Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is among the best pieces of literature in the annals of English literature. Written in 1387 A.D. in a language which, at the time, was rarely, if ever, used for serious literature, Chaucer’s series of tales helped redefine language while catapulting English into a position of respect.
For those of you unaware, The Canterbury Tales is about a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury for pilgrimage. Along the way, they stop at an inn whose host offers them this challenge—the pilgrim that can tell the best tale will receive a fabulous prize. So, each of the pilgrims, over a merry feast, each tells a tale, each tale attempting to “one-up” the previous and nab that coveted prize.
The pilgrims, being drawn from all social strata and classes, tell unique tales which cover topics as unique as fairy tales, anti-Semitism, and Arthurian Romance. Whether it is a tale of students seeking revenge on a conman or macabre stories of men seeking Death, every tale brings a unique feel to the expected morality of the book (i.e., Christian virtues). To try and describe how all of these tales’ work together, however, is not really the purpose of this “review”; this review, after all, is my initial impressions of Chaucer’s epic magnum opus.
Like many first-time readers, then, I was caught off guard at just how modern Chaucer’s writing felt. Or, to rephrase, Chaucer’s narratives and characters felt very modern. Conmen, priests, kings and authoritarians, do-well youth and rowdy undergraduates, the characters and the pilgrims telling of the characters, didn’t feel out of place in today’s world.
Why they didn’t feel out of place nor their stories awkward can be chalked up to just how great an author Chaucer is as it is through his pen that people from centuries ago feel as though they are you or me. In short, Chaucer’s skill as a writer and his homing in on the essential idea of humanity transcendent throughout time is what enables us to speak of Chaucer’s modernity. It is a rare trait shared by few other authors; sure, Milton and Shakespeare have great material, but the unadulterated drama of the stories take away some of the longevity whereas, in Chaucer, those fantastical elements are properly framed in such a way that delimits the absurd just enough to refocus on the human. It is a subtle dialectic.
As for the writing—and yes, this is the real loaded question—Chaucer’s great prose and poetry… I honestly cannot comment and why is because of translations.
Because I was going through The Canterbury Tales alongside the Pilgrim Literary adaptation and this project was spread out over several weeks, I ended up using several different translations, some editions of which were left-over from a previous project of mine concerning Chaucer’s Middle English. As a result, my introduction to the Tales was moderated by several different takes on Chaucerian translation. All in all, this was a negative experience.
Why negative? Because before this project I had been introduced to Chaucer’s Middle English and so I can easily say that nothing quite meets Chaucer at his own level. Truly, most translations simply don’t capture the sort of semiotic poeticism which is found in the original Middle English. Though certain translations are better than others and some unfortunate few are simply incorrect, to understand Chaucer’s writing as it stands, you really need to read Chaucer in his own literary tongue.
This is not to say that there is no value in reading translations. After all, it would be absurd to expect everyone to learn Middle English to just read a book. And yet, from a scholarly standpoint, most modern translations do not stack up. But, if you were in the market for just such a translation, then I would recommend David Wright’s translation published by Oxford University; this is the edition that I read most from and the version that I found myself the least frustrated. Start here and then see if you can find a better version (if you do, let me know ASAP!).
To conclude, The Canterbury Tales was a novel not quite like anything I had read before this moment. Medieval yet modern; progressive yet reactionary; funny yet dramatic. And much more besides. The point which I wish to get at is that if you are how I myself once was and found yourself confused on what passed for literature in the Middle Ages, then read Chaucer The Canterbury Tales; heck, just read Chaucer in general, and you will quickly come to understand the medieval past is not so foreign after all.