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Ten Reasons to Love Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: #10
This is it. We've finally reached the end of my little stroll through The Canterbury Tales. For those who have stuck along for the whole ride, I hope you've enjoyed what has really been for me a very selfish and self-indulgent look at one of my favorite works of literature. There's enough material in Chaucer's work to fill volumes and volumes of analysis, so I've been focusing on the things that are most interesting to me: specifically, the ways The Canterbury Tales was centuries ahead of its time. Even though I haven't said so directly, my overall view of the work is that Chaucer is a proto-postmodernist (to invent an unnecessary high-falutin' label). In other words, his writing contains elements of literature that we see in the most inventive fiction writers of the 20th century.
The writing of tales to suit the personalities of their fictional storytellers; the use of (and possible parody of) various story styles; the inclusion of an intentionally bad tale in the case of the Reeve; the nonlinear story structure and feminist views of the Wife of Bath; a straightforward morality tale that takes on layers of irony when told by the hypocritical Pardoner: all of these, in their own ways, contain traces of postmodernism. If this were all there was to The Canterbury Tales, it would still be, as I have claimed, a fascinating work of literature and centuries ahead of its time.
Fortunately, Chaucer takes it a step farther, into a particular style of postmodernist writing that we call metafiction (again with the labels, I know). What I am talking about is...
Reason #10: Chaucer's Tales of Sir Topas and Melibee.
Before we get to Chaucer, though, a little more background. Metafiction, broadly defined, is fiction about fiction. More specifically, it is self-conscious writing that calls attention to its own status as fiction. In metafiction, writers may break the fourth wall by addressing the reader directly or interacting with their own characters.
For example, Kurt Vonnegut begins Slaughterhouse-Five by speaking to the reader about the writing of the book the reader is currently holding in his or her hands. The main story of the novel is a fictional character whose life is based partly on Vonnegut's own personal experiences in World War II. Several times during the narrative this character has a chance encounter with a random bystander, about whom Vonnegut interjects, "That was I. That was me," thus transporting himself into the fictional world of the novel.
In his next novel, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut inserts himself into the story even more directly. Again, the book is an entirely fictional story with characters of Vonnegut's invention. At the climax of the book, Vonnegut says he could not simply stand back and observe what's happening, so he writes himself into the scene, even having a conversation with the main character, in which Vonnegut behaves as a god-like figure who has created the entire world of the novel.
One more example: The film Adaptation is about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt the book The Orchid Thief into a movie. He can't figure out an interesting way to do it, and he ultimately comes up with the idea of making the film about his own attempt at writing the script. It's a wonderfully self-referential film in which the main character is the real-life screenwriter and his fictional twin brother, who shares a writing credit on the film.
What does all of this have to do with The Canterbury Tales? In the General Prologue Chaucer writes in the first person, telling about himself meeting the company of pilgrims. For the rest of the book he is along for the ride, listening to their tales and relaying them to us. Of course, this is a fictional construct: Chaucer is merely pretending to be an observer in his own book. For most of The Canterbury Tales the fictional Chaucer takes a very passive role, listening to the tales, passing them on to us, and inserting occasional comments.
Eventually, though, the Host turns to Chaucer and criticizes him for his non-participation. He gently teases him for being overweight and calls on him to tell a tale. Chaucer agrees to tell one, but he also offers a disclaimer (modern translation borrowed from here):
"Mine host," said I, "don't be, I beg, too stern,
For of good tales, indeed, sir, have I none,
Except a long rhyme I learned in years agone."
At first it seems Chaucer is merely feigning humility, considering what a great writer he obviously is. But this Chaucer is a fictional construct within the story, and is not merely being modest: he really is a terrible storyteller.
The tale he tells is a silly little fairy tale about a knight named Sir Topas. It's a ridiculous story, told in simple and vapid verse, and is best understood as a parody of some of the popular poetry of Chaucer's time. In fact, for many years audiences considered the Tale of Sir Topas to be a great story that is unfairly cut short before it is finished. It wasn't until later that scholars began to recognize the satirical nature of the writing.
The true quality of the tale ought to be obvious from the pilgrims' opinion of it. Before Chaucer has gone very far in the story he is interrupted:
"No more of this, for God's high dignity!"
Exclaimed our host, "For you, sir, do make me
So weary with your vulgar foolishness
That, as may God so truly my soul bless,
My two ears ache from all your worthless speech;
Now may such rhymes the devil have, and each!
This sort of thing is doggerel," said he.
"Why so?" I asked, "Why will you hinder me
In telling tales more than another man,
Since I have told the best rhyme that I can?"
"By God!" cried he, "now plainly, in a word,
Your dirty rhyming is not worth a turd;
You do nothing but waste and fritter time.
Sir, in one word, you shall no longer rhyme.
Let's see if you can use the country verse,
Or tell a tale in prose -you might do worse-
Wherein there's mirth or doctrine good and plain."
So Chaucer agrees to abandon the Tale of Sir Topas and tell instead a moral prose story, as requested. He then begins the Tale of Melibee, which is the longest and most agonizingly boring section of The Canterbury Tales. How bad is it? It's so bad that most modern translators don't even bother including it, opting instead for a brief plot summary. I must admit I don't even know what the story is about, because I've never bothered to read it.
Chaucer's Tale of Melibee can be seen either as a prank pulled by the fictional Chaucer as revenge for the Host interrupting his first tale, or merely a continuation of the real-life Chaucer's humorous depiction of himself as a lousy storyteller. Either way, the Tale of Melibee is an elaborate joke on the reader. I love it!
This more or less wraps up my tour through The Canterbury Tales. I'd like to close with a few lines that may or may not go along with the tales mentioned above. The Canterbury Tales ends with a retraction by the author, in which he confesses before Christ the many sinful stories he has written, including the work at hand. It's not entirely clear what Chaucer's intent is here. There certainly was a tradition at the time of writers forsaking their secular works at the end of their lives. However, considering the exhaustive list of works he mentions by name and Chaucer's self-deprecating humor throughout the rest of The Canterbury Tales, the retraction could also be a clever and ironic advertisement for his other works. I naturally prefer the latter explanation. Here it is, in all its Middle English glory, just as Chaucer wrote it:
Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thynge in it that liketh hem, that therof they thanken oure lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. And if ther be any thyng that displese hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge, and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnynge. For oure book seith, al that is writen is writen for our doctrine, and that is myn entente. Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy of God, that ye preye for me that Crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my retracciouns: as is the book of Troilus; the book also of Fame; the book of the XXV. Ladies; the book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes; the tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sownen into synne; the book of the Leoun; and many another book. If they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a leccherous lay; that Crist for his grete mercy foryeve me the synne.
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
http://brendoman.com/kyle/2007/06/14/ten_reasons_to_love_chaucer_s_canterbury_3">Reason #2: The Pilgrims and Reason #3: The Knight's Tale
I’ve really enjoyed this series. I’m planning to read the Tales. I think I’ll try a side-by-side version so I can stick with the original until I get stuck, then check the translated line.
I’m glad you enjoyed the series. I must admit that for a while I was beginning to wonder if anyone was really reading it all.
By the way, I ended up writing this one in a bit of a hurry. I had a little extra time tonight to sit down and look it over, and I cringed at my wording in some places. I should have spent more time proofreading. Oh well.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge of Chaucer, it was an enjoyable read. I was personally disappointed by the abrupt ending to the tale of Sir Topas. He was good for a laugh.