The Canterbury Tales

With the Odyssey, I sought lyricism; ornate poetry. When reading The Canterbury Tales, however, I wanted a translation that would retain the wit and tone of Chaucer, in straightforward 21st century language. Glaser admits that he has taken certain liberties with the structuring of the verses, but because of disparities between Middle English and modern English,

trying to put the lost syllables back into a Modern English version almost inevitably makes for stodgy, congested writing, the exact antithesis of the elegance and rapidity of Chaucer’s own verse.

I’m not sure what I expected of the Canterbury Tales, but I was pleasantly surprised – by its modernity, its obscenity and its variety. Chaucer writes in both prose and poetry, utilising couplets, rime royal, ballade stanzas and other verse forms in snappy, staccato syllable lines (mostly eight to ten) . Furthermore, there are a diverse range of conventions found within the tales – Greek and Roman mythology, Biblical and classical allusions, astronomy, alchemical recipes, philosophical ruminations.

Most of the tales are light and jesting in tone. The Host reprimands the Clerk, the Monk and a few others of the pilgrims, for telling too dreary a story:

No Lenten sermon fit for fools
To make us mourn our sins and weep,
Nor a tale to make us sleep!
No, tell a merry, rousing story.
Nip off your buds of oratory!

Some, such as the Miller’s tale and the Summoners tale, were a little obscene for my tastes, but as Chaucer rightly says:

Now, gentle reader, I implore you,
When I put his tale before you,
Don’t think me lecherous or shameless.
Most of my stories are quite blameless,
But I must tell the bad ones too,
Or shirk what I set out to do.
Turn the page and choose another;
My tamer tales would suit your mother.
They praise good morals and embody
The opposite of all things bawdy.

Apart from the highly sexual nature of the stories, though, I was rather shocked at how immature some of them were. Here, for instance, is an extract from the Miller’s tale:

This Nicholas let fly a fart
Greater than a thunder stroke
It almost made our lover choke.
But he swung his iron into the farce
And smote young Nicholas on the arse
Nicholas’ hind end popped and fried.

Sounds like the poetry of a prepubescent boy. Similar “farting” incidences can be found within the Summoner’s tale, where the problem of how to divide a fart into twelve is addressed.

I can understand the significance of this collection, though. There are some pretty strong statements directed towards certain sectors of society (especially the Church). For instance, the Summoner insists that in the afterlife, friars have their nest in the devil’s behind. The fiercely feminist Wife of Bath is venomous towards the male sex:

And may Our Lord cut off men’s lives
Who won’t be governed by their wives.
And old and angry married skinflints…
God curse them all with boils and squints!

On second thought, though, Chaucer is consistently compassionate towards women:

Esteem yourself esteeming her.
No man hates his flesh, that’s sure,
But coddles it. Your wife is you,
So cherish her in all you do.

And –

A wife is part of God’s Creation.
Just use her with due moderation.
Don’t let her lead you to temptation
In luxury or other sins.

One of my favourites was the tale of Sir Thopas, and his search for the Fairie Queene. It has some beautiful lines; I particularly liked this sort of detail:

They plied him then with sweatened wine
And mead in wooden bowls, combined
With royal, precious spice,
Then gingerbread fit for a shrine
And licorice and cumin fine
And sugar sifted twice.

but it doesn’t seem to please the Host:

“By God,” he said, “in simple words,
Your crappy tale’s not worth a turd.
It’s too naive, a waste of time…”

Isn’t he an eloquent fellow? Of course, pretty prose aside, there were some truly interesting pieces of writing in the collection. For instance, the Monk’s tale of Zenobia, a Middle Eastern queen of the 3rd century A.D, is an unusual depiction of women’s roles. And then there’s the Squire’s tale – Canace is given the power to understand the speech of birds, and she recounts the tragic story of a falcon who is betrayed by her lover. I also liked the Nun’s Priest’s tale, which was rather Aesop-esque.

What fascinated me was the role of the narrator throughout the tales. The Canterbury Tales clearly was, and continues to be, an innovative piece of work. Also, with few exceptions, Chaucer is readily emphathetic towards his characters, rather than judgemental. Even perverted January, who has an unnatural infatuation with his youthful wife, May, is allowed some sympathy. When he discovers her adulterous behaviour with Damian in the pear tree, he lets out a cry “as mothers do when babies die”. No one who lived through the Bubonic plague could have made that comparison without feeling a degree of compassion for the dirty, dirty old man.

»The Canterbury Tales was read as a part of the Really Old Classics project.


8 thoughts on “The Canterbury Tales

  1. I always thought I’d read an older version — maybe even the original early English (my mother wrote her phD dissertation about middle english; surely I could figure this out!). But this sounds so incredibly fun in modern translation! I’m really glad you enjoyed it so much.

    1. Rebecca – well, before I decided on the Glaser, I was going to read this particular edition (by Penguin I think?) that has the Middle English and a modern rendition alongside each other. That way if the original isn’t for you, you can always just read the modern, hahah. That was my plan, but then I really liked Glaser’s translation, so I dumped the other one.

      I’m glad I enjoyed it too. I wasn’t sure if I would, but this was really a great read.

  2. I’ve never thought of tackling Canterbury Tales, so I was surprised at how readable the verses in the translation you used were.

    Also, because of Rebecca’s discussion of Tolkien over at her own site, I can’t help thinking that middle English is some reference to Middle Earth, although I know it’s not! ;)

    1. Steph – they are very, very readable! I decided I might as well enjoy myself, since I’m not reading it for school or anything. Hahah, Middle Earth! Elves and hobbits in Chaucer; that would be quite strange..

  3. The few stories we read in high school I liked, but you just made the book sound so much better! The farting part was hilarious! I will be reading Glaser when I do Canterbury Tales, too. Thanks, Tuesday!

    1. claire – Hahah! The farting part was rather funny, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it from Chaucer. He totally shattered the preconception that Middle Ages = piety, solemnity, purity.

  4. From your quotes the edition you read is very readable. I read part of the Canterbury Tales in college and found it more comprehensible than Shakespeare and Homer.

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