Monday, February 27, 2012
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Published: end of the 14th century
Read for: bragging rights
The Canterbury Tales are stories within a larger frame story of twenty-four pilgrims traveling to Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas Becket. The host of the group devises a way to pass the time: each member of the group will tell a tale. The resulting stories are a mix of the bawdy, the legendary, and the at times overwhelmingly moral.
So here's the thing about The Canterbury Tales. I know next to nothing about it; I didn't read the book in an elaborate edition with informative footnotes; I didn't even use SparkNotes once or twice. I was emailed short installments on weekdays from DailyLit for almost a year. And I have to be honest about my real motivation for reading it. I am not a fan of ancient literature or epic poetry. I've never managed to get through The Odyssey, The Iliad, Beowulf, or the Epic of Gilgamesh (I am fully aware that these are all from different periods and are totally different styles and works; however, the experience of The Canterbury Tales and my experience at attempting these other works is quite similar, the difference being that I actually finished The Canterbury Tales). There are two reasons I read The Canterbury Tales: first of all, despite my struggle with very old literature, I love learning about that time period, and felt that I owed it to the time period to read some original works. Secondly, I feel like The Canterbury Tales (and the afore-mentioned works) are "must-reads" if one is to be well-read.
However, in general I went through Canterbury Tales kicking and screaming. I don't doubt the importance of the work, and there were several witty lines that even my thick-skulled, science-minded self were able to pick up. I even enjoyed some of the stories; "The Knight's Tale" was my favorite (and I promise it was not just because it was the first), with its romance and ancient characters, and I also found "The Miller's Tale" to be pretty entertaining (although I am embarrassed to admit it, because it was also pretty bawdy). But for the most part, it was a chore to read my daily installments, and many days passed when I skimmed the verses and picked up absolutely nothing.
I feel as if I learned a small amount from The Canterbury Tales -- I think I have more of a feel for the time period, if nothing else, and a few random bits of trivia from mythology that were incorporated into the stories. However, it wasn't an experience I plan to repeat, despite the fact that I didn't glean as much from the Tales as I probably should have. I realize I am probably being judged by my more erudite readers, but I am hoping some have had a similar experience, or may even have advice on how to learn more (although I hope never to read the thing in its entirety again).
So, instead of giving this a rating (I can't rate classics this huge) -- tell me your experience with The Canterbury Tales. Your failures, your advice, or (if you exist out there in the wide internets) your love for it. What did I miss?