Chris's Reviews > The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
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Dec 17, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: i-own
Read in December, 2008

Writing a "review" of The Canterbury Tales is difficult, not because the book/collection isn't worthy of a review, but because it is so widely variant and has so many nuances to be discussed.

For those who don't know, The Canterbury Tales is a book containing a bunch of stories told by individuals traveling together on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The book is written in the late 1300s with the pilgrimage set in the same basic time. It begins with a "General Prologue" providing a description of each of the characters in the group as well as the "game" they'll be playing (that of telling stories on the way to Canterbury). Each pilgrim tells a different tale (well, not "all" of them...the work is "unfinished" in the sense that we're missing tales from some pilgrims). Some tales are set in their contemporary England while others are set in exotic lands, romantic settings, or ancient cultures.

So what do you say in a brief review of The Canterbury Tales?

To start with, I would suggest you try reading it in the original Middle English. The language/spelling/pronunciation can be a problem, so be sure you get an edition that's glossed (unless you're proficient in Middle English). During the semester, I found a "children's" edition of the tales at my local library. It included Modern English "translations" of a couple of the tales along with some illustrations. It was kind of fun to read, but it lost some of the rhythm and drive of the tales by having them in a modern format.

Secondly, there are some bits that can be skipped, but it's difficult to identify which ones. For example, some might suggest that the entire Pardoner's Prologue (and much of his tale) can be ignored altogether and that you should just focus on the actual "tale" part of his tale. While his tale is entertaining and the reading would be much shorter if that's all you read, you would miss a TON of social and religious commentary which is very interesting. Similarly, the Wife of Bath has lengthy rambling passages in her Prologue and the Merchant includes numerous lengthy lists that have little bearing on the plot. It's difficult to create a good synopsis of what can safely be skipped, because it depends in a large extent on what you want to get out of it. Worse still, if you're reading in the unfamiliar Middle English, it's harder to quickly scan the text and get a feel for when the narrative has gotten back to the 'heart of the matter.'

The writing is fun and clever (once you get through the 'translation' issues with the Middle English). For a common reference, it's like reading Shakespeare, only more archaic by a couple hundred years. The language of the narrative varies depending on the narrator of the particular prologue/tale, but with Chaucer at the helm behind the scenes, the writing is generally very good, descriptive, layered, humorous, inspiring, etc. (except for when he's trying to illustrate 'bad writing', and then it's good in that it's so bad).

The messages presented are widely varied as well. The Knight's Tale was an intriguing tale of romance and chivalry with lots of courtly intrigue...but at times it felt a little dry. The Miller and the Reeve were hilarious tales and introduced me to a new (to me) genre in the fabliau. The Wife of Bath had an interesting prologue and a fun tale, again with a semi-romantic style and an interesting moral. The Nun's Priest gave us a fun little animal fable. The Prioress presented a strange little tale about miracles or anti-semitism or devout love or something else?

Overall, I would definitely recommend having a copy of The Canterbury Tales on your shelf. Some tales are easier to read than others. Some tales are more fun while others are more thought provoking (as stated in one of the prologues, a tale has one of two purposes, to educate or to entertain...and there are examples of each). Once you get your teeth into the language (probably the biggest hurdle) I suspect you'll enjoy these.

*****
5 stars
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Tejas Janet (new)

Tejas Janet I agree that reading in the original Middle English is recommended. Takes a bit of adjustment to accommodate, but then you're off and reading like today, more or less.

There's so much here. If you don't like one chapter, move on to the next and you'll probably be pleased. These are an interesting collection of old tales put together here by Chaucer, or so it seems to me.


message 2: by Mohanan (new)

Mohanan Variyath the plenty is splendid the knight the squire the yeoman modern in portrait geoffrey chaucer is the master in characterization with no question of time and language in literature


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