Old Bestseller: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
a review by Rich Horton
Old Bestseller? Well, sure! You can't get much older than the Canterbury Tales for English literature that can be read by modern English readers. And it's really "sold" well throughout its history -- it was, as far as I can see, recognized as a work of genius from the very first.
Geoffrey Chaucer, of course, is one of the best known writers of all time. And his life was quite well documented for a man of his age, so his biography is fairly familar. He was born in 1342 or 1343 to a reasonably well-off middle class family. He spent much of his life in, essentially, civil service jobs, working for the King, the King's son, the Army, and the port of London. He married Philippa de Roet in 1366, a lady of waiting to the Queen, and the sister-in-law of John of Gaunt. They had three children. He also wrote extensively, and his writing was evidently much appreciated in his time. Besides the Canterbury Tales his most famous work is probably Troilus and Criseyde. He first wrote in French, but soon began writing in English (Middle English, of course), and was a key figure in making English a respectable language for literature. He is credited with inventing iambic pentameter.
The Canterbury Tales were his last work, written between 1387 (when his wife died) and his death in 1400. (Possibly started earlier in the '80s.) Naturally the first editions were in manuscript -- the earliest extant dating to shortly after his death. Gutenberg's printing press was invented in 1439, and the first English printer was William Caxton. The popularity and importance of the Canterbury Tales is evidenced by the fact that the first book Caxton printed after he set up his press in England was the Canterbury Tales. (Ten copies of that printing survive.)
As for my edition of the book, I read a dozen or so of the tales from three separate sources. Primarily, I read a Bantam Classics selection of 8 tales, plus the prologue of course, edited by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt. The editors presented the original Middle English text and their own Modern English translation on facing pages. This book included "The Knight's Tale", "The Miller's Tale", "The Wife of Bath's Tale", "The Merchant's Tale", "The Franklin's Tale", "The Pardoner's Tale", "The Prioress' Tale", "The Nun's Priest's Tale". Then I found a cheap copy of a Norton Critical edition, edited by V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson. This edition included nine of the tales -- seven in common with the Hieatt's edition, and also "The Reeve's Tale" and "The Clerk's Tale". This edition does not include a full translation of the Middle English, but glosses the more obscure words, and also adds Modern English versions of occasional particularly difficult phrases. Finally, having been urged to also read "The Tale of Sir Thopas", I found an online site which includes the entire sequence, all 28 tales, edited by Sinan Kökbugur. (It can be found here: Canterbury Tales Online.) This edition gives the option of a side by side presentation of the Middle English and a modern translation. In this I read "Sir Thopas", and also skimmed "The Tale of Melibee", which are the two stories Chaucer presented as being told by the "Geoffrey Chaucer" figure on the pilgrimage.
For a long time -- since high school, I suppose -- I've known I ought to read at least some of the Canterbury Tales. (Of course, there are lots of books I feel guilty about not having read!) In our English literature class in high school we read a snippet of the prologue in Middle English, and then a Modern English translation of, IIRC, "The Reeve's Tale". So I'm quite glad to have finally rectified this shortfall. I'll say first that the Middle English is actually not too terribly difficult to read. Yes, every so often a phrase just eluded me. And a number of the words do need explication (though I knew a fair amount of them just from having read enough historical fiction set in England.) The thing is, there's no question that it's better to read the original -- most importantly, to be reading Chaucer's poetry. (And this is a poem, mostly -- or a number of long poems, perhaps, with one tale ("The Tale of Melibee") in prose.) I have to ay that I found the Hieatts' translation unsatisfactory -- no real attempt is made to preserve the poetic strengths of Chaucer's work, and on occasion they get a bit annoyingly fussy (as when they ruin a pun on "queynte" as in roughly "quaint" and "queynte" as in, well, in their telling: "where he shouldn't [touch]".) I wonder if a translation that kept to the word order and almost all of the Middle English word choices, but only used modern spelling and very occasional translations of completely incomprehensible words, wouldn't be sufficient.
