Friday, December 17, 2010

The Reading List: "The Canterbury Tales"

The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer, 1388ish.

Holy cow, 1388ish! That’s a long, long time ago! Reading Chaucer lets you look back into the late Middle Ages, and discover that the people there are in many ways remarkably like people here. Some might find it depressing that here we are as a species still beating the same jokes to death. I personally find it kind of wonderful.

Now as you English majors know, Chaucer is far enough back that he doesn’t really speak our language. The line between Middle English and Modern English is not a clear and definite one, but it happens somewhere before Shakespeare, who is easily enough read by an educated adult, and somewhere after Chaucer. A modern Modern English reader can kind of pick out Chaucer in the original, but it’s tough. With a few unfamiliar characters glossed over, it looks something like this:

A YEMAN hadde he and servantz namo
At that tyme, for hym liste ride soo;
And he was clad in cote and hood of grene.
A sheef of pecok arwes, bright and kene
Under his belt he bar ful thriftily,
(Wel koude he dresse his takel yemanly:
Hise arwes drouped noght with fetheres lowe)
And in his hand he baar a myghty bowe.
A not heed hadde he, with a broun visage,
Of woodecraft wel koude he al the usage.
Upon his arm he baar a gay bracer,
And by his syde a swerd and a bokeler,
And on that oother syde a gay daggere
Harneised wel and sharpe as point of spere.
A Cristopher on his brest of silver sheene.
An horn he bar, the bawdryk was of grene;
A forster was he, soothly, as I gesse.
Don’t forget to pronounce those final Es!

A Note on the Translation

I chose the 1952 translation by Nevill Coghill, for the simple reason that I have always wanted to read one specific book. It was on the shelf at home, as I was growing up, with the other “serious” reading material. I grabbed it many years ago when my parents thinned out their library, and have been packing it around ever since waiting for an excuse to read it. The inside cover is marked with my father’s name and address by a stamp I remember playing with as a child. Above that, there is a typed label with the address of the first house my parents owned, well before I was born. If you shine a light through the label you can see, in my mother’s unmistakable elegant handwriting, her maiden name, the college she attended, and the date “January 1957.” (She would be married by the end of spring term.)

Is this translation any good? Well, I obviously can’t weigh in on its accuracy, but it’s jaunty enough. It kept me reading through more than 500 pages of verse without complaining, and that’s a good thing. This translation has the added virtue of making short summaries of the two extended prose sections of The Canterbury Tales, which are apparently no fun at all and actually pretty stultifying.

Here’s how the portion quoted above comes out in Coghill.
There was a YEOMAN with him at his side,
No other servant; so he chose to ride.
This Yeoman wore a coat and hood of green,
And peacock-feathered arrows, bright and keen
And neatly sheathed, hung at his belt the while
For he could dress his gear in yeoman style,
His arrows never drooped their feathers low --
And in his hand he bore a mighty bow.
His head was like a nut, his face was brown.
He knew the whole of woodcraft up and down.
A saucy brace was on his arm to ward
It from the bow-string , and a shield and sword
Hung at one side, and at the other slipped
A jaunty dirk, spear-sharp and well-equipped.
A metal of St Christopher he wore
Of shining silver on his breast, and bore
A hunting-horn, well slung and burnished clean,
That dangled from a baldrick of bright green.
He was a proper forester I guess.
Of course, translation only gets you so far. What these descriptions really say about the characters is a little opaque to the non-specialist. Is using peacock feathers in your arrows a mark of pride? Flair? Folly? Or is it common practice? We dunno, so descriptive passages have lost a lot of their meaning and, I’ll bet, satiric bite.

Observations of a General Nature

In the same way that it’s interesting to realize that we still tell each other the same simple kinds of stories that people were telling six hundred years ago, it’s interesting – and perhaps a little disconcerting – to find that they were anticipating a lot of the ideas we think of as modish and clever. Chaucer is a clear practitioner of post-modernism, for instance, with his playful deconstruction of his own authorship. He is a first-person narrator, but is peripheral to the action; the central figure of the framing narrative is an innkeeper called “The Host.” At one point, he has characters talking about how much they like the poems of Chaucer. Yet when it comes time for Chaucer the character to tell his own story, he stinks it up and his story is halted by general consent.

The structure is kind of interesting, too. After the famous opening about how people like to go on religious pilgrimages in the spring, when the weather is so nice, Chaucer introduces all of the characters in a quick sketch (like the one for the Yeoman above). The Innkeeper where the pilgrims have gathered decides he’ll ride along with them, and give a free dinner to the person who tells the best story. The plan is, everybody will tell two stories outbound, and two more inbound.

Well, maybe it’s just as well that this didn’t work out, as that would be a whole hell of a lot of Canterbury Tales. As it is, not everyone even gets in their first tale, at least not in the surviving fragments. See, there’s no definitive manuscript of the Tales, so we have to make do with eight or so fragments, more or less guessing which order they go in. I don’t think Coghill’s ordering is the one considered most correctish these days, but it doesn’t really matter too much.

No matter how you slice them, the Tales are a bracing mixture of the sacred and the profane, a portrait of an intensely earthy society that was nevertheless accustomed to thinking on mystical planes. The text is saturated with Christianity, even while it makes brisk critique of the Church establishment, but pagan and classical mysticism is stirred in generously, with the Zodiac, alchemy, magic, and the Greco-Roman pantheon treated as common knowledge.

The pilgrims never make it to Canterbury. After a long sermon by the Parson, one of the prose bits that are left out in my copy, Chaucer makes a brief statement that he’s very sorry for all of the naughty bits and anything that might be irreligious, and bam! that’s it for The Canterbury Tales.

NEXT on the Reading List: The Canterbury Tales: Which Ones are Awesome?

1 comment:

Aviatrix said...

Now I see that you like the translation for the same reason that I like the original. My mother and I used to take turns reading aloud from that book that was always on the shelf, giggling as we had to pause and figure out the old words, or look them up in footnotes.