Lively, absorbing, often outrageously funny, Chaucer's "The Canterbury tales" is a work of genius, an undisputed classic that has held a special appeal for each generation of readers. It gathers twenty-nine of literature's most enduring (and endearing) characters in a vivid group portrait that captures the full spectrum of medieval society, from the exalted Knight to the humble Plowman.
However, it was neither stuffy, nor dry, nor boring. In fact, quite the opposite of all those things.
Very unexpectedly, this was an easy-to-read, entertaining book. Even though the "story-within-story-within-story" format occasionally had me flipping back to remind myself who was talking, I wouldn't call it difficult reading.
If I'm totally honest, though, I must admit that there were one or two stories that I started reading and began to wonder where on earth they were going. However, for the most part Chaucer seemed aware of that himself, because he would often truncate stories when they started to get dull.
If I can muster a minor criticism of this book, it would be the fact that a disproportionate number of the stories revolve around adulterous wives. I can't even remember how many of the stories feature that as a major plot point.
This leads to another - well, not so much a criticism as an observation. This book was much *randier* than I expected. Every other story seemed to feature people hopping in and out of bed. So much so that I began to get self-conscious about reading this book on my commute to and from work each morning; I began to worry that old ladies would notice me reading it, and shake their heads disapprovingly.
Regardless, I had a good time reading this book - or at least, a much better time than I anticipated. I suppose my most major criticism would be with the ending: we never get to find out who won the contest! There's no general "summing up" at the ending. It simply finishes with the last story, and when that's done, so's the book.
I found the language easier to deal with than I expected - Chaucer's version of southern English is a lot more straightforward for the modern reader than the nearly contemporary Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Anyone who knows a bit of French or Latin and a bit of German or Dutch ought to be able to read it fairly easily with the help of the marginal glosses. Especially with 600 pages to practice on, you soon get the hang of what it means and a rough idea of how it sounds (I listened to an audio recording of the General Prologue for help with this). In fact, the pronunciation of Middle English is usually more logical than that of Modern English. If what's written is "knight", it makes far more sense to say cnicht (or kerniggut if you're John Cleese) than nite...
Like most people, I had mixed reactions to the Tales. The bawdy ones were fun - it's always interesting to see that people enjoyed fart-jokes as much (or perhaps even more) in those days as they do now. The chivalric-romance style of several other Tales was colourful but sometimes a bit slow for modern tastes (some of the descriptions in the "Knight's Tale" seem to go on for ever), but it was revealing to see that Chaucer was well aware of that and was prepared to make fun of it in the mock-heroic "Nun's Priest's Tale" and the deliberately boring and directionless "Tale of Sir Thopas", which is supposedly being told by the poet's narrator-persona, "Chaucer", until he's cut off by the Host.
There are several "high-minded" religious Tales that look as though they are meant to be taken straight - the blatantly antisemitic - "Prioress's Tale" is perhaps best ignored; the "Physician's Tale", a gruesome story about an honour-killing, is not much better, except that there at least the narrator seems to distance himself a little from the idea that it's better to kill your (innocent) daughter than risk shame attaching to her; the "Second Nun's Tale" (the gloriously over-the-top martyrdom of St Cecilia) is almost readable, but even I was forced into skimming by the "Parson's Tale", a lengthy and very dry sermon on the subject of "penance" (it does get a bit livelier when it's discussing the Seven Deadly Sins...).
Probably the most interesting aspect of the Tales overall is what Chaucer has to say about the relations between men and women. Several Tales deal with this topic explicitly in various different ways, and the core of the argument is obviously in the "Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" - she argues powerfully and directly that the world will not collapse into disorder if women are allowed to decide the course of their own lives. The "Franklin's Tale" also takes up the idea of an equitable marriage in which neither partner owes obedience to the other and presents it in a positive light. It's tempting to read something of the Chaucers' domestic situation into this, but of course we don't have the slightest bit of evidence for anything other than that Philippa Chaucer had a career of her own.
