Before I review this book, I want to congratulate Penguin on their Penguin Popular Classics series. This book only cost me €3 which is pretty impressive, and it included notes. A neat little paperback at a pleasant price.
I suspect many of you will have heard of this book as it’s one of the classics of English Literature and one of the few medieval books still read today. I read an extract as part of my studies (about age 15) but I had forgotten since then that the entire thing is in verse.
I know novels aren’t written in verse anymore. Modern playwrights rarely use iambic pentameter either, but you know what? It’s good and it’s surprisingly easy on the brain when you get into it. I was particularly impressed to see that he uses a slightly different style of verse and vocabulary for each section as each has a different narrator. It wouldn’t make sense for a low-born farmer to story-tell in the same style as a wealthy merchant, or a nobleman, for example.
Chaucer wrote the tale in about 1386. My copy had 337 pages. I was amazed to find how much my years of learning French in school helped me to read this book. I had notes to check for meanings of unusual words, but many times I knew them anyhow because they were clear copies or twists from French words. I was also surprised to discover how funny the book is. He doesn’t accord “proper respect” to anyone, regardless of their station in life, and instead pokes fun at them all. I suspect Jonathon Swift knew Chaucer’s work when he began his satire “Gulliver’s Travels”.
I remembered my nun English teacher mentioning that the book was “bawdy” too and she was right. I think that in addition to some knowledge of French, another useful tool would be some idea of knightly ideals of courtly love, a rough acquaintance with Greco-Roman mythology, and a working idea of the major bibles stories as references to all of these abound. He was clearly a very learned man of his time and assumed his readers would be too. Sadly that didn’t extend to his Jewish readers whom he treats with some contempt, in line with ideas of his time. Mind you, there’s not many who escape his ridicule.
So, would I recommend this book? Yes, I would. It’s surprisingly easy to read, but do get a copy with some vocabulary notes (preferably at page-foot, so you’re not constantly flicking to the back pages). Sometimes it is good to read the books which came first, as others build upon their efforts in later times. For example, he uses the term oliphaunt for elephant and keen J. R. R. Tolkien readers will instantly recognise that as the term he uses for them in “The Lord of the Rings”.
The BBC did a great series of short dramas based on these tales in 2008 and showed that his tales of lust, jealous, anger, corruption, and romantic love across all professions and classes resonate perfectly in modern times. I think Chaucer still has plenty of relevance for modern readers. People haven’t changed much since 1386.
(read early 2010)