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ClassicsOnline Home » CHAUCER, G.: Canterbury Tales, Vol. 2 (Modern English Verse Translation) (Unabridged)
Four more delightful tales from one of the most entertaining storytellers of all time. Though writing in the thirteenth century, Chaucer’s wit and observation comes down undiminished through the ages, especially in this accessible modern verse translation. The stories vary considerably from the uproarious Wife of Bath’s Tale, promoting the power of women to the sober account of patient Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale.
THE CANTERBURY TALES
The Canterbury Tales, written near the end of Chaucer’s life
and hence towards the close of the fourteenth century, is perhaps the greatest
English literary work of the Middle Ages: yet it speaks to us today with almost
undimmed clarity and relevance.
Chaucer imagines a group of twenty-nine pilgrims who meet in
Inn in Southwark, intent on making the traditional journey
to the martyr’s shrine of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. Harry Bailly,
landlord of the Tabard, proposes that the company should entertain themselves
on the road with
a story-telling competition. The teller of the best tale
will be rewarded with a supper at the others’ expense when the travellers
return to London. Chaucer never completed this elaborate scheme – each pilgrim was
supposed to tell four tales, but in fact we only have twenty-four altogether –
yet, with the pieces
of linking narrative and the prologues to each tale, the
work as a whole constitutes a marvellously varied evocation of the medieval
world which also goes beyond its period to penetrate (humorously, gravely,
tolerantly) human nature itself.
Chaucer, as a member of this company of pilgrims, presents
himself with mock innocence as the admiring observer of his fellows, depicted
in the General Prologue. Many of these are clearly rogues – the coarse,
cheating Miller, the repulsive yet compelling Pardoner – yet in each of them
Chaucer finds something human, often a sheer vitality or love of life which is
irresistible: the Monk may prefer hunting to prayer, but he is after all ‘a
manly man, to be
an abbot able’. Perhaps only the unassuming, devoted Parson
and his humbly labouring brother the Ploughman rise entirely above Chaucer’s
teasing irony; certainly his fellow clergy and religious officers belong to a
church riddled with gross corruption. Everyone, it seems, is on the make, in a
world still recovering from the ravages of the Black Death.
The first tale is told, quite properly, by the most
important pilgrim, the Knight, and his story is devoted to the high ideals of
chivalry and romantic love. Then the Miller drunkenly interrupts the Host,
Harry Bailly, to impose on the company his splendidly bawdy tale about a
cuckolded carpenter. As the Reeve listens, he (a trained carpenter himself)
becomes enraged by what he sees as a slight on his original profession. So the
Reeve’s Tale which follows is a vigorous attempt at revenge on the Miller. Two
Cambridge students plan to outwit the fictional miller, Simkin, who grinds
their college’s corn and regularly takes a dishonest cut; at first, Simkin gets
the better of the under-graduates, but the tale reaches a brilliantly farcical
conclusion in which the two young men seduce both the miller’s wife and his
young daughter and give Simkin a sound beating. The comic world of the tale is
unsentimen-tally concrete and morally ruthless, suggesting that life is little
more than a physical and intellectual contest.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is the first of the three told by
women in the collection. Her story is commonly regarded as initiating the
so-called ‘marriage debate’ in The Canterbury Tales: marriage is a subject upon
which she is clearly an expert, at least if the long life-story she tells in
her brilliantly vivid and pungently argued Prologue is anything to go by. She has
had no fewer than five husbands – perhaps the Canterbury pilgrimage may yield the
sixth. Her tale is a relatively brisk and aggressively feminist affair, set in
Arthurian England: a knight is compelled to seek an answer to the question,
‘what do women most desire?’ After suitable humiliation, he discovers the
The Clerk’s Tale, which Chaucer knew from versions by
Boccaccio and Petrarch, amongst others, appears to continue the marriage
debate. The Clerk is, according to the General Prologue, an unworldly Oxford
scholar, but the tale he tells is curiously ruthless. With little explicit
awareness of its less attractive aspects, the Clerk relates how the
humbly-born, ‘patient’ Griselda has to endure a succession of appalling
humiliations before her ‘noble’ husband finally accepts her unconditionally. It
seems, therefore, to be a riposte to the Wife of Bath.
