerns of the dreamer, as well as to highlight truths that supersede the individual narrator of the story. In the introductions of several texts the narrator is seeking an answer to a problem or desires to learn something new. In Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, the narrator seeks a dreamful sleep to gain relief from his sickness of eight years. In Piers Plowman, the narrator, “wente wide in this world wonders to here” and in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls and House of Fame the narrators are hoping to gain knowledge.

Beautiful Location

Most texts position the narrator/dreamer in a beautiful, secluded place. The images of nature, excessive beauty and seclusion signify to the reader that the narrator is in a reflective mood, even if not explicitly stated by the text. Even in non-dream-vision texts, such as Arthurian works, descriptions of nature are used as a way to pause from the action and reflect on a philosophical problem.

In the Palis of Honoure, by Gavin Douglas, the dreamer states that he isn’t necessarily seeking to learn or hoping to profit from sleep, but, in typical dream-vision form, he is walking alone, reflecting on a beautiful, secluded garden. By this introduction the reader is prepared for a dream that will be meaningful and revelatory both to the protagonist and to the reader. Perhaps the meaning will be a successful remedy for the problem faced by the narrator or something applicable to the reader’s own life.

Universal Concerns

While addressing the specific needs of the narrator to ‘learn something’ or to ‘gain relief from sickness’ the dream also includes collective constructs, such as love, grief, societal status or religion, which are intended for the general audience. This is seen most clearly in Book of the Duchess, Piers Plowman and the Parliament of Fowls.

In the Book of the Duchess, midway through the dream the conversation suddenly turns from a dynamic question and answer dialogue into a long monologue on the ideal woman. This shift from the specific to the universal is evident throughout the text of Piers Plowman in the form of such images as Charity, Contrition, Pride and other universal forms. Likewise, in the Parliament of Fowls the class system of the birds is representative of human systems and hierarchies.

Resolution of the Dream

In most dream texts it is reasonable to conclude that the presentation of an idea is the main purpose of the author, rather than a story that ends with the narrator’s problems nicely resolved. Perhaps having the dreamer return to studying his books or writing about the vision is a vehicle to move the audience to further contemplation of the ideas they have just read. This tendency is seen most clearly in the writings of Chaucer.

The Book of the Duchess concludes without addressing the condition of the dreamer’s sickness. The Parliament of Fowls ends with the unsatisfying conclusion of the dream-guide refusing to make a decision and the narrator returning to his books. Likewise, in the House of Fame, even after the narrator has already witnessed marvelous things, he states that he still desires “somme newe tydynges for to lere, somme newe thinges.” In the absence of a straightforward commentary on the meaning of the dream perhaps the audience is prompted to seek conclusions of their own. The ambiguous endings also may serve to reflect that problems are not so easily resolved, even in storytelling.