The Canterbury Tales (Oxford World's Classics)

The Canterbury Tales (Oxford World's Classics) - Geoffrey Chaucer, David Wright Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales consists of a collection of stories framed as being told during a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Each in this company of about 30 pilgrims is to tell a tale on the journey there--the one judged to have told the best to get a free meal. In structure, and sometimes even in the content of the stories, this resembles the Italian Decameron by Boccaccio, written over a century before which Chaucer probably read. One of the differences is that while the Decameron is prose, most of The Canterbury Tales is in verse. But I think what really distinguishes it in my mind is the cross-section of English Medieval society Chaucer presents. Boccacio's storytellers were young members of Florence nobility, Chaucer on the other hand has people from all levels of society: a knight and his squire, a prioress, friar, parson, canon, priests, nuns and a monk, various professions, tradesmen and artisans, a merchant, cook, physician etc. Each tale has a content and style that matches the teller. The most memorable passages to me are the little portraits of the various pilgrims, especially the Wife of Bath. Which is not to say the individual stories don't have their pleasures; some are dull and long-winded, but quite a few are vivid, funny, and/or bawdy. I especially remember "The Shipman's Tale" with its pun on "double entry" bookkeeping, and "The Knight's Tale" was adapted by Shakespeare into Two Noble Kinsman. Purists and scholars will want to suffer through Chaucer's original Middle English. It can, with difficulty and frustration, be made out by the modern reader. Here's the opening: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of march hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne, And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen al the nyght with open ye (so priketh hem nature in hir corages); Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages More power to you if you choose to do so. But if you're looking to enjoy yourself and read with understanding without constantly referring to footnotes, sacrilege though it may be, you might want to try one of the translations into Modern English such as those by Nevill Coghill, Colin Wilcockson or David Wright.