Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Which Chaucer tale?

Yesterday, I wrote a rather long post about Chaucer editions, derived in large part from what I found on Amazon or had lying about the office.

Happily, Dr. Virago of Quod She suggested that most Chaucerians prefer the Coghill translation (which was my second choice), and also suggested that the newer Norton Critical edition (ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson) has more tales and much newer critical essays, making it a really good choice, too. I'll have to ask for a review copy or something!

Thanks, Dr. Virago! I appreciate your help.

The next question I'd take up with someone wanting to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales just for the joy of reading them (and it is, indeed, a joy), would be about the order. For those who haven't read the CT, it's a collection of tales headed by an introductory section called "The General Prologue," which describes a group of pilgrims on a trip to Canterbury and sets up a story-telling contest in which each pilgrim is supposed to tell a story along the way, and a story along the way back. The "GP" ends with an invitation to the Knight to begin, and off he goes.

Like so many medieval texts, the CT doesn't exist in a single, authoritative manuscript. Rather, there are manuscripts of varying quality, scribed at different times, with different (overlapping) tales, and with the tales in different orders. Between most of the tales, in most of the manuscripts, there are bits of dialogue and response between various pilgrims, sometimes with one pilgrim claiming the right to tell or being assigned the next tale. Usually these bits are called "prologues" or "introductions" to whichever tale.

From these bits, Chaucerians (ie. People smarter than me!) have put together a couple tentative orders for the text. There are, of course, problems with these orders and groupings, but most of us can enjoy the basics of the tales without worrying too much because the Chaucerians are hard at work figuring things out.

The first option, therefore, would be to read the tales in a generally accepted order, such as the order within the Riverside edition.

The problem I see with this for the casual reader is that the "General Prologue" and "Knight's Tale" are pretty dense reads, and not as immediately rewarding as some of the other tales. I think most readers would get more out of the GP and KT if they had either someone else to talk about the issues with (a class, for example), or if they came to those tales after getting more into Chaucer overall.

So, what would I suggest the casual reader read first?

"The Franklin's Tale." It's not the funniest tale. It's not the most perfectly structured tale. But it's an amazing and beautifully told tale, and it's my favorite, so there. I think it introduces some of the issues common to many tales, especially those within the so-called "marriage group," and as such, it would make the "KT," for example, make more sense. (It's also optimistic, and after the despair of yesterday's classes, I'm in need.)

Next? "The Miller's Tale." Okay, so I'm sure Dr. Virago likes this one, and those of you who know it now know exactly where in the gutter my mind lives. Structurally, I think this is about as perfect a story as can exist. By the time Absolon gets "revenge," I've forgotten about John. No matter how many times I've read it, the structuring gets me every time.

One might read "The Reeve's Tale" next, but I'd skip to the "Nun's Priest's Tale" and then "The Merchant's Tale," and the "Wife of Bath's Tale."

After reading those tales, I'd invite the casual reader to go back and read the "GP," and think about the representations of the story tellers s/he's seen so far, and to keep that in mind. And then, I'd invite the casual reader to enjoy the "KT." And then the rest of the tales, to his/her preference. (And yes, I'd warn him/her to skip Melibee, and even the Parson's Prologue and Tale.")

How about you guys? Which order would you suggest to a casual reader to get a taste of Chaucer's CT?


  1. I'm an Americanist, but if anyone is interested, I'd thrill to read selected tales, or the whole thing, for online discussion.

    Recent posts here and elsewhere about the CT sent me to some online versions to skim through the Prologue (I really don't like online texts). As I recalled, the language is really pretty accessible.

    Since I'm teaching mostly comp these days, I really miss conversing about books.

  2. You're very welcome, Bardiac!

    And I like your order and agree that if one is doing the CT alone (as in by one's self and also without other texts by Chaucer) the BP and KT are rather weighty places to start.

    And gosh, how did you know I like the Miller's Tale so much? :) Of course, the Miller's Tale is even more brilliant as a "quiting" or take-down of the KT. (When I teach it, I love saying "Poor Absalon -- he thinks he's in the Knight's Tale, but he's stuck here in the muck of the Miller's Tale. He's suffering from genre-confusion.")

    Anyway, I know someone who starts with the Nun's Priest's Tale in class -- because people are generally familar with beast fables and Chaunticleer is just so damn cute! -- and I've had luck in class with the Wife of Bath all by herself in the Bedford Books edition (oh look -- another edition!) because it assumes no knowledge of anything Chaucerian and it's tailored to an undergrad audience. (And like Norton editions, it has essays in the back, but these have been written or rewritten for the edition.) Plus, with the Wife of Bath, you've got a) a lively character and b) a prologue and tale about tale-telling and authority, also one of the recurring obsessions of the CT as a whole.

    OK, that's my two cents. I will stop hijacking your comments now. :)

  3. Axis, if you'd like to read along with my class and discuss a bit, I'm sure we can figure out something. And Chaucer is way fun.

    Dr. Virago, HAH! I hope you don't mind if I steal that line about Absolon!

    I really appreciate your suggestions, and you're very welcome to "hijack" my comments anytime with more!

    I also like the single Bedford Wife of Bath's prologue and tale. It would be a great place for someone to start, for sure.

    Tomorrow: Gentilesse and Adam Scriveyn. They looked really shell shocked on Monday when I had them starting to read aloud. I hope they're more at ease tomorrow!

  4. I agree about the WOB--she teaches very well on her own.

    And as to "The Miller's Tale," well, yes. That is, in fact, the single text that turned me into a medievalist. And it is pure genius.

    I like your idea about an order very much for those tackling the tales on their own, Bardiac! You're right that the GP and the Knight's Tale are awfully hard to wrap one's head around without guidance and/or secondary reading.

  5. Wha an intriguing and generous idea, Bardiac. So..which edition are you using? The Riverside?

  6. We're using Baugh's *Chaucer's Major Poetry* and starting with "The Book of the Duchess." If you have a Riverside, that will work. I'll just try to give you a heads up about some line number differences and such.

    Feel free to email me at bardiacblogger AT yahoo DOT com. I'll trust that we'll keep the anonymous thing so far as the blogosphere for each other. And I can see if I can get you set up to access the discussion board thing.

  7. Anonymous5:06 AM

    u guys are gay. no one really cares bout these lame storys? hahaha wow NERDS