Sunday, December 5, 2010

Required Work: The Canterbury Tales Part I

Now this is what I mean by a monster novel (or at least a monster collection of short stories). Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was written in the late 1300s, in Middle English, and mostly in prose. It is one of those books that just seem much scarier than it actually is. After reading the first half of what is required from the book for the M.A. exam, I realize that even with the dominant prose style, this collection of stories is actually quite accessible. Of course, it helps that the version I am using, the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, has the Middle English text on one page and the translation on the facing page. Almost needless to say, I am paying pretty much little to no attention to the Middle English. It would not do me any good to even try as I would get nothing out of it. But even so, I do like the fact that the Middle English is still available to me in the same volume.

For the sake of this blog, I will approach The Canterbury Tales the same way I did Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I will begin with the usual information about genre, theme, and history, and then move into a short description about each individual tale covered on the M.A. list. Today I will cover the half I have already read, and hopefully by next week, I will have already finished the remaining stories so I can post about them as well.

And now, on with the post…


The Canterbury Tales is often called the first book of poetry in English. It is also recognized as the first anthology of English short fiction. It falls into the same genre as other works of the day as a collection of stories put together into a frame narrative or frame tale (an introductory story is composed to set the stage for the stories that follow). The Canterbury Tales differs from other stories of its type in that the stories within it are greatly varied. While other collections focused on a central theme, such as religion or politics, Chaucer used the setting of a pilgrimage as reason to have a wide range of characters from different backgrounds tell very different and distinctive stories. This makes The Canterbury Tales more about the characters than a central theme, and allowed Chaucer to showcase his ability in multiple genres of fiction.


As mentioned above, there is not a central theme such as religion, which was the popular one in Chaucer’s time that holds all of the different stories together. Some stories are funny, some are more serious, some have a lesson, and some appear to be just a story. The overarching theme seems to be the pilgrimage, which is the reason all of these characters are even together in the first place. However, Chaucer ignores the actual progress of the trip. There are no mentions of the amount of time that is passing or of any specific locations or landmarks along the way. It is generally believed that Chaucer left this work unfinished, which I am willing to buy as it doesn’t appear that the group ever reaches their destination (please feel free to correct me if I am wrong on that one as I have yet to actually finish the book).

A competition is introduced as something to do along the way, so what follows is this collection of various tales. A lot of the time one story will be in response to another (like the Miller with the Knight’s tale), and sometimes a storyteller will be momentarily interrupted by another traveler (like the Wife of Bath). The storytelling that occurs is definitely more of an interaction and not at all anything formal.


The Canterbury Tales was written during a time in England when the Catholic church The Great Schism (two different men were claiming to be the true Pope, a disagreement driven more by politics than any real theological differences). Lollardy, an early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe, is also mentioned as a specific incident involving pardoners (who gathered money in exchange for absolution from sin) who claimed to be collecting from a hospital.

Also occurring during this time were the Peasants’ Revolt and events ending in the deposing of King Richard II.

The religious views of the different characters seem quite diverse, but they still all fall under the established Church of England. Both the Pardoner and Summoner, however, are portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and even abusive. The tale of the Friar is about a summoner who works on the side of the devil. The Second Nun tells a tale about chaste women bringing people to the church by example. The Monk and the Prioress, while not as corrupt as the Pardoner or Summoner, still fall short of what they are supposed to be.

The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, but within England, the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury was a popular pilgrimage destination. Miracle stories connected to the remains of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of Henry II during a dispute between church and crown, sprang up shortly after his death. The pilgrimage ties all of the stories together and allows a collection of Christians to strive for heaven despite weakness, disagreement, and diversity.

So that is what I have for genre, theme, and history. I will now continue with brief descriptions of the General Prologue, Knight’s Tale, Miller’s Prologue and Tale, and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.

General Prologue

The collection opens with The General Prologue which basically sets the stage and introduces each of the characters the reader will encounter. The order the pilgrims are introduced places them in a social order with nobility, craftsmen, and then peasants at the end. It also sets up the competition and introduces the reader to the narrator.

Knight’s Tale

This tale deals with many typical aspects of knighthood such as courtly love and ethical dilemmas. It is written in iambic pentameter and uses 10 syllables per line. It is a story about how even two noble knights who are close like brothers can still be torn apart and have a vicious feud over the love of a woman.

Miller’s Prologue and Tale

The drunken Miller actually interrupts the Monk before he can tell his tale. The Miller even asserts that his tale as noble much like the Knight’s, but because he is drunk, he cannot be held accountable for what he actually says. It is a vulgar tale that is in direct contrast to the tale of the Knight. While the Knight told of courtly love, the Miller tells of a landlord being proved a cuckold as his young wife carries on an affair with someone else.

Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

This is probably the most well known tale of the collection. Her prologue is actually twice as long as her tale, and it explores the role of women in the Late Middle Ages. The length of the prologue may just show how she likes to talk about herself and enjoys being the center of attention. She establishes herself (or at least tries to) as an expert on marriage because she has been married five times and has ready justifications and reasons for each of them. In short, a knight commits a rape, so the Queen punishes him by sending him on a year-long quest to find out what it is that women really want. If he can’t get the correct answer, he loses his life. While on his quest, he meets an old woman who agrees to give him the answer in exchange for a future favor. He agrees, returns to court with the old woman, gives the Queen the correct answer, and is therefore saved. As her favor, the old woman demands that the knight marry her despite his protests. While in their marriage bed, he confesses his unhappiness to his new wife and admits that it is because she is ugly and low-born. She gives him a choice between ugly and faithful, or beautiful and unfaithful. He gives the choice over to her, and is therefore rewarded with her transformation into a beautiful woman who remains faithful. Moral of the story: husbands are rewarded if they let their wives have mastery over them. Take that as you will.

For next week, if I finish the rest of The Canterbury Tales, then I will post on the remainder of the stories. If not…well…we’ll see.

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