Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thoughts on the Classics: The Canterbury Tales

David Wright's translation of The Canterbury Tales into modern verse--the first to appear in over thirty years--makes one of the greatest works of English literature accessible to all readers while preserving the wit and vivacity of Chaucer's original text.

The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer, G & Wright D (1390 & 1985). [Genre: collection] 
Source: own copy
The Canterbury Tales were a surprise for me. I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy them as much as I did, it was more one of those books I’d included on my Classics Club list in an effort to make myself more ‘well-rounded’ (plus I don’t really like having copies of books on my shelves for years that I’ve never read). So I went into it thinking it would be my ‘alternate’ book and I’d read a tale or a section of tales in-between other books. Of course, I got suckered in and ended up reading it almost exclusively.

I think in all honesty part of my enjoyment was caused by reading a modern translation (the acclaimed Oxford World Classics translation by poet David Wright). Wright does a beautiful job of retaining the poetry of the original and shows quite the mastery of the English language. He also doesn’t try to soften or alter the contents of the tale in any way other than to bring the language into a more modern form – it’s obvious how careful he’s been.

Then of course there are the tales themselves. I inevitably enjoyed some more than others, and in many cases was shocked by just how sexually graphic some were! The ones I enjoyed most were:

The Knight’s Tale – a really traditional medieval tale of courtly love, which bought me straight back to my university history lectures on medieval storytelling

The Wife of Bath’s Tale – the tale itself is a nice retelling of a longstanding legend, but I enjoyed this one just as much for the discussion of feminine and wifely roles in the prologue, and how this discussion effects the tales that follow (which are often related to the relationship between husband and wife, and feminine roles in particular).

The Merchant’s Tale – although rather blue, I found this tale of an aristocrat who takes a young wife and finds himself cuckolded surprisingly funny.

The Clerk’s Tale – reminiscent of Job, a husband tests his every faithful wife’s loyalty in increasingly cruel ways. I found Griselda’s loyalty gorgeously touching and although her husband’s methods are awful, the overall message is a good one.

The ones I enjoyed the least?

The Squire’s Tale – I was actually really enjoying this one, and then it just ended. Oh why couldn’t Chaucer have finished it!!

The Monk’s Tale – Ugh. Not really a tale, rather just a list of heroic figures that had tragic ends, that continues until the host (rightly) tells him to stop being so depressing.

Overall though, The Canterbury Tales are well worth reading. The variation in Chaucer’s work reflects the time so beautifully, the tales showing the balance between the three major groups of the day – the courtly tales associated with the aristocracy and upper class, the pious tales associated with the Church and the slightly more graphic tales associated with the peasantry (and in a delicious turn of events, the tales don’t always come out of the mouth we would expect).

The Canterbury Tales ticks another book off my 2014 TBR pile challenge list, my Classics Club list, and I'm counting it in the 'Classic in translation' category for the Back to the Classics challenge.  


  1. Oh, I will look for this edition of The Canterbury Tales. I like what you say about Wright's translation. And congrats on hitting three challenges at once.

    1. Wrights translation is definitely a goodie!

  2. Thanks so much for reviewing this. I've been a bit afraid to tackle this book and am glad to know about this version.

    1. It was very readable, a great option if you're intimidated by the language