We read this for its scope, vitality and colour, and for the liveliness of Chaucer's verse, which manages to jump the centuries without any problem. It's striking how we're so used to groaning and expecting dullness or difficulty when we see a passage of verse in a modern prose novel - here it's precisely the opposite; we (rightly) groan when we see the prose text of the "Parson's Tale" and the "Tale of Melibee" coming up, and are relieved when we get back to verse again...
One - irrelevant - thought that struck me for the first time on this reading was to wonder how the practicalities of storytelling on horseback work out. Even on foot, it's difficult to talk to more than two or three people at once whilst walking along, and when riding you can't get as close together as you can on foot, plus you've got the noise of the horses. So I don't know how you would go about telling a story to a group of 29 riders in a way that they can all hear it. If they were riding two abreast, they would be spread out over something like 50m of road, and it's unlikely that the A2 was more than two lanes wide in the 14th century...
My five-star rating is for the late Professor Douglas Wurtele of Ottawa, ON, who spent his academic life studying Chaucer and tirelessly sharing his rich enthusiasm with his students.
The Canterbury Tales are a story-telling contest by a group of people on their way from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral:
It happened in that season that one day
In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
For Canterbury, most devout at heart,
At night there came into that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry folk happening then to fall
In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all
That towards Canterbury meant to ride.
(quoted from The Prologue)
This "sundry folk" includes, among others, a knight, a miller, a reeve, a cook, a prioress, a monk, a clerk, a merchant, a physician, a pardoner and a parson. Probably also known to many is The Wife of Bath.
As it is hard to review such a large collection of stories I will concentrate on the one that impressed me most, which was 'The Miller's Tale'. Following a story of courtly love told by the kinght, 'The Miller's Tale' relates a story of a carpenter who is fooled by his clerks who have sex with the carpenter's wife. What I especially liked about this story is the topic, which is talked about very openly for a 14th century work. What is more, the miller does a magnificent job in telling his tale after he had just told the rest of the group of pilgrims that he was drunk and not to be held acoountable for the story. 'The Miller's Tale' is followed by 'The Reeve's Tale' in which great offense is expressed at the miller's story as the reeve had been a carpenter himself once. This can be seen as an example of the structure of The Canterbury Tales: A story insulting a particular group of persons or a particular trade is usually followed by a response from the offended who tell a tale on their own to set matters right or get back at the previous speaker.
While 'The Miller's Tale' is just one of many stories in The Canterbury Tales it is somewhat representative of what I liked about the book. First, there is the structure that greatly contributes to the overall reading pleasure. Second, there are the tales themselves, which are very entertaining, especially keeping in mind the fact that they were written at the end of the 14th century. To my mind, The Canterbury Tales is a classic that is still highly appealing to 21st century readers. On the whole, 4 stars for a great reading experience.
The Tales begin with the General Prologue where Chaucer introduces all of the pilgrims. The Prioress is described as a gentlewoman, possessing all the etiquette/manners and sympathetic trappings of nobility. She keeps pets, including little dogs, which she feeds scraps from the dinner table. She wears a bangle on her wrist and a brooch/necklace (rather than a rosary, I assume, if rosaries existed yet) that reads "Amor vincit omnia" (the phrase "Love Conquers All" could be evidence of her hypocrisy, and/or symbolize an interest in physical love—sex and motherhood are probably not a terrific obsession for a Prioress). Notably, she doesn't act like a pious nun. In the prologue, she's a coquettish social climber who’s more reminiscent of a woman attempting to maneuver her way through a royal court than a House of God.
The Prologue introduces the idea of an entertaining storytelling contest, and so each character tells a tale. The Prioress tells a violent, sentimental, religious tale that makes listeners weep and turn away in horror. We empathize with the story’s main character, a young child (or, at least, I think we’re supposed to); thus, when she draws parallels between herself and her Tale’s main character, she wants the reader to feel sorry for her as well. The problem: She isn’t an innocent child. So why does she want us to see her as innocent and pitiable?
She sees herself as being childlike and innocent, but she comes across as childish, envious, and unforgiving and merciless. She hasn’t given up worldly possessions and pride; she sports jewelry and wears her habit so that her prominent forehead is exposed. My version of the Tales, in a footnote, indicates that in Chaucer’s time, the prominent forehead indicated status and noble or aristocratic bloodlines. As a Prioress, her pride and materialistic nature would probably have verged on being sinful, but must have been, at the very least, uncharacteristic of a Prioress.
