STUMP » Articles » Here is God's Plenty: The Canterbury Tales » 6 February 2015, 17:12

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Here is God's Plenty: The Canterbury Tales  


6 February 2015, 17:12

To quote John Dryden on the master, Chaucer:

HE must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation, in his age. Not a single character has escaped him.

All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other; and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons. Baptista Porta could not have described their natures better, than by the marks which the poet gives them. The matter and manner of their tales, and of their telling, are so suited to their different education, humours, and callings, that each of them would be improper in any other mouth.

Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity; their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling, and their breeding; such as are becoming of them, and of them only.

Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous; some are unlearned, or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different; the Reeve, the Miller, and the Cook, are several men, and distinguished from each other as much as the mincing Lady Prioress, and the broad-speaking, gap-toothed wife of Bath.

But enough of this; there is such a variety of game springing up before me, that I am distracted in my choice, and know not what to follow. It is sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God’s plenty.

I noticed this, too, and I’m here to promote not only Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but a specific adaptation into modern English, and even more, a specific audiobook adaptation of that “translation”.

Working backwards, I recently finished this audiobook version of The Canterbury Tales, in its unabridged glory. And I needed it, because, let’s face it — Chaucer’s Tale of Mellibe and Prudence, which is a lengthy disquisition on important decision-making (specifically with respect to war, but I’m thinking of adapting it to business advice) is a bit tough to take. And the Parson’s “Tale” … but I’ll come back to that. It’s so hard to sit and read through the very long bits, and it’s so tempting just to read the “fun” stories over. But when you’ve got a 70-mile commute one-way (lengthening to about 110 miles on the nights I teach), it’s good to have a reaaaally long audiobook to while away the time. You really get immersed.

The reason I like this audiobook so much is that several different actors portray the different characters, and each character has a different voice.

Just as Dryden noted there are differences in boorishness among the low characters, and different types of loftiness among the high, you’ve got a wide range of personalities displayed in these voices, which helped hold my interest for even the longest tales. (But seriously, I wanted Prudence to wrap it up.) It’s very well done, even when you have one actor doing different characters – I didn’t notice, because those who double up are spaced out, and, again, they alter the voice to fit the character.

It also uses my favorite modern adaptation of The Canterbury Tales by J. U. Nicholson.

While Nicholson does stick to some archaisms, what’s great is he manages to make the poetry and the sense to work. The prose is pretty lively, too. Nicholson’s version was originally published in 1934, and I got my first copy by him from the Strand, I think, or some other used book shop.

I had opened up the copy of the book, and rested my eyes on the description of the Parson in the Prologue:

That first he wrought and afterwards he taught;
Out of the gospel then that text he caught,
And this figure he added thereunto –
That, if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?

For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust,
What wonder if a layman yield to lust?
And shame it is, if priest take thought for keep
A shitty shepherd, shepherding clean sheep.

Yeah, when I came across “shitty shepherd”, I was hooked.

But wait! There’s more!

For a sample of prose, let us consider the Parson’s Tale: (I don’t think this is Nicholson’s translation, but it’s close)

On the other hand, to speak of the horrible inordinate scantiness of clothing, let us notice these short-cut smocks or jackets, which, because of their shortness, cover not the shameful members of man, to the wicked calling of them to attention.

Alas! Some of them show the very boss of their penis and the horrible pushed-out testicles that look like the malady of hernia in the wrapping of their hose; and the buttocks of such persons look like the hinder parts of a she-ape in the full of the moon.

And moreover, the hateful proud members that they show by the fantastic fashion of making one leg of their hose white and the other red, make it seem that half their shameful privy members are flayed. And if it be that they divide their hose in other colours, as white and black, or white and blue, or black and red, and so forth, then it seems, by variation of colour, that the half of their privy members are corrupted by the fire of Saint Anthony, or by cancer, or by other such misfortune.

As to the hinder parts of their buttocks, the thing is horrible to see. For, indeed, in that part of their body where they purge their stinking ordure, that foul part they proudly show to the people in despite of decency, which decency Jesus Christ and His friends observed in their lives.

By the way, that’s part of a long sermon on sin and penitence… and this is from the part on pride (not lust/lechery). It’s not much of a tale, but that’s the Parson’s Tale, and it is the last in the book.

I recommend reading it all the way through at least once (this ordering is good, but there are also others out there) but for those who want a “Best Hits” I recommend:

*The Prologue
*The Miller’s Tale
*The Sailor’s Tale
*The Wife of Bath’s Prologue & Tale (shorter than the prologue, I think)
*The Pardoner’s Tale
*The Franklin’s Tale

I picked some of the most famous tales, but also a few ones I found interesting.

A few of the stories will really not sit well with modern audiences, and I’m not talking about all the rape in the Reeve’s Tale. The Prioress’s Tale is an extremely antisemitic story, and easily the worst in that respect. Some are fairly disgusting (my kids liked the tale of splitting up a fart into 12 pieces… it’s a mean-spirited tale for one pilgrim to get back at another — several of the tales are like that.)

The Pardoner’s Tale is very famous, providing the central plot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

But to note – I’m not a Chaucer scholar, but I do know that several of these tales are adaptations from other sources (like Petrarch) — I mainly know because sometimes Chaucer references the original author in the text itself. He really likes Petrarch, Dante, and Seneca. Also, Ovid.

But this is the point of The Canterbury Tales — it’s not about who can tell an original story, but is the best in picking a story to entertain and provide the source of discussion. Some are heavy on the entertainment, light on the morals (the Cook’s Tale was probably going to be that); some are light on the entertainment and heavy on the morals (several examples, but it’s interesting that the Friar is cut short for being boring, but neither Chaucer nor the Parson are. Chaucer is cut off in the Tale of Sir Thopas because it’s shitty poetry, not because it’s necessarily boring.)

Chaucer is so great, not because he comes up with original stories, or even original characters — but that he has selected well to show the variety of God’s plenty, and gives each a fair shake. For all that Chaucer “retracts” his naughty stories at the end of the book, they are still in the book.

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