The Canterbury Tales ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales (A Prose Version in Modern English) ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) lived during the Middle Ages, almost two hundred years before Shakespeare. The English spoken at the time he lived is called Middle English, to distinguish it from Old English and Early Modern English (the language that Shakespeare spoke and wrote in). Chaucer’s most famous work is The Canterbury Tales, a collection of about twenty stories (some in prose but most in verse) with a simple premise: A group of diverse “pilgrims” (a nun, a knight, a miller, a priest, a doctor, a pardoner, a “wife,” etc.) on their way to Canterbury to pay homage to Thomas Becket (who “helped them when they were sick”) tell stories to pass the time and relieve the tedium of the road. Each pilgrim is required to tell a story, whether they want to or not. The stories range from bawdy, low humor to tragedy and give us a picture of what life was like in England at the end of the fourteenth century.

No matter how you’ve been spending your time lately, you probably haven’t been reading The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English, unless, of course, you’re a graduate student preparing a thesis on the subject. If you’ve ever heard Middle English spoken, it’s beautiful to hear but not that easy to understand for modern speakers of English. A lot of the words are the same and are easily recognizable, but a lot of the words no longer exist in the language. (If you’d like to hear an example of spoken Middle English, here is an easy link to “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales on YouTube:

Since Middle English is beyond the ken of most people (including me), there’s this “Prose Version in Modern English” by David Wright. A lot of the “feel” of The Canterbury Tales, I’m sure, is lost is this translation (sort of like the “modern American translation” of the King James’ version of the Bible), but if you need to read The Canterbury Tales and you want to be able to understand it, this is the best, most accessible way. Of course, you have to be a dedicated reader if, like me, you’re reading it only for enjoyment and out of curiosity and not because you have to. After all these years since high school English class, I finally know what the Wife of Bath is all about.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp