Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Review: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Posted on Friday the 13th...see the bad luck below.

The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales describes a group of pilgrims gathering to travel from London to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. A contest is proposed to see who can tell the best tale along the way. A free dinner is the reward upon their return. The group of pilgrims is wide-ranging, from a noble and lordly knight to various religious (both male and female) to humble workmen like a sailor and a cook. Each character's tale is not only an interesting tale in itself, but also reveals something of the teller's personality and something about then-current attitudes towards church, society, marriage, and all the things in people's lives.

The edition of The Canterbury Tales I read is not a complete edition. It has the Prologue and eight of the tales. Enough stories are included to give a sense of different levels in society and different attitudes held by people. The Pardoner is an avaricious fellow whose tale of thieves turning on each other reflects the folly of avarice in them and in him. The Knight's Tale is set in ancient Greece where Theseus has conquered Thebes. Two Theban warriors taken back to Athens as prisoners have fallen in love with Theseus's daughter Emily. A tale of courtly love and ethical ramifications follows, though many terms are "modernized" to medieval times--Theseus is Duke of Athens (not king) and the warriors are knights. The story is very interesting and gives insight into the nobility's views on themselves, even projecting themselves back in history. Other stories are fables or bawdy farces, so the range even in eight tales is quite wide. Chaucer gives us a broad view of his times.

This edition also has Chaucer's original Middle English text on facing pages of the modern translation, so readers can see the original poetry and check on certain surprising phrases. I was surprised to see "Murder will out" in the Prioress's Tale, but in Chaucer's English it is "mordre wol out" so that was certainly accurate. I had fun occasionally trying out Middle English to see if I could follow what is going on.

Several asterisks in the text point to terms in the glossary which explain what are, to modern readers, obscure references, e.g., references to Greek mythology or lesser known biblical tales or medieval poems and traditions.

Even though this is not a complete edition of The Canterbury Tales, it is certainly enough to satisfy my curiosity and give some insight into the world of Chaucer and his brilliance as a writer.

Here's the edition I read, which in a case of well-timed bad luck, is out of print:

 After looking through various editions on Amazon, I can't really recommend a similar edition. You'll have to decide what your tastes are and choose accordingly...good luck!

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