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/Other Literature: Canterbury Tales Camilla Send a noteboard - 17/01/2010 10:58:16 PM
Canterbury Tales was always one of those classics I dreaded. You see, no matter how many classics I read and find terribly enjoyable, I am always half convinced the next one will be terribly boring. It didn't help that I had it pegged as Medieval (even though it is clearly influenced by Renaissance impulses), as I always expect Medieval literature to be boring beyond belief, dealing exclusively with God and saints. I have many prejudices, but that is one of those that I really should start shaking.

It is all wrong, of course. The Middle Ages, like most "dark" periods, was chock full of cultural fermentation that lay the ground for the later flowering. And while the writing public may occasionally have spent a little too much time on religious poetry and learned dissertations on the finer points of theology, it has its counterpoint in popular culture on the one hand and early renaissance impulses on the other. And it all comes together in a delightful mesh.

There is no doubt that Chaucer, while living in the 1300s (that is, a little while before the Renaissance officially became a big deal in Britain), he was decidedly influenced by Italians like Bocaccio and Petrarch. He travelled to Italy, and some have speculated that he might have met Petrarch, but even without an actual tête-a-tête, there is no doubt he brought rather a lot of ideas with him back home. The form of Canterbury Tales resembles Bocaccio's Decameron rather too much for some people's comfort, and it has been suggested that it is simply a poor copy. I don't think I'd agree.

Where Bocaccio gives us nobility hiding from the plague, Chaucer provides an unholy mix of British People, pilgrims travelling to Canterbury. Calling a bunch of pilgrims an unholy mix may seem odd, but I find it interesting that something as apparently holy as a pilgrimage is the setting for some of the dirtiest stories I have read. To make my point more clearly, I find it is generally the lower classes that make Canterbury Tales colourful.

There are some stories that are precisely as religious and boring as I had expected before picking it up -- stories of saints and virtuous women who receive all manner of pain without complaint and who convert the staunchest and most powerful pagans with just a few words. Those stories almost always come from virtuous nuns (there are two), dry studied men or that sort. And I am find with it. Because what I think I appreciate the most in this book is how each story seems to fit its teller. The result is that while most of it is in a similar meter and rhyme pattern, ever story has its own voice. I cannot remember whether Bakhtin discussed Canterbury Tales, but if he didn't I think he missed an interesting example of polyglossia.

While I am on the topic of (virtuous women): it is interesting that a rather impressive amount of the stories either tell of these wonders of virtue, or conversely portray all women as sinful nymphomaniacs who will go to any length to deceive their husbands. And those are the funniest ones, even though I sometimes feel that I should object on principle.

It is not just a collection of stories, though. Each story is surrounded by the frame story of the pilgrims telling stories to make the time pass (the premise is that the one telling the best story will receive a dinner paid by the others on their return from Canterbury). Now, the book was never finished. Of the apparently planned 60 or so, we only have 23 (although that depends on how you count them, I suppose), and towards the end some of that frame dissolves into a bare minimum. But the prologue is marvellous, and several of the discussions in between are rather entertaining.

The very first story is "The Knight's Tale", and that caught my interest immediately, as it tells a story I never heard from Ancient Greece. But that is not my favourite, I think. I laughed a lot from "The Miller's Tale" and "The Reeve's Tale" -- both seemed especially designed to undermine my expectations of virtue and religiosity. The one I found the most interesting, I think, was "The Wife of Bath's Tale", which gave a different version of a story I remember from reading Arthurian legends as a kid (the story about the knight who is tricked into marrying an old and ugly woman, and who is then given the choice of whether she should be young and fair with him at night or with other people in the day (although Chaucer's version is slightly different in that choice) -- the moral is the same: women are happy when they get to make the decisions). The Wife of Bath is interesting outside of her story, as well. She has the longest prologue in the book (concerning women). I suffered a slight case of vertigo on reading her sudden changes from a type of proto-feminism to the assertion that women make life harsh for kind husbands, but worship those who treat them with a firm hand and beat them.