What do I think of it? It's pretty impressive stuff, really. One of the most obviously notable things is Chaucer's way with voice. The voices of each storyteller are captured in entirely individual ways. I remember reading about a book called, I think, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom, in which, if I recall, Bloom claimed something like "Shakespeare changed our conception of human consciousness, to the point that he invented the idea that we have individual consciousness, individual characters." I haven't read the book, so I am probably misstating his argument, but it struck me as absurd on the face of it, and surely Chaucer, writing 2 centuries prior to Shakespeare, but displaying individual characters, as conceptually rich as Shakespeare's, stands as one (of many) counterarguments. The Wife of Bath is probably the most famous of Chaucer's characters, but the cynical Pardoner, and the easily offended Reeve, not to mention the Host, all strike me as nicely portrayed characters. (The characters in the actual tales, however, are often closer to types, and sometimes their motivations are obscure.) I suppose the other general point I might make is that these stories present a pretty dark view of the place of women in that society (and at least some of them are clearly criticisms of that place.) And, relatedly, they are pretty darn full of rape. And one final point, familiar enough -- the funny stories are very funny. ("The Miller's Tale" in particular.)
Short looks at the tales I read:
"The Knight's Tale" -- This is the longest one, over 100 pages in the Bantam edition, 2250 lines. It's set in Athens, when Theseus was the Duke, and his wife was the Amazon Hippolyta. Theseus makes war on Thebes, where Creon is King, and takes it, in the process taking two prisoners, the cousins Arcite and Palamoun. Both see Hippolyta's sister Emelye from the tower in which they are imprisoned, and fall hopelessly in love with her. Then Arcite's freedom is bought, though he must swear never to return to Athens. Of course he does, to be near Emelye, and under another name becomes a servant to Theseus, while Palamoun languishes in prison. Long story short, they end up fighting a battle for Emelye's hand ... Of course, all this time Emelye, a true Amazon at heart, had vowed never to marry, and prays to be released from the duty of marrying whoever wins. To no avail -- after all, she's a woman, and has no say such matters! It's an interesting if at times frustrating tale, somewhat at odds with contemporary sensibilities, not to mention not even trying to portray a plausible Ancient Greece. None of which really matters -- the poem does what it wants to do quite well.
"The Miller's Tale" -- the miller, much gone in drunkenness, insists on telling the next story. It's about a carpenter with a very pretty young wife, Alisoun. He rents a room to a young scholar, Nicholas, who takes a fancy to Alisoun, grabbing her by the "queynte" -- and convincing her to sleep with him. Another young man is fascinated with Alisoun, who has no interest in him. Nicholas arranges a very complicated scheme to get time alone with Alisoun, based on convincing the carpenter that the second Noachian flood is impending. And Alisoun fools her importunate alternate young suitor to kiss her "ers" instead of her lips ... and the result is, pretty much, embarrassment for all, involving a hot poker. This is perhaps the most out and out funny of these tales, and the most sexy too, I suppose.
"The Reeve's Tale", then, responds to "The Miller's Tale". (The reeve was originally a carpenter.) He tells of a crooked miller, who has a pretty wife and a pretty daughter. Two students try to expose his criminal ways (stealing some of the grain he's been paid to mill), but the miller is wise to them. However, the two students have their revenge, by sneaking into the beds of both the miller's wife and their daughter, and having sex with them. (Sex which sure looks a lot like rape.)
Even more explicitely a tale of rape is "The Wife of Bath's Tale". This is set in King Arthur's time, and a knight rapes an innocent virgin, and is sentenced to death. But he gets a reprieve from the Queen, who instead sets him a task to find out what women really want. His travels suggest several answers, none of which suffice, until he meets an ugly old woman, and eventually learns what women really want -- to be allowed their own choice of what they want. As his reward, he marries the old woman -- who magically changes into a beautiful young woman. I admit I was bothered by the way the knight got away with -- indeed was eventually rewarded for -- a quite vile crime. Of course, the real greatness of the Wife of Bath's tale is the prologue, in which she tells of her five husbands, and why she married them, and what she got from her marriages. This part is golden, it's very funny, very knowing, and very revealing of the position of women in England at that time, and of what a strong woman could do to claim more of her due.
