Rhapsody in Penguins — Fifth Movement: The Canterbury Tales

(Slightly different approach this time. I’m bypassing normal analysis and going full metafiction for this article. Sorry, but this is a “Rhapsody” after all… pointless blabbering is inevitable.)

The Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer
translated by Nevill Coghill (1951)

As an English literature student, I have to read and write a lot (note to self: start writing your Shakespeare paper). Although there is always some academic stuff that I have to read every now and then, my heart is almost always in the abundance of stories that authors have to tell. From the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter and the Magic Tree House to the historical dramas of War and Peace and Gone with the Wind, authors have found so many different ways to tell a story. Indeed, telling stories is a major part of literature and even humanity, and you would be hard pressed to find a person who is incapable of telling a story.

I say this because every single person in The Canterbury Tales seem able to tell a riveting story, regardless of which walk of life they come from. The opening lines are pretty standard fare for any reader of literature:

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower…

There is no dawdling — right from this first line, the stage is set, the actors are in place, and we are all ready to begin. Geoffrey Chaucer plunges us in head-first, and we are in a world which is obviously fabricated, massively cliched — and yet so real because it is so vividly described. Southwark in April is so beautifully described in such detail that it’s impossible not to think you’re there. (Which saves on the air tickets.)

The door opens, and one by one we meet the bunch of people we are going to travel with — millers, noblewomen, monks and knights. These are not people that you would associate with storytelling, but as you sit, listen, flipping through page after page, it’s hard not to delight in the wide (and I mean WIDE) variety of tales that fall on our ears as you amble along on that journey to Canterbury, trying hard not to notice that growing pain in the bum that is a definite by-product of both horse-riding and reading for long periods.

But this is okay, because every single person in this group seems to be able to hold your attention with what they have to say. Their stories are never long, winding and trivial — they are entertaining (how is a person being branded on the bum not funny?), moving and even sometimes insightful. Above all, they always seem to be able to keep you in suspense, keeping you guessing. You do not feel tired while listening to anyone talk about their story — they themselves keep you waiting, making you wanting more.

Then we are provided the ultimate treat: the narrator is called upon to tell a story, and we immediately feel as if we are the ones telling it. To be the privileged one telling a story, making us part of this noble storytelling party: what greater honour could there be for this book? And yet suddenly, out of nowhere, the narrator gets told off — for telling a bad story, no less:

“No more of this, for God’s dear dignity!”
Our host said suddenly. “You’re wearying me
To death, I say, with your illiterate stuff.
God bless my soul! I’ve had about enough.
My ears are aching from your frowsty story!
The devil take such rhymes! They’re purgatory!
By God,” he said, “put plainly in a word
Your dreary rhyming isn’t worth a turd!
You’re doing nothing but wasting time
Sir, in a word, you shall no longer rhyme.”

This is absolutely my favourite part of the book, simply because the irony is completely laughable here. If the Penguin Classics version is to be believed, then we’re supposed to equate Geoffrey Chaucer himself as the narrator. And yet, the greatest poet of his time (“my power of speech, unimpeachable”) is unashamedly called out on his crappy rhymes — by a tavern owner, no less! He’s the only one awarded this dubious honour, which should suggest that he is actually the worst storyteller in the group of pilgrims. To make himself, a court-trained literary persona, the worst poet in the group has to take a lot of self-deprecation and the idea that Chaucer is having a good laugh at his own expense is absolutely hilarious (okay, to me, that is).

It’s strange that Chaucer singles himself out for criticism here. He could have easily used another character for the joke — but that joke hits home because we are AWARE of Chaucer’s identity. We know that he’s not supposed to be bad at poetry, to be belittled by a mere tavern owner. But we understand. We understand that what Chaucer says has been really melodramatic, failing to tell the story like the others do.

But that doesn’t matter, because he immediately begins again, in prose. The stories continue: and this time they’re amazing. Chaucer strikes gold on his second run. And so the cycle of stories continue on till the end of the book, and we rise up from beneath the depths, gasping for air, and yet still wanting more. We did not expect such eloquent tales from the mouths of such common folk, and yet not only does every one of them excel at it, they can beat a classically trained court poet. Stories do indeed come from the weirdest and yet most wonderful places (YAY TWELFTH NIGHT REFERENCE).

So what does this rather frantic and puzzling rant prove? We like to think that stories are something that authors crank out in their spare time, but as the menagerie of storytellers in this book shows, a good story can come from anywhere. The only criterion of a good story is whether it can captivate you, give you the thrill of the chase, leave plenty of room for you to imagine.

So here is what I propose to all of you. It would seem that after eons of storytelling, every single story that can be told under the sun has been told. There cannot be another good story that we have not heard, and only the best of minds can come up with something good. But as this book shows, it doesn’t have to be really mindblowing — it’s the story, and the joy of telling it, that matters. Although I may profess to be altruistic in writing, I really got into it because what the hell, I had fun telling stories. That’s where the sense of wonder comes from.

Most of us are always held back from writing by the idea that our humble writings aren’t good enough, that people might laugh and sneer at the sheer stupidity of what we have to say. And that is true. When we’re learning our craft, we never quite know the ropes and everything comes out weird. People are going to be politely dismissive of it at best (but thank you all for your polite comments). But that doesn’t matter: as we’ve seen Geoffrey Chaucer do in The Canterbury Tales, what matters is how we get back up, try, try, try again. And sooner or later, “the world is gonna know your name… what’s your name, man?”

So who knows? Maybe you’ll be the next person to strike us with wonder… and with all my heart, I sincerely hope you do.

Next time: We take a leaf from the pilgrims and continue voyaging towards God — only this time, it’s even more epic. Time for the least funniest comedy of all time: “The Divine Comedy”. (More conventional article for next time too. Promise.)

(Quotations from the Penguin edition of “The Canterbury Tales”, translated by Nevill Coghill and published 2003, featured photo from the cover of the aforementioned book.)

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