Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Canterbury Tales

Reading The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer from beginning to end is an exhilarating experience. The humor and variety that abound in these stories particularly impresses this reader. That aside, the game established by Chaucer at the Tabard the night before the journey is a competition for the tale "of best sentence and moost solaas," the prize being "a soper at oure aller cost." He leaves no doubt that some of his pilgrims would rate the prospect of a free meal more highly than the feast promised at the Cathedral: a view of not only the St. Thomas a Becket relics, but the whole arms of eleven saints, the bed of the Blessed Virgin, fragments of the rock at Calvary and of rock from the Holy Sepulchre, Aaron's Rod, a piece of the clay from which Adam was made, and more. Since Chaucer does not complete his tale-telling, nor get his pilgrims to their destination, neither earthly nor spiritual nourishment is realized.

One enterprising 15th century writer commented that the incompleteness of Chaucer's journey presented the opportunity for a sequel. "The Tale of Beryn" purports to be told by the Merchant as Chaucer's pilgrims make their way back to the Tabard. In the Prologue to this tale we learn that while the others were busy with their own amusements during the one night layover in Canterbury -- Knight and Squire to see the battlements, Prioress and Wife of Bath a tour of the gardens, etc. -- the Pardoner attempted to romance and rob a barmaid. Perhaps appropriately for a dealer in sham relics, he not only fails but is beaten up, and spends the night in a dog's kennel. The reader, however, is not in the kennel but in heaven of the sort only readers can realize when regaled with tales like these. I am enjoying the journey reading an excellent modern verse translation by Nevill Coghill.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Nevill Coghill, trans. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003.

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