English Literature
The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales: A Classic Frame Narrative

The Canterbury Tales, a literary masterpiece written by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English, is a well-known frame narrative that continues to captivate readers even today. Although Middle English differs significantly from modern English, it is often read in translation to bridge the gap. Chaucer began writing these tales in 1387 and worked on them until his passing in 1400, solidifying his legacy as one of the greatest English poets of all time. His work takes us on a journey with a diverse group of pilgrims, as they travel from Tabard's Inn in Southwark, London, to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

The Canterbury Tales utilizes a storytelling technique known as frame narrative, where a primary story encompasses and connects several smaller stories, also known as stories within a story. Chaucer expertly uses this technique to weave together twenty-four tales that offer a glimpse into different aspects of medieval society. The collection begins with the General Prologue, introducing the pilgrims, with Chaucer himself as a character on the pilgrimage. It is essential to note that Chaucer the character is separate from Chaucer the poet, allowing him to express opinions that may have been controversial during that time.

As the pilgrims journey towards Canterbury, their host Harry Bailly, the innkeeper, suggests a friendly competition - a storytelling contest. Through these tales, Chaucer explores various literary genres, including chivalric romance, allegory, and fable. Contrary to popular belief, chivalric romance in medieval literature is not primarily focused on chivalry and romance but rather on adventure and fantastical elements. On the other hand, allegory and fable use animal or human characters to convey hidden political or moral messages.

Chaucer drew inspiration for The Canterbury Tales from the Italian frame narrative 'Decameron' by Giovanni Boccaccio, a collection of one hundred tales told by seven women and three men while in quarantine during the bubonic plague of 1348. However, Chaucer's tales delve deeper into themes such as adultery, social class, religion, and corruption, making it a more extensive and diverse work.

The Canterbury Tales is written in iambic pentameter, with Chaucer taking inspiration from Boccaccio's work. Unlike 'Decameron', the winner of the storytelling contest in The Canterbury Tales is never revealed, as Chaucer continued writing until his death. The work concludes with a retraction from Chaucer, where he apologizes for any offensive stories, such as 'The Miller's Tale.' He also clarifies that the characters in his tales are responsible for their own thoughts and actions, distancing himself from any strong opinions on religion, gender, or sex. This ultimately resulted in the banning of The Canterbury Tales in the United States for its 'obscene material.'

The 'General Prologue' is narrated in the first person by Chaucer the character, while the tales themselves are told in the third person omniscient. Most of the tales are written in verse, with the exception of 'The Tale of Melibee' and 'The Parson's Tale,' which are in prose.

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue

The 'General Prologue' begins with Chaucer, our narrator, describing the arrival of spring with the blooming of flowers and the sweet sounds of birds chirping. He also hints at the theme of new life and its possible connection to sexual desire. The narrator then introduces the concept of pilgrimages, which were common during the spring season. The narrator himself is embarking on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket and is accompanied by twenty-nine diverse individuals. The journey commences from Tabard Inn in Southwark, London, where the group spends the night before setting off the next morning.

The Canterbury Tales: An Analysis of Medieval Society

The narrator, Geoffrey Chaucer, explains that he is retelling the events solely based on his memory and has enough time and space to narrate the entire tale. He then proceeds to describe each member of the pilgrimage, noting that their appearances are based on how he perceived them during their initial meeting. This foreshadows a potential bias in the descriptions to follow.

The diverse group of pilgrims in Chaucer's collection represents various sections of medieval society. He meticulously introduces each one in order of social hierarchy, starting with the Knight and the Squire, who represent the military, followed by members of the clergy, such as the Nun, priests, monk, and friar. Next, he introduces landowners, professionals, laborers, and church officials, providing a multifaceted view of society during that time period. This analysis through storytelling is what makes The Canterbury Tales such a timeless and celebrated literary work.

Geoffrey Chaucer's descriptions in The Canterbury Tales are not simply factual, but also provide a satirical view of medieval stereotypes. This collection features numerous pilgrims, each with unique stories to tell. Let's take a closer look at some of the notable characters in this literary masterpiece.

The Narrator: Chaucer

The pilgrimage's narrator is Chaucer himself, who joins the journey. However, it is important to note that Chaucer the character is different from Chaucer the poet. The character presents himself as sociable and innocent, but the host later accuses him of being sullen and quiet. As the narrator, Chaucer's accounts of his fellow pilgrims may be biased due to his memory or personal preferences.

The Host: Harry Bailly

Harry Bailly, the innkeeper of the Tabard Inn, serves as the host and emcee for the storytelling contest. He is portrayed as cheerful and welcoming, and it is he who suggests the idea of a storytelling competition during the journey. Bailly guides the tales throughout the trip, occasionally influencing their tone or content. He also has the habit of interrupting poorly told stories, but does so charmingly. As an innkeeper, Bailly treats all pilgrims equally.

The Knight

The Knight, renowned for his chivalry, is the first to tell a tale. As an elderly knight who has participated in 15 crusades, he holds a high status among the other pilgrims. He is depicted as wise, brave, and noble, with a gentle demeanor. However, he does not enjoy hearing tragic stories, contradicting societal expectations of his role.


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