The Secret of The Canterbury Tales

The tellers get to mock their own tales.

A confirmed sadist could find many things to enjoy in the pages of The Canterbury Tales. As Chaucer’s pilgrims take turns telling stories to while away the hours on their long walk to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, they shy away from no variety of physical violation or psychological torture. In “The Miller’s Tale,” a man is rectally impaled with a red-hot poker. In “The Clerk’s Tale,” a husband tests his wife’s obedience by pretending to murder their two children. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” a pair of students rapes a man’s wife and daughter in order to humiliate him.

Why is it, then, that the actual experience of reading The Canterbury Tales is not at all painful? Why has it struck six centuries of readers as, in fact, the humane masterpiece of English literature—the book that seems to embrace more of the world, and affirm more of human nature, than any other? The answer lies in the disjunction between the men and women who populate Chaucer’s poem and the stories that they tell. In their tales, the pilgrims reflect the assumptions of a medieval world that manages to appear, at the same time, inhumane in its love of comic brutality and sanctimonious in the way it elevates piety, humility, and (especially female) chastity into the highest virtues. Who would want to live as austerely as Chaucer’s Pardoner demands from the pulpit?

O gluttony, the height of wickedness!
O primal cause of mankind’s utter fall!
O first and original sin that damned us all
Till Christ redeemed us with his own dear blood! …
O stomach! O belly! O stinking bag of jelly,
Filled with dung, and reeking with corruption!

Yet by the time the reader reaches these lines from “The Pardoner’s Tale”—as rendered, here, by Burton Raffel, in his new translation of Chaucer from Middle to Modern English—she has already learned not to trust a word this character says. For in real life, the Pardoner—or, as Raffel derisively calls him, the “Pardon-Peddler”—is himself a first-class glutton, not to mention a lecher and a con artist. “I want good money, good clothes and cheese and wheat/… I like to water my throat with wine,/ And have a frisky wench in every town,” the Pardoner brags in the prologue that precedes his tale. He is so brazen that the reader has to laugh, especially when he reveals the trick that always gets people to pay for the privilege of genuflecting before his faked relics. He announces to the congregation that “Anyone in sitting in church, cozy and warm,/ Guilty of several sins so awful he/ Dares not, for shame, confess and pray for mercy,” is strictly forbidden to make an offering. After that, of course, no one wants to be seen holding back.

“In real life,” I wrote, the Pardoner is not what he seems in his tale—yet of course there is no “in real life” when it comes to the pilgrims, who are all Chaucer’s inventions. Indeed, the pilgrims are far more Chaucer’s inventions than the stories they tell, which are usually recycled from other medieval tale collections. Yet it is precisely by building this second level, this metafiction, into his fiction that Chaucer renders it so powerfully realistic. Because we see the pilgrims telling stories, they gain the trust we place in storytellers, who, by definition, are more real than their tales.

And it is in the gap between the tellers and the tales that Chaucer’s humanity is able to flourish. The Clerk might offer up Griselda, the wife who is unswervingly loyal despite her husband’s cruelty, as a model of Christian patience: “A woman having been incredibly patient/ To a mortal man, how very much more we ought/ To take in good part whatever God has sent us,/ For rightfully he tests what he has wrought. …” Yet at the end of that tale, Chaucer adds a song or “envoy,” gleefully acknowledging that “Griselda is dead, and so too is her patience,” so that husbands should not try to find her like: “They’d only be wasting their time, and deserve their penance.”

More important, Chaucer creates the Wife of Bath, that irresistible emblem of female independence and appetite, to display “in real life” a charisma that the “fictional” Griselda could never match. Griselda is the kind of woman that only exists in stories written by “clerks,” that is, clergymen, as the Wife complains:

There is no greater impossibility,
In truth, than clerics praising wives would be,
Unless the woman is a holy saint:
No other women deserve a word of praise.
Pictures of lion-killing show a living
Man. But what if a lion had painted the picture?

The Wife of Bath’s fifth husband, she recounts, had a book full of misogynistic stories from sacred and pagan literature; tired of hearing them, she “yanked three pages out of the book/ And threw them onto the floor, and also hit him/ Right on the cheek, hard, with my balled-up fist.” The secret of The Canterbury Tales is that it allows its characters to tear out its own pages, so to speak—to mock and complain about the rules they are supposed to live by. Because of this, the book has a holiday air, a tolerance for human appetites and frailties, that few modern works can rival. Our officially secular and hedonistic society seldom allows us to feel as free and happy as Chaucer’s pilgrims seem to be.

All the passages I have quoted come from Burton Raffel’s new translation, and they show its one big virtue: It is immediately comprehensible, allowing the reader to grasp (most of) Chaucer’s meaning without footnotes. For those readers who are absolutely unwilling to puzzle out Middle English spelling, or spend time getting acquainted with Chaucer’s versification and syntax, Raffel’s edition will be a useful substitute.

But even Raffel, a poet who has translated everyone from Cervantes to Stendhal, seems a little curious why anyone would bother reading The Canterbury Tales in translation. “Native speakers of English, as recently as the first half of the twentieth century, were not particularly uncomfortable with Chaucer’s difficulties,” he writes in his introduction. Since the English language has not changed much in the last 50 years, he clearly believes that the problem lies with its speakers—that we have gotten lazier and more provincial.

No one who embarks on reading The Canterbury Tales, however, can be all that lazy, and any reader who compares the original with Raffel’s version will surely agree that the extra effort is worthwhile. For Raffel’s translation loses the original’s music without finding a music of its own; he is wordy where the original is pithy and bare where the original is lush. Chaucer is in many ways the progenitor of English fiction—he is closer to Dickens than to Keats—but he is also a great master of English poetry; and since poetry is what is lost in translation, why not take the trouble to read the original and avoid the loss? Besides, as the Pardoner says, “lewed peple loven tales olde;/ Swiche thynges kan they wel reporte and holde.”