She has abandoned some nonmaterial aspirations by giving up the ability to have her own children and marriage. The difference, though, between The Prioress and her Tale’s main character is that she, unlike he, chooses to give something up for her faith, whereas he has faith without knowledge. (He willingly sings Latin hymns without knowing their meaning, and sings them as he wanders through a Jewry. Notably, he sings the Alma Redemptoris Mater, yet the Prioress always leaves the word Mater out until the young boy has already died and is sprinkled with holy water.) Or, did she? Did the Prioress knowingly give up motherhood for her faith? In other words, does she have faith coupled with knowledge, or, is she like the character in her story, which would mean that she doesn't understand the demands of her own devotion and calling? While she sees herself as being like the boy in her Tale, Chaucer certainly intends parallels between the Prioress and the boy’s mother, the widow, and that may tell us something about how Chaucer sees her to understand her faith.
The Prioress mourns the loss of her own motherhood via the pathos of the widow’s character. The widow cannot locate her son, so she becomes whiny and plaintiff, inadequate, and ultimately has to seek the help of others in order to find (or care for) her child. Ultimately, the Prioress’s behaves the same way when it comes to articulating that for which she has abandoned ordinary motherhood, namely her faith. She even draws attention to the fact that she has faith without knowledge by making fun of the Monk (Shipman’s Tale) for having the exact opposite--knowledge without faith. She apologizes for that weakness, and we are left to draw our own conclusions and compare her weaknesses to the strengths of one of the only other female taletellers, the Wife of Bath. The Prioress is like the widow, namely incapable of caring for her own son (faith), protecting him from the evils of the world, and helpless, because she lacks the knowledge and rationality to do so.
Because she lacks a rational understanding of faith, and is at the same time attempting to explain what faith is, she tells a violent, gruesome, anti-Semitic Tale. At the end of that tale, she asks for mercy for herself, sinners, and her listeners, but she doesn't appreciate the paradox between asking for mercy, wearing the Amor vincit omnia, and being so blatantly vindictive. The choice is either (1) the prioress understands the paradox of mercy and the violence in her tale, or (2) that she doesn’t realize her own vindictiveness. It's hard to imagine what she believes that phrase means in light of the story she tells, but it seems she’s genuinely clueless as to her hypocrisy.
Aside from not living the phrase “Love Conquers All,” her faith without knowledge keeps her from grasping the fullness of the Virgin Mary (that she is the mother of a man in the flesh and of the divine). In other words, she doesn't reconcile the earthly nature of motherhood with the heavenly nature of being God's mother. Although laudable to empathize with Mary’s motherhood, faith loses meaning without an understanding of being “The Mother” as well. Instead of seeing herself as a strong protector of the innocent and of the faithful, she sees herself as an infant, drawing parallels between herself and a young boy. Yet, she isn’t an infant, she’s a woman.
As a Prioress, she would have had authority over young women and some responsibility for teaching “the faith.” Would a story about a young boy having his throat slit to the bone by Jews bring young women closer to God, would it entertain a party of pilgrims? Hm. Maybe she did join the pilgrimage to have a “spiritual dialogue between man and creation,” but the Prioress will always be a pilgrim, perpetually struggling to reconcile her calling with her loss of motherhood. She has faith in the redeemer but uttering the complete phrase Oh Loving Mother of the Redeemer will never come easily. Faith without knowledge still seems to leave the Prioress in a dark place where mercy falls on only those with her sort of faith, and Love does not conquer fear and longing.
So, in the end is faith enough? I hope so, but the Tale isn’t very encouraging.
I have heard many friends complain about how boring The Canterbury Tales is. I admit, there are some stories that are impossibly long-winded. (I'm thinking of the Parson's Tale here.) However, there are a few classics in here, such as the Wife of Bath's Tale, and the Knight's Tale. No matter what, it's amazing to see how each of these stories continues to be meaningful and have relevance to audiences today. There is something in every story that we can still see in today's world. Promiscuity, cheating, marriage, friendship, religion, etc. Chaucer covers it all.
