Reviewed by Katherine Bailey
By Geoffrey Chaucer
Available in many editions, both soft and hardcover
How does one visualize medieval England without reference to the gallery of vivid portraits in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? It is virtually impossible. The Canterbury Tales helped to established English as the language of the nation’s literature, replacing French and Latin. A contemporary of Chaucer described him aptly — and with memorable alliteration — as “the first finder of our fair language.”
Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1340-1400) was born into a family of wealthy London wine merchants with ties to court, connections that were to be central to his life. For some 35 years, he served the royal family — Edward the Black Prince, John of Gaunt and King Edward III. His eventful military service in France included capture by the French and ransom by the British. Later, the court periodically sent him on diplomatic missions to France and Italy. Perhaps the most significant of the several court offices Chaucer held was that of King Richard II’s clerk of works, a position that made him responsible for the maintenance of royal lodges and palaces, including the vast palace of Westminster.
If more is known of Chaucer’s life than that of other medieval English poets, that information sheds little light on his creation of The Canterbury Tales. In one of his earlier poems, “Troilus and Cressida,” he takes readers into the world of court intrigue, obviously a topic he knew well because of his service to the Crown.
It is very possible that during his diplomatic stays in Italy, Chaucer became acquainted with Boccacio’s Decameron, an early example of the frame-story genre, in which separate tales are told within a unifying story. In Decameron a group of young lords and ladies agree to tell tales while they stay in a country villa, to avoid the plague that is ravaging the cities. Because each of Boccacio’s narrators belongs to the same aristocratic class, the Decameron tales are similar in their sophisticated tone.
Chaucer, however, in The Canterbury Tales, came up with the ingenious literary device of having a pilgrimage, a technique that allowed him to bring together a diverse group of people. Consequently his narrators represent a wide spectrum of English society with various ranks and occupations.
From the high-born, noble knight, the pilgrims descend through the prioress, the clerk, the franklin (a rich landowner), the bawdy wife of Bath, and on down the social scale to the vulgar miller and the corrupt pardoner (a man who sells “pardons” for sins). Not only are the narrators a superb representation of medieval English characters, but also the stories they tell are remarkably varied.
The narrative “frame” of The Canterbury Tales is quite simple. In April, with the beginning of spring (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote / The drought of Marche hath perced the rote”), people of varying social classes come from all over England to gather at the Tabard Inn in preparation for a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Interestingly, Chaucer himself is one of the pilgrims.
That evening the host of the Tabard Inn suggests that each member of the group tell a tale on the way to Canterbury to make the time pass more pleasantly. The host decides to accompany the party on its pilgrimage and appoints himself as the judge of the best tale.
It is the knight, the most prominent person on the pilgrimage, the embodiment of truth and honor, who tells the first tale. Predictably, his story highlights chivalry in matters of war and matters of love. Set in ancient Greece, it features the Duke of Theseus and his noble quest for social justice. Unmistakably, Chaucer the pilgrim admires the venerable knight, but, never a snob, his appreciation of the comic miller is equally intense.
All of Chaucer’s characters come alive through dialogue, especially the coarse miller with his licentious tale of a rich old carpenter married to a voluptuous 18-year-old girl. Nowhere is Chaucer’s talent for rendering comic incongruity more apparent than in that telling.
Since they persistently interrupt and insult each other, it is surprising that more than 20 pilgrims succeed in telling a tale. The fragile bond holding the group together is constantly threatened by quarrels and class enmity. Chaucer excels at portraying the dynamic interactions between the assorted travelers, particularly when he has one character tell a tale designed to show another in a bad light. An example of this is the elderly and irritable reeve’s vicious tale about a dishonest miller. He told it in retaliation for the miller’s tale about a stupid carpenter, and the reeve had once worked as a carpenter.
Despite the dissimilarity of the stories, there is a seamless quality to the work as a whole. The storytellers’ common destination, of course, binds the tales together. (Progress in the journey is mentioned at intervals by reference to place-names.) More important, the tales are also bound together by a cleverly woven central theme: the role of chance in human affairs. Chaucer challenges both the notion that a person controls his/her own destiny and the notion that a divine ruler dispenses happiness in proportion to a human’s merits.
Although his theme is harsh, Chaucer the poet is undeniably a celebrator of life and a lover of mankind. He gave England something that had been lacking since Anglo-Saxon times — creative writing in the vernacular that could bear comparison to anything produced on the Continent.
Even today, some 700 years after its publication, The Canterbury Tales endears itself to readers through its sparkling dialogue, acute rendering of character, sympathetic understanding of humanity and warm humor.