Eoghan Lyng tells us why everyone should read Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s classic work, The Canterbury Tales.
A colossal work, its place in the world of fiction is well deserved. If houses were to be surveyed, I believe that 90 per cent of homes would have a copy of this fantastic book. Sadly, it seems that The Canterbury Tales is rarely read or appreciated. A modern day translated version of the text still does little to persuade readers to read the tales of Canterbury, despite its inclusion of religious mockery, feminist prototypes, sword fights, sordid conversations about who is the more deserving of a bowl of soup and debaucheric descriptions of the heathenistic afterlife. Plus there’s sex. Lots and lots of sex! What is not to like?
The stories begin with what has to be one of the most spectacularly philosophical pieces ever committed to page. The Knight’s Tale is full to the brim with the type of questions that most people normally do not consider. A lofty reflection on morality, fraternity and serendipity, this piece reveals the type of emotional stipulation that would not normally be found in a short story/novella. However, while it may be psychologically ground-breaking, it is instantly parodied by the fabliau The Miller’s Tale, a bawdy tale where a young student has decadent sex with his landlord’s wife after fooling the miller into believing that a religious apocalypse is on its way. Featuring more double entendres than a salacious Carry On film (although red hot pokers have been used in better contexts than described in the segment), the comedic story is the perfect foil to the intellectual tone of the opening tale. While only three chapters into the book, Chaucer already proves himself to be an auteur capable of adapting to a variety of genres.
From then on, the writing gets better and better. All morals are questioned. Fidelity, honesty, credence and religious virtue are only a small number of the themes touched in the book. Spectacularly subversive, the tales poke fun at the clergy, but within minutes some of the more admirable aspects of the church are centred on. Marriage is discussed from both genders in such an evocative manner that it must have raised an eyebrow or two back in the 14th century! Domestic violence and lechery are touched upon in a frank manner. The Wife of Bath, in particular, is a character both idolised and reviled by her readers, due to her charismatic speeches and her horrific demeanour.
Perhaps this is Geoffrey Chaucer’s greatest strength; creating characters that university professors, radical English teachers, literary theses and everyday readers perceive in a very different manner is not an easy feat, by any means. Yet Chaucer’s tenacity to underline and undercut idiosyncratic details gives a vibrant depth to his characters. Noting the schooled French of a nun gives the readers a fantastic perception of the character`s loquacious pretentions, while the procreative problems and financial triumphs of friars and monks would give most readers an insight into the less than holy secrets behind these men. Minute details they may be, but their astute eloquence in stipulated verse gives the Canterbury tales a humanity and soul, otherwise absent in a work of nihilistic subtext.
But it is the notoriety behind the sexual content that ultimately has kept readers interested in the work, after all these years. From bawdy puns to physical descriptions of pornographic connotations, sex abounds mercilessly in this book. A tangible read, some of the content will slap an idiotic schoolboy’s grin on the face of any reader. And some people believe The Canterbury Tales is about a couple of people arguing over a pot of soup! The Canterbury Tales is by no means the easiest text in the world to read, but it is thoroughly enjoyable. Employing a platitude of genres amalgamated into a seamless continual piece, few books have the variety and intrigue of Chaucer’s work. A must read for everyone (and readeth well in silength tongue!).