Anyone who has ever been on a package tour with a group of strangers who soon become friends, and passed time swapping stories with them, would instantly identify with this timeless classic of English literature. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer recounts twenty different stories recounted by a diverse group of pilgrims who gather at The Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, before setting out for the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The Host of the inn proposes that they entertain themselves by telling stories along the route and the one who tells the best tale would win a prize – a meal at Bailey's tavern, sponsored by the losers. Lots are drawn and the stories and the journey begin... Chaucer, who lived in medieval England during an eventful period in English history, is known as the Father of English Literature. As the first acknowledged poet in English, Chaucer was a polymath who had wide ranging interests in astronomy, alchemy, philosophy and literature. He was a courtier and civil servant in the 14th century, whose life is surprisingly well-documented for those times. A confidante and mentor to many royal children, Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales after his retirement, somewhere between 1380-90. It was written in verse form and in Middle English in the original, which would be difficult for modern readers to decipher easily. However, excellent translations have now made the text accessible to us. What sets The Canterbury Tales apart from other works during the period is that Chaucer preferred to use English rather than Latin which was considered to be the language of sophistication. This one decision made all the difference as people all over England soon began to use their native tongue to express themselves in prose and poetry. This is perhaps the first “road trip” genre of writing in English and is replete with wonderful, ironic, sharp and witty descriptions of the characters and Chaucer's unerring eye for details allows the reader to instantly visualize the people he's describing. The Knight, The Wife of Bath, The Prioress and The Miller are some of the colorful travelers. The book is an interesting document regarding history, social customs, the medieval concept of “courtly love,” the emphasis on companionship and cooperation while traveling, the role of the church and the prevailing corruption and romantic ideals of the time. For both casual readers and those interested in the history of English literature, The Canterbury Tales is an invaluable mine of information.
The framing device for the collection of stories is a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, Kent. The 30 pilgrims who undertake the journey gather at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, across the Thames from London. They agree to engage in a storytelling contest as they travel, and Harry Bailly, host of the Tabard, serves as master of ceremonies for the contest. Most of the pilgrims are introduced by vivid brief sketches in the “General Prologue.” Interspersed between the 24 tales are short dramatic scenes (called links) presenting lively exchanges, usually involving the host and one or more of the pilgrims. Chaucer did not complete the full plan for his book: the return journey from Canterbury is not included, and some of the pilgrims do not tell stories.
The use of a pilgrimage as the framing device enabled Chaucer to bring together people from many walks of life: knight, prioress, monk; merchant, man of law, franklin, scholarly clerk; miller, reeve, pardoner; wife of Bath and many others. The multiplicity of social types, as well as the device of the storytelling contest itself, allowed presentation of a highly varied collection of literary genres: religious legend, courtly romance, racy fabliau, saint’s life, allegorical tale, beast fable, medieval sermon, alchemical account, and, at times, mixtures of these genres. The stories and links together offer complex depictions of the pilgrims, while, at the same time, the tales present remarkable examples of short narratives in verse, plus two expositions in prose. The pilgrimage, which in medieval practice combined a fundamentally religious purpose with the secular benefit of a spring vacation, made possible extended consideration of the relationship between the pleasures and vices of this world and the spiritual aspirations for the next.
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