Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thoughts on the Canterbury Tales

Well, it took seven months, but I got through the Canterbury Tales. I read the Norton Critical edition (not pictured here), which was marvelous. The text is in Medieval English, but with lots & lots of helpful annotations in the margins and as footnotes. At first it was like learning to read all over again: I actually had to read it out loud to myself. About halfway through I got into the pace and rhythm of it and didn't have much trouble at all.

Let me just say: I can't review Canterbury Tales. Oh Hell No. I enjoyed it, and learned quite a bit from it, and I'm jotting down some tidbits that may amuse. But to review one of the seminal works of written English that has survived over 600 years? Uh-uh.

  • I was afraid reading this would be a slog, but as with so many classics I've read recently, it's actually a lot of fun. Especially if you can just go with the comedy instead of trying to analyze it for a class.

  • Monty Python comes by it honestly (as does Benny Hill). At one point Chaucer gives himself a Tale, and goes off in high-chivalric style about a shiny knight and his shiny armor and shiny horse (all in perfect aab,ccb rhyme scheme) before the Host shuts him up and makes him tell something else--felt a bit like Holy Grail for a second there. Also, lots & lots of sex farce in here. I think Judd Aptow movies must be accepted as a distinguished part of a long-standing tradition in Western culture, honestly.

  • Some interesting translations: luxurie = lechery; whileaway = Woe is me!; lust = desire in a general way, not specifically sexual; wood = mad/crazy; nice = foolish (often). Linguistic drift is fun!

  • Relationships between the genders have been a matter of cultural negotiation probably as long as there's been culture; here we get every view of women from saints to sluts and everything in between.

  • Sometimes you'll really shock the heck out of your audience by having all the characters wrap things up by being kind & intelligent to each other instead of being idiots to the point of tragedy.

  • If you're an evil guy wandering about the countryside, and you meet a fellow evil guy, and then you find out he's the Devil, what's the first question you would ask him? Back then, apparently, it's: "Do you always look like that?" (Basically asking if he looks different when he's at home in Hell.) I can just imagine someone today asking "So who does your clothes?"

  • The one story that deals with an innocent child is horrifyingly anti-semetic and doesn't fit with any of the other tales here.

  • The conflation of Greek myths & fairy that you see in Midsummer Night's Dream also shows up here. Not sure why that is, but it's obviously well established.

  • Even back then they talked about the good old days when the people were closer to the fae, before the churchmen came and sort of crowded/shouted them out.

  • Televangelists are also part of a long, glorious tradition, represented here by a "Pardoner" who sold indulgences.

  • Predictably then, cynicism about religion & religious hucksters is also venerable.

So far one of the most important things I've derived from reading all these classics is this: people should have an opportunity to read these things on their own terms, without having them shoved down their throats at school. That way they can take more time with them, and get different things out of them than the pre-approved interpretations. I'm so glad that I didn't read this in college, and I'm equally glad that I've read it now. It's a great perspective on different traditions of story-telling, which means, as it should, that's it's fun to read.


Duncan said...

It is just a wonderful read, isn't it? And well worthwhile reading it in the original when you've got a good glossary. The rhyme and rhythm really become clear - it's not just that smartypants feeling of reading something 600 years old in the language it was written in, honest!

I did find the Knight's Tale a bit of a difficult start, but it warms up rapidly and after having been on pilgrimage (elsewhere), the opening to the prologue makes me want to take the road to Canterbury

WHEN that Aprils, with his showers swoot ... Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages.

Karen Burnham said...

OK, I'll admit that the smarty-pants angle also appeals. ;-)

When I started it up, I didn't know what to expect at all...Knights Tale was awesome as it slowly dawned on me just how funny it was. Two guys arguing over a woman they can never have... you just have to smile.

A friend of mine would get pissed off at the ridiculousness of the characters in the tales, but I like how satiric they can be.