“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!
Congratulations! The complete Canterbury Tales is a serious reading project! (One which I only aspire to…)
Thanks! It was a fun project. I’ll have to re-visit it again one day!
Thank you so much, Beth! 🙂
I agree with Beth. Great review!
If only the Canterbury Tales could have been finished.
Many thanks to you, Lydia! I wish Chaucer had finished it too but I’m also glad that we have what we do. It would be neat if someone discovered more of his stories but it’s probably a futile wish. Fun to think about though.
mucho congratulations!! especially if you read it in the original… i did that and it took a long time, too… but it was worth it, i guess… actually i’d like to reread it in a good translation; i probably missed a lot. the toughest Chaucer i read tho, was his short description on how to operate an octant ( i think that’s what it was, anyway)
I read one story in the original and then switched. There is only so much time in one’s life ….. 😉 I’m reading The Divine Comedy at the moment and thinking of how handy it would be to learn Italian. Again, oh for more time! An octant ….. I had to look that up ……. I was very average at geometry …. 😉
Thanks, Jean! It only took me three years to finish it, lol! And perhaps I will also finish my review of Le Morte d’Arthur one day from your read-along. That was one interesting book. I’m getting the itch to read it again.
Congratulations! This is a work I only know enough about to answer correctly at pub trivia. Amazing that something from the 14th century could still be fresh for the modern reader.
I do want to read this someday and then read Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which is sci-fi but modeled after The Canterbury Tales.
Thanks, Ruthiella! It’s definitely worth reading. I’ll have to investigate Hyperion. It’s so interesting that old books leave so many echoes even hundreds of years later. Thanks for the tip!
It’s been eons since I read The Tales. I can see as plain as day the copy I read, but I’m certain I borrowed it from my older brother, and who knows where that copy is now. Must go back. Chaucer, not only a great writer, was a fascinating personage.
I wish there was more time in the day to read and re-read, sigh! I’d like to read it in the original Middle English one day but we’ll see. Absolutely …. his writing is so perceptive that I wish we knew more about him.
Yet another classic work I’ve yet to read, but my dad is a fan – he talks about it frequently and how relevant it is even today. One of these days…
It’s difficult to start this one but once you get going it’s so much fun! Your dad has good taste! 😉