>Reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

by Brendan Strong

>In the chaos, confusion and general comedy of Christmas in a household of 2 young children, I needed some refuge. Books and CDs have always provided this for me; and I certainly had books around. Receiving a new copy of Tristram Shandy (for the pages were falling out of the 3rd copy I had bought). My sister, who had sent over an Amazon voucher also bought me a copy of C by Tom McCarthy (which I am told is surely one of the best books of 2010).
But I had a hankering for something… I wasn’t sure, I couldn’t put my finger on it. I leafed through the books on our over-stuffed bookshelves. I wondered what book I was looking for; I knew I was looking for some specific book. There it was, at the back – two books in, over on the right: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

I had to read a few of the stories from this great Tome of hte Canon when I studied English in UCD. At the time, I both loved and hated it. I loved the idea – these string of stories tied together with the ingenious device that the people telling them were on pilgrimage. This allowed Chaucer to tell as many stories as he wanted, in as many ways as he wanted. A pilgrimage would provide a mix of characters; this mix of characters would allow him to write diverse types of stories in diverse tones. Some even included the C- word! When I left college, I had overinflated ambitions of writing myself; and Chaucer was the model I wished to follow. Not to re-write or re-create or re-configure The Canterbury Tales, but to write in short stories that would string together to create something greater than each individual piece.

I hated reading the Canterbury Tales because much of the concentration at the time as on translating it from middle English to modern.  This I found tiresome and close to impossible. I was really bad at it. So bad, that every small victory over the text would be celebrated with grand boasting and showboating. Always, I learned from myself, a sure sign of insecurity.  Anyone who studied it will remember the sheer size of the original text you had to work with. Three bibles thick and ten times as obscure. You had to first translate text, then research the context to finally provide a decent translation.  Then, you might (if you wanted a first) use the correct graphic formation for the letters.  For me, all of this was hopeless. The only chink of light was the knowledge that we would be examined on the content of the stories as well as the translation.

For understanding the stories, I had a simple solution.  My booklust had me in O’Mahony’s in Limerick one rainy Saturday. I was 3 pints away from getting some money owed to me. I was in O’Mahony’s to be sure I wouldn’t drink those 3 pints and forget about the money, or – invariably in those days – claim that it was fine, I didn’t want the money back.  Perusing the shelves, opening some books. Black ink floating on white, shiny pages; in others embedded in the cream, heavy pages. The smell. There I found The Canterbury Tales, in a modern English translation. Published by Oxford World’s Classics, I believed it must be authoritative to some extent. The most important aspect was that as I leafed through the stories, I could understand every single word. No translation. Easy notes, stuck at the back, so I didn’t have to trawl through each page and its associated notes.  I  made the purchase and sat down with a pint and The Knights Tale (which was on the curriculum).

That year, UCD had the privilege of hosting Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), who has written a book taken quite seriously, but often rejected, about The Knight’s Tale. His thesis was that The Knight’s Tale was a subtle satire on the morality of the time. Most consider the Knight’s Tale to be the ‘control’ for the stories – the one that demonstrates Chaucer’s ability as a writer, proving that the subsequent tales are true satire, using vulgar (in both traditional and more modern senses) language to throw light both on his characters and the words they use.

I think, when in UCD (it was a long time ago now), I had to read three tales altogether; some for translation, others for discussion. I read my three stories from the modern translation, and carried on with the ‘real’ interest books that modern, American, Canadian and Anglo Irish literature promised.  In a lecture on Joyce, the lecturer said he’d been told when first studying Joyce that he should wait ten years before reading Ulysses in full. This, he had been told, would increase his appreciation.  I thought that a good plan to try with The Canterbury Tales. Wait ten years to revisit the crushing, painful love of such a difficult text.

That was 13 years ago. But much of what has been written here came to me when I saw the book sitting there, at the back, on the right.  I’m only three tales in, enjoying it already.  I also think my appreciation has improved with time.

You never really know what you’re reading. Not because the language is difficult, but because you need to gauge the character who is telling the tale. In many cases, each tale reacts to the one that went before. For example, the drunken Miller tells a story of a student who cuckolds a carpenter. The Reeve, insulted at the victimisation of the carpenter, tells a tale where the Miller is a scoundrel. Each character insults the next just enough to keep this momentum going.  Even in the modern translation, the verse has been kept. I’m quite the fan of verse, so this suits me well.  All the while, the narrator keeps reminding us that it’s a book we are reading, and perhaps doth protest too much that he’s telling it exactly as it happened – so has to use all this foul language and puerile detail, because that was what was told.

This time, of course, I don’t have to consider important insights or witty quips to make in an essay. I can enjoy the book for what it is. Apparently, a reworking (rip off?) of The Decameron by Boccaccio.  But, hell, I’m enjoying it. And that’s really what one should be doing with any book. Now in my Christ year, I believe that more than ever and am willing to stop reading the moment a book becomes unsatisfying.  I reckon I’ll finish this one. Perhaps to revisit it in another 13 years.