There were other stories that impressed me for very different reasons. There is a quite good parody of rhetoric where two birds discussing very learned things; and another which went into such detail on the subject of alchemy I half suspect that Geoffrey dabbled in the art himself.

I did not read it in the original. Middle English is not entirely compatible with my brain. But Neville Coghill's translation (in the Penguin Classics edition*) seemed excellent, and I most say he has some of the better endnotes I have come across. What makes them so good is you can see that they were written by a human being. Usually, endnotes are written in such an impersonal and dry style it is hard to remember that they didn't magically appear; but Coghill writes things like

The penalties of barbarism are heavy

after observing that the parody in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" will fly over the head of most modern readers because they do not know their rhetoric. Or

This will be a really interesting note

before lounging into an explanation about the expression "to drink monkey-wine" as a bastardised result of the humours. And it really was an interesting note. But I liked feeling the enthusiasm behind it.

Well, enough. I like the book. I look forward to discussing it with my students (I am making them read "The Wife of Bath's Tale and "The Clerk's Tale". The latter can be found in the Decameron, but Chaucer has added a postsscript in a very impressive rhyme pattern which somewhat punctures the extreme morality of the story itself (it is one of those that deal with virtuous women).

*I should make it clear that I bought this many years ago, that is before Penguin sullied themselves by publishing that abomination by Eoin Colfer.
structured procrastinator
This message last edited by Camilla on 17/01/2010 at 11:00:21 PM
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/Other Literature: Canterbury Tales - 17/01/2010 10:58:16 PM 4999 Views
The only way to read it is in the original. Most of it is poetry. - 18/01/2010 12:14:03 AM 1441 Views
if you can't manage the middle english, though - 18/01/2010 01:20:37 AM 1406 Views
How can any intelligent person who knows modern English "not manage" Middle English? *NM* - 18/01/2010 03:31:35 AM 801 Views
How can any intelligent person who can manage Middle English not be bored to death reading it? *NM* - 18/01/2010 04:29:39 AM 866 Views
Well... - 18/01/2010 04:31:47 AM 1538 Views
Taste is highly subjective, that's why. - 18/01/2010 01:36:52 PM 1417 Views
Fair enough. I find it excruciatingly boring. *shrugs* *NM* - 18/01/2010 02:56:34 PM 762 Views
Speaking of that book - 18/01/2010 04:32:42 AM 1430 Views
Re: The only way to read it is in the original. Most of it is poetry. - 18/01/2010 07:53:05 AM 1474 Views
I remember being really surprised by the Canterbury Tales in high school. - 18/01/2010 01:18:56 AM 1420 Views
I always loved that book - 18/01/2010 01:21:25 AM 1440 Views
I don't associate Penguin Classics with their modern desecrations. - 18/01/2010 01:46:15 AM 1493 Views
What's the deal with Penguin Classics? - 18/01/2010 01:37:58 PM 1292 Views
Re: What's the deal with Penguin Classics? - 18/01/2010 04:10:53 PM 1468 Views
There is no sixth Hitchhiker book. - 18/01/2010 04:48:40 PM 1305 Views
Re: There is no sixth Hitchhiker book. - 18/01/2010 04:49:39 PM 1327 Views
Re: I like Eoin Colfer! - 18/01/2010 10:20:57 AM 1330 Views
Re: I like Eoin Colfer! - 18/01/2010 10:22:11 AM 1332 Views
You know, there's this huge problem with using rabid animals - 18/01/2010 10:20:37 PM 1341 Views
Re: Threaten, people, threaten! - 19/01/2010 01:29:16 PM 1451 Views
I bought a bilingual edition (Middle and modern English), might have to read it at some point... *NM* - 18/01/2010 04:50:53 PM 734 Views
Technically, that's not bilingual. - 20/01/2010 01:36:55 AM 1315 Views
I wouldn't count on Tim supporting you... - 20/01/2010 12:54:05 PM 1355 Views
I'm happy to say I first read this post in the original language . - 18/01/2010 10:42:41 PM 1508 Views
Well done. *NM* - 18/01/2010 10:44:51 PM 749 Views

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