Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tales Of Old

It took me a while, but I finally finished The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.  It did not take me so long because it was bad, but because of the way it is structured it really lent itself to picking up and putting down, making it the perfect backpack/work/station book.  As always SPOILERS AHEAD!
This book is a collection of tales told by various travelers on a pilgrimage.  The host proposes that everybody in the group tells a story and it is agreed.  We are introduced to our travelers (which changes depending on which version you read), in this version we have the Host, the Knight, the Miller, The Reeve, the Wife of Bath, the Clerk, the Franklin, the Pardoner, and the Nun's Priest.  Each tells a story in their turn, each adding their own voice to the group. I guess the best way to sum it up is to tell about each player's tale.
The Knight's Tale - This is a story of love, betrayal, friendship and the gods.  It is told in a mix of Greek and classic medieval story telling and is probably the most intense of all the stories.Two friends are taken prisoner and both fall in love with a princess of the land.  They both get free in different ways and pursue the girl.  It comes down to a battle between the two, with all involved beseeching their particular god for intervention.
The Millers Tale - This is probably the most popular of the Canterbury Tales...probably because it is the bawdiest of them all. A woman who is married to the carpenter is none the less wooed by two scholars.  She accepts one, and taunts the other.  Meanwhile she and her scholar lover scheme to keep her not so smart husband out of the house so that they things :-)  This is definitely a story that appeals to the lower brow among us (I loved it).
The Reeve's Tale-Here we have a tale of mistaken identity and revenge.  After people cheating people out of stuff, two men get revenge on a miller by sneaking into the beds of his wife and daughter.  There is also a beating or two.  This is a quick and dirty story to be quickly read.
The Wife of Bath's Tale - In this story, the prologue is much longer then the actual story and involves the story teller telling of her delight in the dominance of her husbands and her love of the marital bed.  She tells how she essentially bully and tortures her husbands into an early grave and moves on to the next one.  Her actual tale is about a knight tasked with finding out what women truly want.
The Clerk's Tale - This story kind of pissed me off.  It's about a king who marries a common woman then proceeds to test her loyalty by telling her he is going to kill their children.  She being the "model" wife accepts this.  He eventually reveals that he did not kill them, but rather sent them away to be raised by other people.  Seriously this is one messed up tale.
The Franklin's Tale - A fairly typical story of a couple in love.  He gets sent to fight in a war and she is wooed by another man.  She remains faithful, but makes a foolish promise to the desperate suitor that he gets through trickery.  When she is willing to give up her life rather then be unfaithful or break her promise the suitor finally relents.  In this story the husband is actually fairly understanding and supportive of his wife.
The Pardoner's Tale - This tale is a it confusing, but essentially three young men indulge in all sorts of vices and then pay the ultimate price.  The best part of this tale is that the teller is almost as bad as the subjects of his own tale.
The Nun's Priest Tale - This story takes the form of a fable involving a rooster, his chicken wives and a fox.  It is the idea of dreams and their interpretations that takes center stage in this story, with many a prophetic dream being recounted.
This is a great read for several reasons.  The first being that every story is interesting in its own way.  There is a huge variety in theme and style and it gives the book lots of interest.  The second is that it gives a glimpse into the way life was during this time period.  Third, the language is just absolutely beautiful.  The version of the book that I have (and there are tons of versions with ton of various combinations of stories) is cool because it has the original old English on the one page and a "translation" on the other.  I like reading it as much as I can in the old English because the rhythm and rhyme is very transporting, sometimes though it is nice to have a definition of some of the more obscure words.  I will say that the attitude towards women in general in this book is pretty bad.  They are expected to be docile, faithful and put up with pretty much anything the husband, father, brother or male guardian can throw at her.  I found it amusing that in the Wife of Bath's tale, she not only does what ever she wants, but tells her tale about how what women really want is the freedom of choice.  Overall I found this book to much more readable then anticipated and really enjoyed the variety and language.  I recommend it to anybody who wants to read a true classic without the daunting million page story.  Almost anyone should be able to find at least one story in this book that they enjoy.  I give this book 8 out of 10 tales and will keep it on my classics shelf.
What is your favorite tale?  How do you feel about how women were treated back in the day?  Why are all the "classics" so full of sex?

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