If you're going to pick and choose, however, I think the funny ones are the best. There is some merit in the others, but Chaucer is at his finest when writes humor. He's sarcastic, clever, and gloriously irreverent. And he's not above a good fart joke. I'm not sure that can be taken as a sign of a brilliant writer, but Chaucer is one of the greatest.
Overall, I think classics are classics for a reason. The status of The Canterbury Tales is rightly deserved. Chaucer is undeniably clever and funny and brings up a lot of issues that are still worth thinking about. I think everyone should sit down and read this one; just be prepared for poetry, not prose, and know that it won't be a fast read. But it will be worth it.
*I was given a free copy of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers' Program in exchange for an honest review.*
I would recommend trying reading this in the original Middle English; it's difficult but rewarding, especialy when you revert back to modern English afterwards and realize how easy and familiar it is!
That being said, Burton Raffel's new translation of Canterbury Tales is approachable and friendly to readers of all ages, from the slightly-but-hopefully-not-too-apathetic high school student to the serious and wise scholar of English lit. More points for having a lovely book layout; I love the feel of a good, solid book in my hands.
As husbands know, the ruin of their lives
Much as the theme of estrangement dominates a thread of traditional songs, (see Wayfaring Stranger, Motherless Child etc) much of early Modern literature appears concerned with faithless brides and the looming spectre of cuckoldry. It is possible that I am full of shit in tall weeds, but that said, I do think that there is a link between the themes (alienation and infidelity) and that both are understood in terms of our ontological displacement. Such were my reasoned reactions to Canterbury Tales. My unreasoned ones amounted to observation: look there’s a rape, that’s a rape, that’s a pogrom, why would anyone’s daughter want to sleep with him etc, etc? I read this in translation into modern English and was impressed about the rhyme, especially between Flanders and extravagances: who can fault that? The Tales is a display of language's majesty.
My grasp of Chaucer amounts to the author saying through his myriad voices -- much like Bill Nighy in Hitchhiker’s Guide: there really is no point, just keep busy
There are over 20 individual stories, some that were unfortunately left unfinished. Each tale is told by a different person in this group of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury Cathedral. They are all from different walks of life; there is a Knight, a squire, a scholar, a prioress, a priest, a pardoner, etc. They decide to tell stories in order to pass the time as they travel.
For those who are not used to Middle English is that you can read one at a time and/or skip around (after you read the General Prologue), and though you may miss a few things about the actual pilgrimage (some of the story tellers argue and whatnot), the tales themselves are still very enjoyable.
I suggest finding a copy that has both the original spelling and the Middle English spelling in order to enjoy the full impact of the language even if you are not a Middle English expert.
It is a delightful collection of tales! I wish more people would read and enjoy them!
Read Samoa Nov 2003
The tales here vary in length and content as to the prologues and epilogues containing the goings on of the party members. Chaucer writes with a great sense of humor and, since he is writing in the language of the common folk, the content contains many lewd and bawdy jokes and events. It is a very entertaining read and if one wants more than just entertainment, there is a lot of social commentary about life in medieval England that can be gleaned throughout the text.
I was a little unsure what to expect when I read this and don't be turned off by the introductory prologue in which our narrator introduces all of the characters. It can be a little long and dry in parts, but it helps to give a clear picture of the characters in the party as they interact with one another and tell their respective tales.
Jokes apart, I find his humor and his intended pun much more enhanced by the language structure. What remains stark in my memory are the characters; the Frair and the Wife of Bath :D, they both are so opposite in their stature in society yet Chaucer managed to wheedle in a common meeting ground so easily. Also the grandiose verbosity in the prologue actually made me sit up and go.. what was that!?
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
More power to you if you choose to do so. But if you're looking to enjoy yourself and read with understanding without constantly referring to footnotes, sacrilege though it may be, you might want to try one of the translations into Modern English such as those by Nevill Coghill, Colin Wilcockson or David Wright.
Book Season = Sping ("when the sweet showers of April fall and shoot")