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Friday, November 9, 2018

Reading the Unreadable #3 - The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

I remember reading The Canterbury Tales for a 2nd year English Literature class when completing my university degree.  I mean, I don't actually REMEMBER any of the book, aside from the first couplet, but I do remember the ACT of reading the book.  So I...suppose?...I'm coming to this one with a little more grounding than the previous books.

Not that that made it any easier.

Chaucer in its original Middle English is literature for those readers who find Shakespeare's language too easy.  It's got just as much romance, drama and fart jokes as any classic English work of literature, but you've got to work a little harder to pick the sense out of it.  Spelling is inconsistent at best, and pronunciation and meter are often sacrificed rather bloodily for the sake of completing a rhyme.  There's time when I'm sure Chaucer (much like his literary successor Shakespeare) just said "To Hell with it!" and made up words out of whole cloth.
As in Shakespeare's work, there is also the same gathering of story sources and inspirations to make the work an accumulation of the archetypes for centuries of stories to follow.  I imagine that this cultural aggregation into one source material goes a long way to explain the longevity of this work.  That, and the fart jokes.

The interesting thing about The Canterbury Tales is that it's actually less than half of a completed work.  Apparently the plan was to make this much longer by having more stories from other characters, and then to have at least a second story from each pilgrim on their way back from their pilgrimage.  However, in a move that, as a creator, I can completely identify with, Chaucer did not plan his time well and envisioned a work beyond the scope of the time available to him.  In the ultimate show of artistic laziness, he had the temerity to go and die before finishing the book.
So we never do get to find out who won that free meal, but we do get some good stories along the way.

I'm not sure how much the order of the stories was invented by later compilers of Chaucer's work, but in the version that I read, I get a growing sense of literary moralizing as the book progresses.  In the early stages Chaucer, like any good author, hooks his readers in with tales revolving around lust, licentiousness, the aforementioned fart jokes, and generally bad behavior.  However, later stories lean more heavily on morally instructive content, ending up with the sermon/screed that is The Parson's Tale.  Without knowing more about his motives for writing, I can't help but wonder if his intent was to create a work that would appeal to a general audience yet be religious instruction in disguise.  Sort of like inserting PSA's into an episode of Benny Hill.

Regardless, it's an amusing book, and in the end not that difficult to read.  Of course, I'm cheating a bit, having read Beowulf in Old English.  Your mileage may vary.

Up next is a novel I have actually been looking forward to, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude".  I've been wanting to dive into this book since learning of its influence on Los Bros. Hernandez's "Love and Rockets", and now I've got a good excuse to do so.

Don't forget to follow along on Twitter as I comment on my reading progress on a more or less daily basis.