The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Monday, February 27, 2012

Title: The Canterbury Tales
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Genre: Classic
Published: end of the 14th century
Source: DailyLit
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?


  1. Part of the fun of reading the Canterbury Tales is identifying which characters are "real" in nature and which of them are "ideal." The Knight, for example, is extremely idealistic while the Friar (or even the Prioress) are likely more "real" characters.

    If you'd be willing, go back and try to determine why. It's half the fun when it comes to learning about those characters and why they tell the tales they tell.

    1. I probably won't be revisiting it anytime soon, but I like the idea and have been thinking about idealistic vs. real. Although most of the people I remember are real!

  2. This is a toughie if you are reading on your own. I took a class on Chaucer during my senior year of college. We obviously read The Canterbury Tales. It's so much easier (I think) when you have a good grasp of Middle English and a professor and classmates who can bolster discussion and answer your questions.
    I commend you for giving it a try!

    1. I agree -- this would have been much better with people to discuss!

  3. I'm ashamed to admit I don't remember much about The Canterbury Tales. I had to read them my first year at the university (English student, duh). I think I'd remember if I hated or loved them, so it must have been something in between. I agree though that the old writing style makes it a demanding and time-consuming read.

    1. I think Canterbury Tales may fade from my memory pretty quickly, myself. Definitely something I read for the history, not enjoyment.

  4. No worries, everyone likes the Miller's Tale the best. :-)

    Part of the fun of these (and the other ancients you mention) is realizing how little people have changed over the centuries. There is also a lot of artistry there (parallels of plot, character development, themes, etc.). Sometimes reading a bit of the academic info available makes that easier to see. It just gives an extra layer to one's own reading experience.

    Good for you for working on being well-read even when the book doesn't do much for you. That's where I am on this: not my favorite, but glad I read it!

    1. Haha, good, I'm glad I'm not alone!

      And I agree with you that noting how little people really do change is certainly one of the things I picked up when I read this.


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