The Canterbury Tales

I managed to get through most of high school and college without deep knowledge of many of the classics of literature, for various reasons. One thing–not a book exactly–that I never attempted was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Last time I was at the public library, I picked up The Canterbury Tales–sort of. It’s a “retelling” by Peter Ackroyd. Not a “translation” into contemporary English verse form (I see at least two of those online), but a reworking of the stories into contemporary prose–well, with one exception (Chaucer’s own tale, which is rendered as doggerel-quality verse, as I believe was the original intent). OK, I thought, I’d give it a try: 50 pages and out, unless I’m captivated.

My wife, far better versed in the classics than I am, told me she’d read it in class–and couldn’t imagine that I’d find it interesting enough to stick with.

She was wrong. I read the whole thing (which may or may not be every tale in the original collection: there are 22 tales, most with prologues, some with epilogues, along with the Parson’s Prologue for which there is no tale–and Chaucer’s retractions at the end). I enjoyed almost all of it: the one “tale” that really wasn’t working is also one where the host finally interrupted the teller.

Chatting with my wife about it, I suspect the version she read was Bowdlerized or certain words were glossed over–either that, or this version is, um, desanitized, since a certain four-letter word appears with some frequency, as do some of its lesser cohorts. These are some bawdy stories, at least as rendered here.

Here’s the first little segment of the original, followed by Ackroyd’s version:

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Ackroyd’s take

When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every sapling and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectation. The west wind blows away the stench of the city, and the crops flourish in the fields beyond the walls. After the waste of winter it is delightful to hear birdsong once more in the streets. The trees themselves are bathed in song. It is a time of renewal, of general restoration. The sun has passed midway through the sign of the Ram, a good time for the sinews and the heart. This is the best season of the year for travellers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimage.

I’d have to quote more of both to make them truly parallel, since Ackroyd’s aim is “to facilitate the experience of the poem–to remove the obstacles to the understanding and enjoyment of the tales, and by various means to intimate or express the true nature of the original.”

I can only speak for myself and say that for me he succeeded admirably: I enjoyed the tales much more than I expected, and much more than in my brief attempts to read modern verse translations. Hmm. Based on the record, there’s a good chance you’ll find a copy near you…

Comments are closed.