Book Review: The Selected Canterbury Tales

The Selected Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, a new verse translation by Sheila Fisher

This particular book is an example of the hazards of making a selected translation.  This is by no means a short book (although the fact that it is a dual-language book doubles its length), and keeping the book under a certain length was important for business purposes.  But I wanted to read this book mainly for one reason, and that reason was not present here, namely the (admittedly somewhat dull) Parson’s Tale where the word creation appears for the first known time in the English language.  I do not feel it is fair to blame someone who spent a great deal of effort seeking at providing a verse translation of a neglected classic in the hopes that it would find a wide and appreciative audience for ignoring the very specific aspect of that sprawling epic that I was looking for.  I suspect there are few people like me who are looking for something so narrow and so specific in a book like this one, and it must be admitted that there is a great deal to enjoy about this particular volume even if it did not have what I was specifically looking for from it.

This particular book of the unfinished and massive Canterbury Tales is over 700 pages long, with all of the left in Chaucer’s original Middle English and the right pages in the translator’s excellent contemporary translation.  The book begins with a very lengthy introduction including the background of the story and Chaucer’s own life before getting to the core material, namely the prologues and tales.  The following materials are included in this particular compilation:  the general prologue, the Knight’s tale, the Miller’s prologue and tale, the Reeve’s prologue and tale, the Cook’s prologue and tale, the wife of Bath’s prologue and tale, the Clerk’s prologue and tale, the Merchant’s prologue and tale, the Franklin’s prologue and tale, the Pardoner’s prologue and tale, the Prioress’ prologue and tale, the Prologue and tale of Sir Thopas and the prologue to the tale of Melibee, the Nun’s priest’s prologue and tale, and the Parson’s prologue (but not his tale), and Chaucer’s retraction.  After this there are suggestions for further reading.

Although this particular book is not very familiar to the general reading public in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays are, there are still a lot of reasons that this book is well worth reading and reflecting upon.  Chaucer himself lived at the period where English was finally returning to literature after a period of hundreds of years (since the Norman conquest) when it had been submerged in popular speech but out of the mainstream when it comes to literature.  Not only is this book historically significant, though, it has a lot to say about the manners and morals of the English people at Chaucer’s time and long afterward as well.  The Prioress’ tale contains one of the most powerful and shocking examples of the blood libel that can be found in the English language.  A large percentage of the stories themselves deal with both the concerns of men and women and how they are to get along (and how each of them tries to take advantage of the other) and also the concerns about people living and marrying within their proper place.  The clerk’s tale, about a self-sacrificing woman who is tossed aside by her noble husband when he has the chance to marry someone of his own rank, is heartbreaking in its recognition of the vulnerability that comes to people who try to rise above their native station, a concern that remains with us now, no matter how much we may cluck about our egalitarian society.  The book also contains one of (and perhaps the first) examples of stories about the strutting rooster Chanticleer, that rooster who reminds us of the nun’s priest who had plenty of clucking hens around him too, which was later retold and expanded in the classic Book of the Dun Cow.  This is a book that deserves to be read and has much to tell us still about our past and even about ourselves.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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