Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

CHAUCER: The Canterbury Tales

Does Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales qualify as a “great book”? There are some pretty good arguments why it should not. The language is often plain. The stories are generally entertaining but sometimes more appropriate for a barroom than a set of great books. And some say that great works of art should not only entertain but also elevate the mind and the soul. Others say that a great work of art should have a certain unifying scheme underlying the whole structure, and they feel this is something lacking in the widely variable Canterbury Tales.

These are valid criticisms and must be taken seriously by Chaucer fans. The language is usually plain. The stories are sometimes bawdy rather than elevating. And what exactly is the unity behind this wild assortment of tales? While acknowledging that these may be reasonable drawbacks to the traditional notion of a great book there are still good reasons why I think it should be included in nearly anyone’s list.

First, the language is plain. But so (in translation) is Homer’s. The characters in Sophocles or Aeschylus aren’t given to flowery speeches. They say what they mean and get right to the point. Hobbes doesn’t beat around the bush and neither does Montaigne. These are all great writers who wrote great books. Not every great writer embroiders the language like a Shakespeare or a Milton. Few can. Few do.

Second, the stories are often commonplace and even bawdy. But it’s not Chaucer’s intention to write an epic poem. His characters aren’t of the same stature as Achilles in The Iliad or Aeneas in The Aeneid or Satan and Adam in Paradise Lost. Chaucer’s characters are ordinary people taking an ordinary journey and they pass the time by telling stories to one another. The storytellers are either noble or well-to-do (The Knight, The Franklin), or scheming liars (The Pardoner), or hypocrites (The Prioress), or drunkards (The Miller), or sexually active, if not promiscuous (The Wife of Bath). In short, these are the kind of people you would meet in any town on any given day in modern America, or in any country for that matter. They represent the good and the bad, the high and the low, the holy and the bawdy. And their stories tend to be just like them – only expanded versions. I believe this is where Chaucer’s genius lies and why the Canterbury Tales is not just a collection of random stories but a unified great book.

Plus, Chaucer is a master of human psychology. He knows our fears and our foibles; he knows what motivates us and makes us laugh. Example: the Wife of Bath exclaims “I hate him who tells me about my errors, /And so, God knows, do more of us than I.” Does this ring true? It does in my experience. Few people like to have their faults flaunted to their face. Or how about this one: “Let whoever can, win, for everything is for sale.” Remember, this notion comes from a very sexually active woman. Is this just the way she presents herself (“everything is for sale” and I’ll marry the highest bidder) or is she claiming that’s the way we all are (everyone has a price)? Reading between the lines yields some deep psychological insights for the astute reader. There are many referential points throughout these stories: honor and chastity, love and revenge and dozens of other human struggles that every generation faces. Whether or not stories about the daily struggles of ordinary people can rise to the level of a great book is debatable. Like religion and politics, Chaucer’s tales will be appealing to some and appalling to others. He appeals to me. Great book.

-- RDP


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