"The Merchant's Tale" is another story of extramarital sex, but there's a lot more consent involved. A 60 year old knight, January, decides to marry, finally, and chooses a young girl, about 20, named May. (The names are hardly coincidental.) The story ends up concerning her desire for a young man in her husband's service, and the amusing lengths they go to to have sex. Fun stuff, for sure.
"The Franklin's Tale" was in the end one of my favorites. It tells of a knight in Brittany, Arveragus, and his lady, Dorigen, who make a love match, and who agree to a marriage with fairly equal sharing of power (for that time.) They are very happy, and then Arveragus has to go off to war. Dorigen misses him terribly, and becomes obsessed with the idea he will crash and die on the rocks off her shore. She is victimized by another man, who lusts after her, and who hires a magician to make is seem as if all the rocks off the shores of Brittany have vanished. This man has made her promise that if he can remove the danger to her husband she must allow him to have his way with her. In the end, after Arveragus returns she confesses her trouble to him, and says that her honor requires that she give up her virtue to the other man ... but her example causes this man to retract her promise -- and Arveragus has forgiven her at once, so all ends happily.
"The Pardoner's Tale" is one of the few that don't turn on sex (unlike all those mentioned above.) It's well introduced by its prologue -- the Pardoner is a cynical man, and his job is to swindle people in the name of "pardoning" their sins, so they can go to heaven. (An issue central to the Reformation.) After a discourse on his job, with a certain cynical glee displayed on how easily he makes a living, he tells of three debauched young men, who set off to kill a man they hear of, named Death, who has killed thousands. But on their way they are tempted to betray each other, so that they can claim the entire fortune of the others ... and, inevitably, it is Death who wins again. A pretty strong moral tale.
"The Prioress's Tale" is particularly problematic. As a tale, without context, it's affecting enough -- a very devout young boy is killed by the residents of his town, who are offended by his religious devotion. The problem is that the tale turns on horribly antisemitic lies about Jewish attitudes towards Christians. (Remember that the Jews had been expelled from England about a century before Chaucer wrote this story.) I found it hard to get past the vile depiction of Jews. I understand that some readings suggest that at least in part Chaucer was satirizing the Prioress' excessive assumed piety ... all possibly true, but still hard to get past.
"The Nun's Priest's Tale" is different to the other stories described here. (Though it does, in a sense, involve sex.) It's an animal fable, about Chauntecleer, a rooster, with seven wives. He has a dream that he will be eaten by a fox, and confesses his fear to his favorite wife. She poo-poos his concern, so he ventures out -- only to encounter a sly fox, who almost manages to trick Chauntecleer into getting eaten. Fortunately, Chauntecleer is able to escape, and to resist the fox's attempts to lure him back. Pretty enjoyable stuff, with, as usual for Chaucer, lots of interesting elaborations of the context, with allusions to older stories.
The two extra stories I read (besides "The Reeve's Tale", interpolated above), were "The Tale of Sir Thopas" ("Thopas" meaning Topaz), and "The Clerk's Tale". The latter was pretty interesting. It tells of a well-respected man, Walter, who has refused to marry. He is finally convinced to choose a wife in order to get an heir. He chooses a very poor woman, Griselda, and, taking advantage of her low status, makes her promise to obey him without question. They have children, a girl and then a boy, and Walter in each case tells Griselda he has decided to kill the child, but instead sends them off secretly to be raised by friends of his. Griselda is convinced they are dead, but accedes to Walter's wishes due to her vow. Finally, Walter tells Griselda he is tired of her, and will remarry. He says he has chosen a young woman, and has his daughter (accompanied by her brother) summoned home, and seems ready to marry her. Of course, all is resolved, and Walter admits his deception, and declares himself pleased with his wife's faithfulness, and they live happily ever after, reunited with their children. I have to admit, I was pretty disgusted with Walter's torture of Griselda.
Finally, "The Tale of Sir Thopas" is one of two tales supposedly told by Chaucer himself, at the host's bidding. It's essentially a parody of over the top tales of knightly valor, as Sir Thopas, in an effort to woo the elf-queen, undertakes a series of quests -- portrayed in a galumphing sort of rhythm, with sing-song rhyming. The host is soon disgusted, and insists Chaucer stop, so we never see the end of the tale. It's obviously parodic, and the use of the Chaucer figure for the teller is part of the fun.