Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400), written between 1387 and 1400.[1] It concerns a group of thirty pilgrims traveling to Canterbury in England. The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury. In the General Prologue to the work, Chaucer states as his intention that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back.[2]

This project was left incomplete at Chaucer's death in 1400, and even those tales which were then completed had not been finally revised. Partially as a result of this, and partially because the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales was passed down in several handwritten manuscripts. Scholars are uncertain about the intended order of the tales.

Contents

Some of the Tales

In the tales, pilgrims are given distinct personalities and characters, and the work is considered to be one of the precursors of the modern novel. Many of the tales are ribald and earthy and full of humor. Some of the more notable tales are

The Knight’s Tale

"A knight there was, and he a worthy man,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy." [3]

This is the first tale, a story rich in love, rivalry and chivalry. Two men fall in love with the same beautiful young girl.

The Miller’s Tale

"His mouth was like a furnace door for size.
He was a jester and could poetize,
But mostly all of sin and ribaldries.
He could steal corn and full thrice charge his fees;"

A bawdy but humorous tale, telling a rather different story of love.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

"She'd been respectable throughout her life,
With five churched husbands bringing joy and strife,
Not counting other company in youth;
But thereof there's no need to speak, in truth."

She tells a thoughtful tale which poses the question, "What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren[?]" ("What do women most desire?"). Her romantic tale is set in the time of King Arthur.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

"Then spoke our host out, in rude speech and bold,
And said he unto the nun's priest anon:
"Come near, you priest, come hither, you Sir John,
Tell us a thing to make our hearts all glad;" [4]

An animated farmyard tale of a cockerel, a hen and a wily old fox.

The Pardoner’s Tale

"With him there rode a gentle pardoner
Of Rouncival, his friend and his compeer;
Straight from the court of Rome had journeyed he.
Loudly he sang "Come hither, love, to me,"

A thrilling tale of death and trickery and one which will leave you with a slight tingle down your spine. The tale has an unexpected ending.[5]

Chaucer wrote in Middle English, a form of English that is so archaic that it can be difficult to understand without a glossary or explanatory notes. Most modern English readers prefer to read it in translation.

References

  1. http://www.librarius.com/cantales.htm
  2. To this end Chaucer's text reads: "This is the poynt, to speken short and pleyn, / That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye, / In this viage shal telle tales tweye / To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so, / And homward he shal tellen othere two...." (This is the point, to speak short and plain, that each of you, to pass the time on this voyage, will tell two tales toward Canterbury and another two homeward.) --Prologue, lines 792-96
  3. http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/gchaucer/bl-gchau-can-genpro.ht
  4. http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/gchaucer/bl-gchau-can-nun.htm
  5. For a full account of all the tales see: http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/cantales.html

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