The last tale in this collection is that of the Nun’s
Priest. Chaucer here draws on the French fable tradition, telling a story which
wonderfully mocks boastful pride as the clever fox eventually loses out to the
supposedly vain and gullible cock. Packed with ironically-deployed rhetorical
devices, the tale may be said to celebrate the ingenuity, variety and folly of
human behaviour, allegorised in the form of the animal fable. George Orwell was
to do something similar, if infinitely more sinister, with Animal Farm in 1945.
Chaucer derives almost all his tales from known sources,
often Italian or French – as may be seen above – but he is brilliantly
successful in giving them a tone and feeling which are very English (concrete,
ironic) and very much his own. Most of the Canterbury Tales are written in
heroic couplets – a form of rhyming verse which Chaucer effectively introduced
to English literature.
Geoffrey Chaucer, son of a vintner, was born in London in
1340, or thereabouts. He enjoyed a successful and varied career as courtier and
diplomat, travelling extensively in France and Italy, where he may have met
Boccaccio and Petrarch. In 1374 he was made Controller of Customs in the port
of London; in 1386 he represented Kent as knight of the shire, and may have
lived there until his death in 1400. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer wrote prolifically and in a variety of styles: other
works include the great Troilus and Criseyde, The Book of the Duchess, and A
the Astrolabe. He also translated The Romance of the Rose.
His range of subject matter, width of reading and sophistication are
remarkable; his most notable qualities are perhaps his deeply sympathetic view
of human aspiration and weakness, and (when required) his capacity for close,
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Modernised version of the Tales by Frank Ernest Hill, 1935.
Host: Philip Madoc
of Bath: Frances Jeater
Reeve: John Rowe
Nun’s Priest: John
Philip Madoc’s extensive theatre work includes the roles of
Othello and Iago, Faust and Macbeth and recently, with the RSC, The Duke in
Measure for Measure and Professor Raat in The Blue Angel. TV roles include
Lloyd George, Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, Brookside and A Mind to Kill.
He reads The Death of Arthur, Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, The Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire, The Old Testament and Romeo and Juliet for Naxos
Frances Jeater’s theatre work has included Gertrude in
Hamlet; an American tour of Much Ado About Nothing; Middle and Far-East tours
of Harvey; and Prisoner of Second Avenue, Haymarket Theatre, London. Favourite
TV: Gift of the Nile, filmed in Egypt. Frances has always enjoyed working for
BBC Radio Drama and recording audiobooks. She reads Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath
and reads the part of Mrs Eynsford Hill in Pygmalion for Naxos AudioBooks.
John Moffatt’s distinguished theatre career encompasses two
hundred roles across the UK, forty-two major London productions and two
Broadway appearances. He played Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Open Air
Theatre, Regents Park, appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s production of Hedda Gabler
and in Married Love, directed by Joan Plowright. Film credits include Prick Up
Your Ears, and he has been seen on UK TV in productions as varied as Love in a
Cold Climate and Maigret. He also reads Sterne’s Tristram Shandy for Naxos
AudioBooks and appears as Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Charles Simpson won the Carleton Hobbs Radio Award in 1989
and the Best New Actor in Radio – Radio Times Comedy and Drama Awards in 1992.
His TV credits include The Bill, Kavanagh QC and Soldier Soldier. His theatre
work includes Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest for the English Shakespeare
Company and The Blue Angel at the Gielgud Theatre. He also reads the part of
Freddie Eynsford Hill in Pygmalion for Naxos AudioBooks.
John Rowe trained at Birmingham School of Speech Training
and Dramatic Art. His most recent theatre work has included Our Town
(Shaftesbury Theatre) and Jenkin’s Ear (Royal Court). His extensive TV credits
include Peak Practice, Dangerfield, Brother Cadfael, Chalkface, Bergerac,
Coriolanus and Macbeth. His film credits include The English Wife, The Fourth
Protocol, Sakharov and Nikolai.
John Tydeman played a key role in BBC radio drama for nearly
four decades, as producer, Assistant Head and then Head of Radio Drama. During
that time he directed most of the major plays in the classical repertory, from
Greek drama to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw. He was also active in
contemporary theatre, directing works by Osborne, Stoppard, Albee, Pinter and
many others. Directing for television and the stage has been a regular feature
throughout his busy career. He has worked with Paul Scofield on many occasions,
including radio productions of Macbeth and Othello. For Naxos AudioBooks he has
directed King Lear, Just So Stories and Pygmalion.
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