“Whan that April with his shoures soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;….”
Twenty-nine pilgrims and the narrator meet in Southwark, in Harry Bailey’s Tabard Inn, before setting off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, where they will behold Thomas Becket’s shrine. On the journey each pilgrim will tell four tales, two on the way there and two on the way back. A free dinner will be awarded to the one with the best story. And so begins Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous poem, a medley of lively stories that gives the reader a captivating window into 14th century England.
|The Gateway at Canterbury (1889)
Yet instead of the 120 tales promised by the author, we are only left with 23 and 2 of those are not complete. To add to the conundrum, there are 84 manuscripts of these tales and portions thereof, 55 of them reasonably complete, yet none of them are directly from Chaucer. Again, of the complete manuscripts, each present the tales in 10 blocks or, Fragments. While the General Prologue Fragment with the first tales are easy to place, the rest of the Fragments are a scholarly guessing game. There are other problems such as pilgrims with tales which are missing from the General Prologue introduction, and tales being interchanged between pilgrims. We will never know the answers to these issues, but it’s perhaps more important to simply develop an appreciation of Chaucer’s witty composition and lively storytelling. The tales are certainly a delight to read.
While at times the language is coarse and vulgar with the tales being rather raunchy, they are also balanced with stories of chivalry, honour, perseverance, and morality. In addition to the different themes, Chaucer offers different genres, such as the comedic, the fable, the mythological, etc. Each tale is unique from the others and often evokes quite strong emotional responses from the reader: amusement, laughter, shock, disgust …. you never quite know what’s around the next corner!
I must say the poems (and some prose) took me on a merry journey and here are my posts corresponding to each tale, :
The General Prologue / The Knight’s Tale / The Miller’s Tale / The Reeve’s Tale / The Cook’s Tale / The Man of Law’s Tale / The Wife of Bath’s Tale / The Friar’s Tale / The Summoner’s Tale / The Clerk’s Tale / The Merchant’s Tale / The Squire’s Tale / The Franklin’s Tale / The Physician’s Tale / The Pardoner’s Tale / The Shipman’s Tale / The Prioress’s Tale / The Tale of Sir Topas / The Tale of Melibee / The Monk’s Tale / The Nun’s Priest’s Tale / The Second Nun’s Tale / The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale / The Manciple’s Tale / The Parson’s Tale / Chaucer’s Retraction
|Canterbury Pilgrims (1903)
source Wikimedia Commons
Chaucer’s portrayal of the characters in his tales is exemplary, displaying a keen perception of human nature. The clergy are not holier-than-thou saints …… in Chaucer’s world, people are simply people, all with virtues and vices; it’s most important to look beyond the surface of a person to assess their inner character and often what is hidden behind their words.
As an omniscient narrator, Chaucer is able to play the part of not only the stiff, prim, conservative, resolute pilgrims, but he is also in unity with the pilgrims who are raunchy and uncouth and display a healthy dose of ribaldry. Yet while he employs a relaxed, playful style, his razor-sharp insights and pointed logic, when utilized, are forces in themselves and very effective. No topic is taboo as Chaucer examines the cultural context of sex, lies, money, betrayal, church corruption, justice and various other elements of the society in which he lived. The Canterbury Tales is a true English masterpiece and it’s no wonder it’s stood the test of time.
Again, this book was read as part of my The Canterbury Tales / The Brubury Tales project which, with this final review is now (finally!) complete!