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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales (edition 2003)

by Geoffrey Chaucer, Nevill Coghill (Translator)

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13,529114157 (3.73)482
Title:The Canterbury Tales
Authors:Geoffrey Chaucer
Other authors:Nevill Coghill (Translator)
Info:Penguin Classics (2003), Edition: Revised, Paperback, 528 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:poetry, classics

Work details

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

  1. 102
    Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Othemts)
  2. 60
    Walking to Canterbury : A modern journey through Chaucer's medieval England by Jerry Ellis (amyblue)
  3. 40
    The Decameron (Penguin Classics) by Giovanni Boccaccio (thecoroner)
  4. 40
    Piers Plowman by William Langland (myshelves)
    myshelves: Some similar themes are covered, especially with regard to religious issues.
  5. 40
    The Mercy Seller by Brenda Rickman Vantrease (myshelves)
    myshelves: The Mercy Seller, a novel about the religious ferment in the early 15th century, features a Pardoner who is not happy about the portrayal of the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales.
  6. 10
    The Canterbury Tales by Seymour Chwast (kxlly)
  7. 10
    Tales of Count Lucanor by Don Juan Manuel (caflores)
  8. 11
    Life in the Medieval University by Robert Rait (KayCliff)

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I've recently read several interesting short story collections from antiquity, namely The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Each of them has inspired enough academic articles to fill a library, so I'm not going to delve into their historical import or the ways each has influenced future literature, but I think its valuable to consider how they compare to each other in approach and how I saw them as stories.

First, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's unfinished collection provides a great window into what life was like in the middle ages, more specifically England in the 1300s. By providing a diverse cast of story tellers as the vehicles for the stories themselves Chaucer is able to explore many professions and various points on the social hierarchy, satirizing and criticizing all the flaws he saw in his society. To an extent these are interesting, but social satire does not always age well. While it certainly gives you a sense of how England looked through Chaucer's eyes (a den of corruption and hypocrisy for the most part, especially when discussing the religious institutions), it can be hit or miss as to whether the critique has aged well. Critique on chivalry in The Knight's Tale? I'm in. Critique of alchemists wherein pages and pages of ingredients are listed? Yawn. Additionally, the majority of the tales aren't that deep, with many being raunchy stories of pure entertainment and others being morality tales with blatantly obvious messages (pride is bad and fortune is fickle, we get it). The message of one tale was flat out stated to be "beware of treachery." Was there someone at the time going around saying "treachery isn't that bad, don't worry about it?"

In reverse chronological order the next up is Arabian Nights. This collection is amorphous enough that many tales pop up in one edition and not another, which in my opinion weakens the arguments I see about the collection having a set of coherent themes or messages. The sole theme that I found to be consistent was the power of storytelling- it appears in the frame narrative, of course, but also the stories themselves often showcase the ability of stories to trick the powerful, and oftentimes stories lead to sub-stories and so on, like nesting dolls. Toward the end of the collection the descriptions began to get to me: if I never see someone described as being "as beautiful as the moon" with "lips like coral" and other features like various gems I'll be a happy reader. The Norton Critical addition showed its worth by providing many additional pieces inspired by the Arabian Nights, as well as critical analyses of the text (some of which I found less than convincing, but always interesting). More so than the other two collections Arabian Nights just struck me as a bunch of stories, many of which of course were intended to edify, but mostly its purpose was to entertain. It more or less accomplished this.

The earliest, and also the best, of the three collections was Ovid's Metamorphoses. Chaucer references the classic explicitly several times in his work, and it's no wonder: Ovid is the master that Chaucer tried and failed to match. What put this collection above the others for me was that Ovid not only had a consistent theme to the stories (transformations, as the title would suggest), but also stories flow from one to the next, mostly with an organic feeling that makes the work take on a grander scale. Ovid's not just telling stories, he's tracing the history of the world, explaining how the world became populated with the birds and plants and animals that fill it, and connecting the past all up to what was then the present day. It also serves as the source for much of what we know of Greek/Roman mythology, as Ovid was also setting down an account of the actions and behavior of the gods. Framing narratives can be used to great effect, just look at If On a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino for a phenomenal example, but Canterbury Tales creates such a framing narrative only to leave it incomplete, and Arabian Nights slowly siphons away the importance of the frame narrative until it is forgotten entirely. In comparison, Ovid's Metamorphoses connection of his tales makes his work stand on a grander scale, and makes it feel like a more coherent whole. A note on translations, I found Charles Martin's work to be very strong in general, although he makes a few bizarre choices. Translating a singing contest into a rap battle was a clear mistake. Overall, though, I feel confident recommending him so long as you want a more modern take on the text.

