The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must begin this review with a kind of repentance. Many years ago, I made my way through The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. I figured myself rather clever and linguistically capable enough to handle the language. Indeed, I even felt no pangs about reading the book before bedtime, fighting through the morass of unusual spellings and unfamiliar words while I was at my drowsiest. Needless to say, I did not have an easy time of it. And this difficulty colored rather unfairly my opinion of Chaucer.

This time around, I opted for a modern “translation”—two, in fact: the first, a print version by Nevill Coghill; the second, an audio version by Gerald J. Davis.* Immediately the error of my first impression was apparent. When the obscurity of Chaucer’s English was stripped away, I encountered a thoroughly enjoyable and wholly interesting book.

Admittedly, the circumstances of my reading were also more propitious. I read The Canterbury Tales this time around while I was, myself, on a pilgrimage—spending a few days on the Camino de Santiago, in the north of Spain. Chaucer made for quite an excellent companion—more entertaining, in fact, than the real pilgrims I encountered. (The conceit of the book struck me as especially fanciful by comparison with my experience. Virtually all conversation between the real-life pilgrims consisted of the most predictable small-talk—where are you from, how many kilometers, what’s your job, etc. Certainly I was no better as a conversationalist.)

I was first struck by Chaucer’s obvious debt to Boccaccio. The basic device is the same: a group of people are stuck together, and must tell stories to pass the time. More than that, several of the stories in this book are taken directly from Boccaccio (who is not credited, though I think that was common practice at the time). However, the differences are important as well, and highlight Chaucer’s strengths. Most obvious is that Chaucer was not just a storyteller, but a poet, and his tales are written in brilliant verse. More important, however, are the characters Chaucer employs to tell his stories. While Boccaccio’s storytellers are all genteel aristocrats, Chaucer’s raconteurs come from all levels of society, the poor and the rich, the lowborn and the noble, the profane and the holy.

In these two great gifts—his poetic suppleness and his all-embracing social vision—Chaucer is a direct forerunner of Shakespeare. But the similarity does not stop there. While Chaucer’s characterizations, like Boccaccio’s, are often fairly superficial, at times he achieves depths worthy of the bard himself. This is most obvious in the acknowledged high point of the poem, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Here, it is clear that Chaucer realized he had achieved something of a breakthrough, since he allowed the prologue to run longer than any other—longer, even, than the story that follows. And like any of Shakespeare’s great characters involved in a soliloquy, the Wife of Bath comes wholly alive in a way that, as far as I know, was unprecedented for the time.

The content of the stories is varied, but some major themes stand out for comment. The most striking, I think, is that of women and wives. Chaucer presents several disparate views on the matter. One story, for example, advocates that wives be absolutely subservient and obedient to all their husband’s whims, while the Wife of Bath (among others) believes that marriages only work when the wife is in charge. Related is the question of women’s sexuality: Is it something evil or innocent? Is sex to be free and easy within marriage, or is virginity the ideal state? A secondary theme is that of religion. Chaucer, like Boccaccio, makes fun of monks and clergy outrageously, but this does not stop him from being extremely pious in other moments.

This brings me to the low points in the book, the two prose pieces: the Tale of Melibee and the Parson’s Tale. Both of these are not really tales at all, but moralizing essays, full of Bible quotes and references to Aristotle and Cicero. (Indeed, they are wisely omitted from the Coghill version, but I suffered through the audio.) Here, we see that Chaucer could be dreadfully boring in certain moods. These two pieces have no humor at all, and are full of the stuffiest, most pedantic piety imaginable—solemnly concluding, for example, that temperance is the opposite of gluttony, or that good advice is preferable to bad advice. After the ebullience of the Wife of Bath, it is puzzling that Chaucer could have written such tedious pettifoggery. Did he intend these ironically, or was he protected himself from damaging accusations, or did he undergo a religious awakening halfway through writing the tales?

Whatever the case may be, the rest of the book is good enough to forgive him these trespasses. To state the obvious, this book is a classic in every sense of the word. Perhaps I ought to try the original once more? Or should I not press my luck?
*For what it is worth, I liked the Davis version, and noticed no difference in quality from the esteemed Coghill version. However, I find it odd that Davis has translated books from so many different languages: Gilgamesh, Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Beowulf… Either he is a linguistic genius or is getting some help.

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