eoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. Viking Press, 2009. 436 pages
Being an old English teacher, I am aware of a literary tradition regarding classical works of literature: every generation of so, “masterpieces,” such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, the plays of Sophocles and Euripides and ancient epics such as Gilgamesh and The Decameron are translated (again) by a new group of prominent scholars. The purpose of these translations, according to the translators, is to make the classics more “relevant” to modern readers. For example, a careful translation of “Antigone” may reveal subtle similarities between King Creon’s military policy and Germany’s Third Reich. Recently, a new “interpretation” of Gilgamesh uncovered marked similarities between the fate of an arrogant tyrant 3,000 years ago and the invasion of Iraq during George Bush’s presidency. No doubt, similar reasons were given for a new translation of the Greek Bacchae during the height of San Francisco’s “hippie movement” when Timothy Leary’s fans ran amuck.
However, this time out, we have a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Peter Ackroyd - a translation designed to make this venerable 14th century literary work relevant to “the audience of today.” Ackroyd tells us Chaucer’s poetic (but archaic) language has rendered this marvelous collection of stories obscure and/or meaningless to the modern reader. Why not “translate” the entire work into conventional modern language? To illustrate his point, Ackroyd “retells” the passage that introduces this review (“The Prologue”) as follows:
“When the soft, sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every saplings and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectations. The west wind blows away the stench of the city and crops flourish in the fields beyond the walls. After the waste of winter, it is delightful to hear birdsong once more in the streets. The trees themselves are bathed in song. It is a time of general renewal and restoration. The sun has passed midway through the sign of the Ram, a good time for the sinews and the heart. This is the best season of the year for travelers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimages.
Now, admittedly, Ackroyd’s passage is much easier to read since he has removed all of the archaic words and spelling. However, he has also removed Chaucer’s poetry (his meter and rimes) which has been replaced by... conventional prose. Is it better?
When I encountered The Canterbury Tales in my sophomore year at WCU (with my Cliff Notes firmly in hand), I discovered that there were 28 pilgrims who intended to make a leisurely journey from London to Canterbury to the tomb of Thomas a’Becket, and that Chaucer originally intended for each of them to tell four stories — two going and two coming back — a total of 112 tales. In actual fact, Chaucer only completed 24 tales. However, it is am amazingly varied collection, which ranges from bawdy fabliaux (dirty joke) to anti-Semitic rants and high-minded moral sermons.
Despite the fact that it has been over fifty years since I read Chaucer for the first time, it is amazing how vividly many of these characters live in my memory. Both the gap-toothed Wife of Bath, with her obsession with sex and the sleazy Pardoner with his jar of “pig bones” (which he sells as holy relics along with his “papal indulgences”) are morally corrupt - yet Chaucer’s descriptions of them give them a kind of literary immortality. In addition, despite the repulsive nature of speaker, “The Pardoner’s Tale” remains one of the great cautionary tales of literature.
Ackroyd’s “retelling” of such ribald classics as “The Miller’s Tale.” “The Reeve’s Tale” and “The Summoner’s Tale” are probably the original prototypes, of the 20th century “traveling salesmen” jokes since they all deal with cuckoldry, sexual misadventures and flatulence, and all are examples of low comedy. Ackroyd retells all of Chaucer’s “dirty jokes” with a sort gleeful zest that definitely adds to their humor. For example, the college students in both “The Summoner’s Tale” and the “The Miller’s Tale” speak in modern-day “cockney” and use many of the current, four-letter, sexual idioms. This is equally true of the Nun’s Priest’s tale, which gives an earthy account of the barnyard adventures of Chanticleer, the lusty rooster!
Many of the stories are boring (“The Knight’s Tale”), pretentious and/or ridiculous (“The Clerk’s Tale” of the “patient Griselda”), or moral tales filled with religious hypocrisy and anti-Semitism (“The Prioress’ Tale” of how Little Saint Hugh was slain by the Jews and “The Second Nun’s Tale” of Saint Cecilia’s martyrdom). Ironically, Chaucer is not responsible for the literary shortcomings of the tales, for each stands as an insight into the personality of the speaker. For example, Chaucer’s Knight is noble, honest and poor, but he is unable to tell an interesting story. One can imagine the pilgrims nodding off in the saddle as the poor Knight drones on and on. It is interesting that the most morally offensive tales are told by religious personages such as the Nun, the Prioress and the Clerk - all of which unwittingly reveal their own ethical shortcomings.
It well may be that Ackroyd’s retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may actually create a revival of interest in this 14th century classic. The low humor is still hilarious and Chaucer has a marvelous talent for revealing the pompous self-importance of corrupt 14th century church officials. It is especially important to remember that the opinions expressed by Chaucer’s pilgrims are not Chaucer’s — especially with stories like “The Clerk’s Tale” which is easily the yarn most likely to infuriate a modern feminist. I believe that Chaucer would share her outrage.