All three collections have stood the test of time, and each is an essential read to understand the ages and cultures they arose out of. Between the three of them, though, Ovid's Metamorphoses is the most worthy of your time in my opinion. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of over 20 stories which were written near the end of the Fourteenth Century, just prior to 1400. While this is often referred to as an essential in medieval fiction, it is possible to narrow it down a little further and say this is a glimpse of life during the time of the Hundred Years’ War. The collection of tales helps break up this book a bit but it also contains a loose narrative framework throughout the entire The Canterbury Tales. I could go into deep analysis of each tale without doing a disservice to the quality and diversity of Geoffrey Chaucer’s large work. However in an effort to talk about The Canterbury Tales in its entirety, I may have to resort to broad analysis and generalities.

The Fourteenth Century was a violent and unstable period of time in English history; not only was the Hundred Years War raging with the French (1340-1450) but there was the Black Death (1348), famines and rebellions (the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381). This was an unstable time, things were changing; even the Catholic Church which often had a community-building nature was corrupt and abusing its power. Near the end of the 14th Century the Church was a mess, there was the sale of church offices as well as indulgences and pardons as well as greed and moral corruption. The Western Schism (or Papal Schism) took place from 1378 to 1418 where the Church was divided and several men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. This should give you an idea of just what kind of instability the people in The Canterbury Tales faced.

However this book explored more than this instability; it is a medieval tapestry exploring the whole feel of this period but it might be easier to narrow it down to three major themes. The political, since The Norman conquest of England (1066) the country was gradually processing toward political consolidation and unification, a theme that comes through a number of times within this book. Social and economic changes, following the story of many people around England as urbanisation takes affect and London becomes a more modern city. Finally The Canterbury Tales explores the cultural changes of a changing time; social classes are shifting but still play a big role within this country.

I know I am probably looking at this book through modern eyes but this is the best way I found to wrap my head around what is written. Luckily I didn’t have to read this book in Middle English and got to rely on Nevill Coghill’s translation but I am not going to deny that this was a very difficult book to get through. I found trying to understand the situation as if England changed from medieval into a modern society helped me pick up on the social, economical and political changes. I know London didn’t become an urban city like we know it today but it helped me follow the shifting times. I am not sure if viewing the book this way helped me understand it better or sent me down the wrong path but it doesn’t matter, is there a right or wrong way to interpret literature?

Symbolism, imagery and allegory play a huge part in Chaucer’s tales but it is hard to go into details on this topic because they change from story to story. What I found surprising about this book is not the beautiful poetic lines but how real and raw the emotions played out in each tales. I read an exploration into marriage, growing old, morality, rape, sexual pleasure and even anti-social behaviour. I never expected this from the book and it really surprised me. From a general overview The Canterbury Tales looks at a changing time but each tale goes into a personal look into different people’s lives.

As the narrator, Geoffrey Chaucer plays with the narrative from tale to tale; sometimes he comes off as naïve but then he can be very knowledgeable. I picked up on how heavy he is on the irony, but in all honesty I didn’t have enough knowledge of the times to be able to explore this as much as I would have liked. If it wasn’t for the fact that I read this for a university subject I might have really struggled with this book. A lecture and some reading guides really helped me get something out of this book but like I said, I don’t have enough knowledge of medieval history to fully grasp this book in its entirety.

I mentioned to my dad that I had to read this book and he told me not to bother; he called it crude and vulgar but that only made me excited. I understand now that he had to read this book for high school and found it difficult but I can’t say vulgar is a good word to describe this book. Sure, there are some crude scenes but life is never full of well-mannered moral people. Chaucer explores life at this time and doesn’t shy away from the tough topics; but I think that is what makes this book so great.

This review originally appeared on my blog: http://literary-exploration.com/2014/11/07/the-canterbury-tales-by-geoffrey-chau... ( )
  knowledge_lost | Dec 1, 2014 |
I finished the selections from The Canterbury Tales that my WEM bookclub read. We read The Prologue, The Knight's Tale, The Miller's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue, The Pardoner's Tale and Chaucer's Retraction. This is one epic poem that I might return to in the future to read all the way through and study on a deeper level.

The poem is about a varied group of people on a spiritual pilgrimage to Canterbury. The knight, priest, miller, pardoner, etc are some of the many characters. Each one tells a story to pass the time on the journey and to win the best-story-contest. The irony is that several of these tales are very crass or bawdy.

The Pardoner's Tale in particular shows Chaucer's scathing condemnation of the church for taking money from peasants and widows to pardon sins. In the end the pardoner just wanted to line his own pockets. The Wife of Bath's Tale could be a commentary on women's issues, however, she seems ill-equipped to lead the way. She's had many husbands and her tale is about a knight (who's supposed to be honor driven) who was really a rapist. In the end, she teaches that all women want to be equal to men. Sounds good to our 21st century minds, but she definitely isn't a good spokesperson for that cause.

