2013 Challenges, Books, The Classics Club

Book 203: The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury TalesI’m not sure about the rest of you, but in High School, one of my AP literature courses required that we learn a portion of the prologue in Middle English. Now rather than delight you all with a ridiculous video of me reciting it (I can still do the first 10-15 lines or so from memory), you’ll just have to use your imagination.

I’m glad I revisited this as part of my Back to the Classics, Classics Club and Mount TBR challenges. The only part I actually recall reading in class was the prologue. I remember discussing a few of the tales, but we never actually had to read them which I think is strange. Before I start to sound too impressive I did read a translated version (with the Middle English on the facing page – see photo below) and this was not the complete collection. This version of the book only contained eight of the 24 completed tales in addition to the general prologue. Just from a brief glance here, they appear to be the longer/most completed of the Tales. If Chaucer completed the collection it would contain 120 tales two for each person, one to Canterbury and one on the return so I only really read a third of the completed tales and 20% of what would have been the complete collection.

2013 06-03 Canterbury Tales ComparisonNow I should probably feel guilty about reading the translation, but I don’t. I know my limits and I knew that it would drive me crazy to read the entire thing in Middle English. However, I did find myself often times switching back and forth between Middle and Modern English as the Modern did not have the cadence, rhyme scheme or wit than the Middle English did. On the whole I’m sure the translators did a great job, but so much, I feel, was lost in completely destroying those three aspects. The only other interesting fact of the physical book was that rather than having a numbered end note or footnote system, they were organized alphabetically based on the word which was closest to the asterisks I honestly didn’t think I would appreciate that, but as I read it was surprisingly easier than having to hunt for a number or chapter and then finding the footnote.

What I found most fascinating about reading this were how shocking some of the stories felt! I often times forget that the world wasn’t always as prudish as I think it has been. I guess it ebbs and flows based on the religiosity at the time. Or perhaps, being an American descendant of Puritans (or at least their thoughts and philosophy’s) these types of things just shock me a bit more than others. Within the eight tales there were stories of adultery, cuckoldry, prostitution, pre-marital sex and there was even a hint of a cross dresser in the prologue! I mean going in I assumed this would a chaste novel, I mean the number of religious pilgrims is pretty high and yet they were some of the worst in their comments and sexism (to be expected).

The tales ranged in difference from classical love stories to open bawdiness and of all the stories, the Wife of Bath’s tale stood out. It stood out because the prologue was by far the longest of any and was easily two-to-three times longer than the tale itself. But what made it truly stand out was the frankness with which the narrator spoke about sex and her husbands and the fact that she was clearly a female empowerment figure and this was the 1400s! Her’s was a moral tale about how husbands should listen to their wives and if they don’t bad things will happen. I’m sure there are negative responses to her, like the fact that she used his physicality against him, but this was over 400 years ago and she was a strong female figure that had ideas of her own and shared them in a dominating way.

If there’s one thing I didn’t like it was that I didn’t have all of the completed tales. I mean how hard would it have been for Bantam to include the other tales especially with many of them being fragmentary one liners?

Recommendation: Definitely worth a read! Not only do you get a history lesson from the 1400s perspective, you also read about things you wouldn’t think you’d be reading about from a set of stories told over 600 years ago.

Opening Line: “Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury.”

Closing Line: Unwritten. No seriously, Chaucer never wrote the end.

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30 thoughts on “Book 203: The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer”

  1. We demand video evidence!

    I too read a few of these in high school. I picked up a copy a while back, but haven’t gotten to it yet.

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  2. I got myself a Bantam translation by Peter G Beidler. But until you mentioned it, I hadn’t realised that there were only ten tales in my edition not counting the general prologue. This book has a long introduction to the 1400s though….I’m so looking forward to reading it. And, from your review, I see why colleges tend to prescribe the Wife of Bath’s Tale!

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    1. According to the intro, the edition I have is an improved one on what was first edited by A Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt. The Reeve’s Tale and The Shipman’s Tale have been newly added.

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      1. So I must have the edition before you, it’s the one edited by the Hieatt’s but with fewer tales. I know there are many incomplete manuscripts so they’re not really sure which are the final versions of each of the tales.

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    1. If you get a translated version they’re quite easy and quick to read. If you’re reading in Middle English you might miss more, but they’re still pretty easy to read b/c of Chaucer’s meter.

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    1. I think it’s pretty standard for people to read parts of it in High School, but I feel like they gloss over a lot of the more scandalous elements or don’t even mention them. I know we only really looked into the prologue.

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    1. Nah – I think he died before he completed the work. He only finished 29 of the expected 120 stories and the prologue. Each of the tales that are generally included are ‘complete,’ but many of the others are technically partial pieces.

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      1. There’s actually a theory he was murdered! Either way he disappears from all the records sometime around 1400 and there was no funeral, will, official mention of his death etc despite him being very famous…

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        1. Oh I didn’t read that far, I should look into that! I did some brief research into his family to see if he had descendants and his family intermarried with some of the other politically powerful families of the time.

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            1. I will have to check that out – I’ve been reading more nonfiction recently and I love it even more when it’s connected to iconic pieces of literature or art.

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  3. I’m a fan of The Canterbury Tales, I have two full editions here by my desk in fact. One in the original and one in modern English, I admit I prefer it in the original for the rhythm but the modern is illustrated beautifully. 🙂

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  4. I actually had to translate a portion of the Prologue of the Wife of Bath’s Tale in a Middle English course I took as an undergrad. I do remember being intrigued by the subject matter, but sadly, that’s the extent of my knowledge of The Canterbury Tales. You’ve made me want to read them in full.

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    1. Nice! I was a little disappointed in the translation, but I’m sure they did a better job than I could. If there was anything I thought was shocking I flipped over and looked at the Middle English part to see if they took ok much liberty, and they didn’t seem to from what I could understand.

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  5. I am reading the retelling by Peter Ackroyd, it’s in prose and I have no idea how similar or faithful it is to the original. But, it does have all of the stories, 24, and it’s quite funny because some of them are very short. One of them is only two pages, before he starts mentioning that one of the women in the story is a prostitute, and the others are like “Wait, we know that we have just talked about rape, adulatory, murder, not to mention the millers tale, but please watch your language. We can’t talk about prostitutes. There are nuns present.” XD

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      1. Yes, it’s in the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. It’s a great read for people who havn’t had anything to do with Middle English, but still want to know the stories. Because it has had it’s influence on literature, both direct and indirect.

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