The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

This Absalon now wiped his mouth all dry;
Like a black coal, or pitch, the darkness there
Hung dense, and out she thrust her bottom bare,
And Absalon did nothing more nor less
Than with his lips to set a sweet caress
Upon her arse, before he knew of this.
He started back, for something seemed amiss;
He knew well that a woman has no beard.
He felt a thing all rough and thickly haired,
And "Fie!" he muttered.  "What is this I do?"
"Te-hee!" cried she, and clapped the window to;
And Absalon goes wretchedly away,
"A beard, beard!" cried gentle Nicholay.
"Now by God's corpus, this goes well and fair!" 

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is often read in excerpts rather than in its entirety.  Whether the students be from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, or other English-speaking parts of the world, this linked narrative of pilgrims' tales, usually rendered in verse, is taught in schools.  Or rather, only select parts of it do secondary school teachers dare teach.  When I had to read it for senior Honors English nearly twenty years ago, we only read the Prologue and the Pardoner's Tale; some other schools would include parts of The Wife of Bath's Tale (minus the more direct language this character employs). 

There certainly are things worth considering in those excerpts.  Religious life in 14th century England, the role of women in society then as portrayed through the vivacious Wife of Bath, the internal contradictions and hypocrisies found in certain professions - all of these do testify to the wide-ranging nature of Chaucer's narrative.  However, what the student rarely gets to see is just how rich and wonderful the totality of the poem is.  It is one thing to describe just how adroitly Chaucer tells his stories in rhyming couplets, but a different thing altogether to discuss how well the complete tales fit in together.

Above is quoted a segment from the second tale in the published sequence, The Miller's Tale.  Coming after the courtly The Knight's Tale, it is bracingly fresh and earthy.  It is a trickster's tale, told by a drunk, mocking carpenters.  It certainly isn't "high" in any shape nor form, yet it serves as a perfect counter to the elevated speech of the prior tome.  Through the Miller, we get the sense of a different England, one that isn't courtly nor religious, yet still vital not just in the sense of reflecting the true pilgrims who would visit St. Thomas à Becket's grave, but also in making The Canterbury Tales ring more fully than if its component parts were considered separately.

The Canterbury Tales is more than just the stories that the characters tell.  The interactions between the pilgrims also add to the narrative tapestry being woven.  Consider the reaction of the reeve to the miller's story that mocks carpenters:

And no man was offended, I believe,
Except for Oswald, possibly, the Reeve,
That was a carpenter by occupation.
He nursed at heart a little irritation
And anger, and began objecting to it.
"Well, I could tell you, if I wished to do it,
A ribald story," he began to grumble,
"Of how a haughty miller took a tumble.
But I am old, and past the years for play;
My grazing time is done; I feed on hay;
This white top shows how I am growing older.
After which, the Host replies:

"What is the sum," he cried, "of all this wit?
Why should we talk all day of holy writ?
The devil alone would set a reeve to preach,
Or from a cobbler try to make a leech.
Tell on thy tale, I say, and waste no time.
Depford is near, and it is half way prime;
Greenwich appears, the home of many a shrew;
Ramble no more - thy tale is over due."

And from thence the Reeve in his tale proceeds to pay back the drunken miller for mocking carpenters.  There is now a thread that underlies the first three, quite disparate, tales.  From a nearly prosaic courtly love to a drunken response that includes making a carpenter a cuckold to the reeve showing that millers, drunken or sober alike, can be quite ridiculous folk, the reader moves from tale to tale, with the interplay between the tellers and the Host, or sometimes between each other, serving as bridges that make the stories interesting not just because what is told, but for how certain characters react to them.

One part that is often overlooked due to the incomplete nature of assigned readings is that of the insertion of Chaucer himself into the tale.  It is one of the few times that the narrative abandons prose, as the alt-Chaucer's doggerel is so grating to the Host that he urges the alt-Chaucer to stop with the diddlies and to tell a proper tale.  In reading this section, I found myself smiling and nearly laughing at the purposeful wretchedness of that doggerel being spewed; it served as a comic interlude between some serious tales.  Moments like this made me appreciate what Chaucer was working toward as he labored to finish these tales.  Sadly, death took him before he could achieve a third of his aims.  Unified and varied as these tales are, one cannot help but wonder what would have been achieved if Chaucer had lived to complete his ambitious goal of having each pilgrim tell two tales.  Despite this, however, what was left behind was a masterpiece of comic and learnéd storytelling that is the finest example of medieval storytelling that has been preserved.  If only the whole could be taught in schools without the risk of parents being outraged at the sometimes profane and even sacrilegious comments found throughout the text.  A true shame that expurgated texts of Chaucer are all that most readers ever get to experience, as the whole is much better than the small fragments presented in lessons.


Tom said...

I posted this at RAFO but am copying it here because I detest any censorship on the part of translators. The original text for the original passage in Middle English was:

This Absolon gan wipe his mouth ful drye
Derk was the nyght as pych or as the cole
And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole
And Absolon hym fil no bet ne wers
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
ful sauourly er he were war of this
Abak he sterte and thoghte it was amys
for wel he wiste a womman hath no berd
He felte a thyng al rogh and longe yherd
And seyde fy allas what haue I do
Te hee quod she and clapte the wyndow to
And Absolon gooth forth a sory paas
A berd, a berd quod hende Nicholas
By goddes corpus this gooth faire and wel.

Whatever version you have managed to sanitize the actual language of Chaucer and turn a fun tale into a pale shadow of its full impact. Note that the rhyming words still rhyme in modern English, or are close enough (in the second instance). If one wanted to make the text accessible but not "censor" it, one could have written:

This Absolon had wiped his mouth quite dry
Dark was the night as pitch or as the coal
And at the window out she put her hole
And Absolon, for better or for worse,
With his mouth he kissed her naked arse.

Even in English, we see that Edward Gibbon's warning holds true: Always avoid translations!

Unknown said...

I studied Chaucer back in college, and we had a glossed edition. Which was nice for my lowly freshman self - comprehensible, but able to see the richness of the original language too. I agree that the version you have doesn't look like a great translation.

Lsrry said...

Yeah, I meant to comment on that, but I didn't have the Middle English text I read years ago in front of me to compare/contrast, so I glossed over it. As pictured, it's the Easton Press edition. Goes without saying that if it's a translation, it's an older and usually poorer one.

Geoffrey Chaucer said...

I've been trying to find a lot of information on Chaucer and his work. Actually I am tired of reading excerpts, i want the book comprimising of the complete canter bury tales. I finally managed to find one a few days back. Will try to upload some content on that soon

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