Why read the Canterbury Tales?

2020-12-05 @Literature

It makes sense to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for too many reasons I couldn’t hope to cover. But I’ll briefly impart what little wisdom I can on the subject.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories/philosophical treatises written by Gregory Chaucer in the latter quarter of the fourteenth century. Written in Middle English, the reading demands a certain initial effort for the uninitiated, although as I covered here, the effort need not be colossal if you approach the task pragmatically.

(For what it’s worth, the CT variety of Middle English as spoken around the London region, reads light years closer to our modern English into which it thenceforth evolved, in contrast to the Midland (roughly North-Western) dialect, characteristic of a poem such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which reads almost as an entirely different language.)

For the greater part of the twenty four tales, Chaucer employed narrative poetry of five-stress lines; a couple of tales unwind in prose. However, beyond the obvious time gap that separates us, rhetorically speaking, nothing feels overly confounding within Chaucer’s poetry.

Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the vulgar language of the time and region, that being English, where Latin held the otherwise higher esteem throughout academics and literature. He wrote the tales for mass appeal, to be easily interpreted and readily enjoyed.

(This contrasts the Shakespearean or Miltonian narrative verse, composed at later periods that English was gradually attaining the ranks of a higher language. Their poetry, respectively, also feels more perplexing in allusions, circumlocutions and extended metaphors.)

What makes CT unique is the great extent of matter contained within. In addition, the work showcases a unique unifying format. But let’s first address the former.

CT is not merely a collection of tales, but philosophical (and theological) testaments. It is profoundly engrossed in references to the Bible, Stoic teachings, mythologies, Roman philosophers, historical accounts, St. Jerome, Boethius, Boccaccio and many more.

In fact, were it not for the exuberant storytelling device (and format), eruditely, CT doesn’t feel much lesser contained than an anthology of philosophical essays based on similar groundwork (ie Montaigne, who’s writings I highly esteem). As a secondary portal to moral philosophy, CT makes a strong contender.

CT fashions all that accumulated wisdom into a very diverse set of tales. And it weaves the narratives from the fabric of all that disparate matter among the Biblical, Pagan, Stoic, mystical, feminist, anti-feminist sources. Really, it feels oddly liberating as characters defer to the Book of Solomon and Seneca’s Moral Epistles in nearly consecutive passages.

There’s no one unique assemblage of pathos, maxims or proverbs that bind each story. What firmly holds in one tale falls flat in another. What emanates rawness and sincerity in one instance, meets irony or satire elsewhere. Some tales are encased with the direst of tragic matter; others humorous if not entirely perverse.

Some tales appeal to allegory; others, to personification. It’s refreshing to hear a hawk speak of unrequited love, or a rooster and hen passionately debate the merits of premonitory dreams (with an abundance of literary allusions, naturally).

For the much older historical or mythological narratives, Chaucer often appeals to anachronism to integrate older lessons with contemporary Medieval values. Shakespeare often resorts to the same within the Elizabethan England framework. In fact, both writers subject the ‘knightly’ Theseus to severe abuse in that regard.

The unifying structure of CT also deserves some attention. While initially indifferent, the further I proceeded through the tales, the more the diverse storytelling format grew on me.

The stories are told by different pilgrims on a journey to Canterbury. Shocking, huh?! These are pilgrims of radically varying social class. Hence Chaucer, leveraging the extent of his lifetime street erudition, uses each pilgrim as a vehicle for a unique storytelling approach. To add further dimension, the storytellers are also in continuous motion.

There’s that. And then there are the inter-story links. The group host as well as the individual pilgrims engage each other in moments of interlude, often in bouts of contention - some out of sportsmanship, others out of genuine conflict if not plain scorn. Naturally, these links are too written in verse and house much literary value in and of themselves.

What’s more, Chaucer even incorporated himself into the narrative as one of the Pilgrims. He even contributes a couple of tales, although his verse doesn’t quiet live up to the group standard, by way of well-constructed irony.

It is this overall structure that makes the whole even grander than the already solidly written individual components. This, despite some tales not having reached completion; despite the overall work not having attained the scope Chaucer initially conceptualized.

(Chaucer imagined each pilgrim to contribute four tales. By my crude estimate, that would equate to some astronomic amount of between 80 - 100 tales in totality, versus the twenty four that formed the ultimate rendition.)

But of what consequence is this matter of incompleteness anyway, when the present work reads so subliminally well?

Read the Canterbury Tales and let me know how it works out for you.

Questions, comments? Connect.