BOOK REVIEW – GEOFFREY CHAUCER – THE CANTERBURY TALES – THE PROLOGUE. Penguin Classics. Introductory chapter to the famous, unfinished epic series of stories by a writer considered as second only to Shakespeare in his importance to English literature. Penned between 1386 and 1400, it tells of Chaucer’s companions on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine there for the murdered saint, Thomas Beckett. The pilgrims clearly behave more like tourists than religiously devout figures. They include an eclectic, motley band of nuns, millers, knights, and serfs. Every class of humanity is here, and there are people of every size, shape and mannerism imaginable. The Prologue introduces the main characters one by one, from a noble knight to a friar more partial to the alehouses than helping the needy in the leper colonies. There is a rector, more learned in alchemy than the Bible, and, in contrast, a Parson, who has a geographically widely scattered parish population but who never, fails to visit each and every member of his flock when required. The Miller is a man of great size & strength, but little brain. The concept of the Tales begins as the pilgrims meet at a London hostelry where, on the host inn-keeper’s suggestion, they are to while away the long journey by telling stories The inn-keeper suggests that each pilgrim tells two stories on the road to Canterbury, and two more on the return journey.
The story deemed best of all by the innkeeper, who is he to make the journey, will receive a free banquet paid for by the other pilgrims. The travellers agree heartily to the challenge. As the journey commences, lots are drawn for who must tell the first tale, and the task falls to the Knight, who’s tale follows on immediately. All aspects of life are given here, with rich variety of character and narrative style though the modern Penguin translation by Nevill Coghill, while stripping away the challenging old English spelling, also reduces the whole narrative to rhyming couplet. The overall work remains nevertheless magnificent and barely rivalled.