“The Canterbury Tales” Translated by Burton Raffel (Modern Library, 2008)

The Canterbury Talesstarstarstarstar

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by one of the greatest writers in history, up there with William Shakespeare himself.  Originally published in the late fifteenth century, it has appeared on high school reading lists, and serves as one of the most important medieval texts – if not the most important – ever written and published.

Chaucer tells the story of 29 pilgrims who set out on pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.  Pilgrimage was a common event in many people’s lives in the medieval world, especially if they were looking to be pious and guarantee their ascent into heaven; it was also a good way for those who had committed sins to be absolved of their actions.  The Host of this pilgrimage sets the stage in the “General Prologue” by asking each of the pilgrims to tell four stories; two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back to London.  The storytelling will help pass the time, but will also serve to enlighten the group about the lives and actions of the pilgrims.

While Chaucer never fully completed his 124 stories, ending at 22,, there is nevertheless a wide selection of stories from most of its main characters.  “The Knight’s Tale” is the story about two royal Theban cousins who love the same woman.  There’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” as she discusses her life of five husbands and the importance and sacrifice she has made in marriage and being a wife.  “The Miller’s Tale” mocks the life of a carpenter who is fooled into believing a flood is coming, while the clerk sleeps with his wife.  In the final story, “The Parson’s Tale,” the Parson talks for a long time about the importance of being just and pious and faithful to God.

The Canterbury Tales is not just a collection of entertaining stories from the fifteenth century, but is a most fascinating insight into the way of life of these people, what they considered funny or sad, what they wore and ate, and what sort of a role the church truly played in their lives.  Chaucer even inserts himself into his book, arguing back and forth with the Host, as he is challenged to tell a superior story.

In this new translation from Burton Raffel, much of the original text is preserved, even though Raffel admits that in any translation, it is ultimately going to be different as it is that, a translation.  Nevertheless, where possible, Raffel keeps and maintains the rhyming scheme, giving life to the stories and making the old oral tradition of storytelling come alive off the page.  This new translation of The Canterbury Tales is perfect for anyone who enjoys these old texts, or for a student having trouble reading the early Middle English; it is even ideal for families to learn through reciting the stories aloud and hearing these classics come to life through voice, as they were originally meant to.

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Originally written on January 18th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.