After reading Chaucer's retraction, I think he tells these tales in jest, dripping with irony, and as a commentary on the social issues of his day.
  heidip | Dec 1, 2014 |
From the mind-numbingly boring Monk's Tale to the spirited Wife of Bath, these tales seemed to be either really good or really dull. I was able to follow the language (for the most part) once I went through the Prologue with a fine-tooth comb looking up every unfamiliar word. After that, I had the hang of it. I'm glad I read it, but I doubt that I'll ever read it again. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 13, 2014 |
Available as a free audio book at librivox.org
  captbirdseye | Sep 8, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (183 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Geoffrey Chaucerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ackroyd, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Barisone, ErmannoEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Barnouw, A.J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bennett, J. A. W.Notesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cawley, A. C.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Caxton, WilliamPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Coghill, NevillTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Forster, PeterIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hieatt, A. KentEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hieatt, ConstanceEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hill, Frank ErnestTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kent, RockwellIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Latham, RobertGeneral editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Skeat, Walter W.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stearn, TedCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Untermeyer, LouisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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... I have translated some parts of his works, only that I might perpetuate his memory, or at least refresh it, amongst my countrymen. If I have altered him anywhere for the better, I must at the same time acknowledge, that I could have done nothing without him...

JOHN DRYDEN on translating Chaucer
Preface to the Fables

And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.

Essay on Criticism
First words
When the sweet showers of April have pierced/
The drought of March, and pierced it to the root,/
And every vein is bathed in that moisture/
Whose quickening force will engender the flower;/
And when the west wind too with its sweet breath/
Has given life in every wood and field/
To tender shoots, and when the stripling sun/
Has run his half-course in Aries, the Ram,/
And when small birds are making melodies,/
That sleep all the night long with open eyes,/
(Nature so prompts them, and encourages);/
Then people long to go on pilgrimages,/
And palmers to take ship for foreign shores,/
And distant shrines, famous in different lands;/
And most especially, from all the shires/
Of England, to Canterbury they come,/
The holy blessed martyr there to seek,/
Who gave his help to them when they were sick.
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially, from every shire's end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.

(translated by Nevill Coghill, 1951)
Once upon a time, as old stories tell us, there was a duke named Theseus;  Of Athens he was a lord and governor, And in his time such a conqueror, That greater was there none under the sun.
Sloth makes men believe that goodness is so painfully hard and so complicated that it requires more daring than they possess, as Saint George says.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This record is for the unabridged Canterbury Tales. Please do not combine selected tales or incomplete portions of multi-volume sets onto this record. Thank you!
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
blurb: The Canterbury Tales stands conspicuous among the great literary achievements of the Middle Ages. Told by a jovial procession of pilgrims - knight, priest, yeoman, miller, or cook - as they ride towards the shrine of Thomas a’ Becket, they present a picture of a nation taking shape. The tone of this never resting comedy is, by turns, learned, fantastic, lewd, pious, and ludicrous. Geoffrey Chaucer began his great task on about 1386. This version in modern English, by Nevill Coghill, preserves the freshness and racy vitality of Chaucer’s narrative.

Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140424385, Paperback)

On a spring day in April--sometime in the waning years of the 14th century--29 travelers set out for Canterbury on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett. Among them is a knight, a monk, a prioress, a plowman, a miller, a merchant, a clerk, and an oft-widowed wife from Bath. Travel is arduous and wearing; to maintain their spirits, this band of pilgrims entertains each other with a series of tall tales that span the spectrum of literary genres. Five hundred years later, people are still reading Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. If you haven't yet made the acquaintance of the Franklin, the Pardoner, or the Squire because you never learned Middle English, take heart: this edition of the Tales has been translated into modern idiom.

From the heroic romance of "The Knight's Tale" to the low farce embodied in the stories of the Miller, the Reeve, and the Merchant, Chaucer treated such universal subjects as love, sex, and death in poetry that is simultaneously witty, insightful, and poignant. The Canterbury Tales is a grand tour of 14th-century English mores and morals--one that modern-day readers will enjoy.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:30:07 -0400)

(see all 10 descriptions)

A retelling of the medieval poem about a group of travelers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury and the tales they tell each other. With their astonishing diversity of tone and subject matter, The Canterbury Tales have become one of the touchstones of medieval literature. Translated here into modern English, these tales of a motley crowd of pilgrims drawn from all walks of life-from knight to nun, miller to monk-reveal a picture of English life in the fourteenth century that is as robust as it is representative.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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