"The Canterbury Tales"

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (Edited, introduced and translated by Peter G. Beidler, building on an earlier edition by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt)

My book club read this a couple of years ago but for some reason that I can't remember I wasn't able to go and that gave me license to ignore it. Since then it's been sitting on a shelf staring at me and accusing me of laziness and other dire character flaws; I got tired of feeling guilty whenever I walked by it and finally picked it up.

The copy I have has 643 pages (see why I dreaded starting?), but I was delighted to find it only half that long because it's a side-by-side translation: old English on the even pages, modern English on the odd pages. I was surprised and relieved at how easy the translation was to read. I was also surprised at how raunchy the "tales" are. In one breath the tale tellers are talking about religion and holiness and Christ paying the price for their sins and in the next they're talking about the lusty behaviour of one knight/prince/hero after another.

Now that I've read it I still question what the appeal is. I didn't mind reading it but that's not much of an endorsement is it? I think it's one of those books that has to be studied to fully appreciate it; I'm sure there's a lot more to be seen in it than a casual reading will reveal. Alas, I have no desire to study it. I might have enjoyed a serious study in school, but that ship has sailed and a casual reading was quite sufficient to satisfy my curiosity. There were some good moments when I was able to get interested enough to follow a particular tale, but there were also many times I found myself bored and reading only to get to the end. 

As I said earlier, I found the language quite manageable to read; the modern English flows easily, though it loses the rhyming couplets in the translation. Chaucer is sometimes plain spoken in describing romantic encounters (until there's no romance left at all really) as in lines 1106-1109 in The Merchants Tale:

"Ladies, I ask you not to be angry with me;
I cannot gloss, I am a blunt man.
Without warning, then, this Damien
pulled up his smock, and in he thrust."

As I said; plainspoken. And there is lots of talk about women being defiled and then taking their own lives rather than live with the shame. There is no mention of the defiling men or their shame. Huh.   

Some of the tales are more memorable than others; I expect that's a matter of personal preference more than anything else. The one image that has planted itself in my brain and will probably stay there (because of it's utter ridiculousness) as a permanent icon for "The Canterbury Tales" is from "The Merchant's Tale". At one point in the story the merchant is sitting under a tree while his wife and another man have sex in the tree above him. If only I could erase that unfortunate picture.    

I'm putting it back on the shelf now where it will not make me feel guilty anymore. I'm moving on to something far more entertaining: "Hot Water" by P.G. Wodehouse.


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