(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Canterbury Tales (~1380 to 1400)
By Geoffrey Chaucer
Book #44 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Written in stops and starts from roughly 1380 to 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales takes as its framing device an event that was common during its Late Medieval times, but that no one had ever thought of doing a story collection about before -- it's set among a group of unrelated tourists, making a pilgrimage from southern London to the Cathedral of Canterbury (one of the most important Christian sites in England, and home of that country's oldest Archbishop), during which the tour organizer suggests a story competition to while away their time, the winner of which will receive a free dinner at the end of their trip, and with the stories themselves bouncing from chivalrous tales by the nobility to pious tales by the clergy, to bawdy tales from the commoners present. (Although be aware that over 80 slightly different handwritten versions of this book exist from the century following Chaucer's death, because of movable type still technically not existing yet, none of which are in Chaucer's original hand, making it impossible to determine the stories' true original order; and in fact we don't even know whether the infamously "unfinished" tales are in that state accidentally, or were done on purpose by Chaucer as a sly joke about how boring they are.)
And indeed, this is what made the Tales so widely reproduced and passionately loved once printing presses did finally make it to England, a century after Chaucer's death, for being clever to the point sometimes of laugh-out-loud funny, and with it not just being a story collection but no less than a grand satire of all the different ways stories were even told back then. Don't forget, before the rise of "Modern English" during the Early Renaissance, there were actually a dozen different types of "Middle English" used throughout the country, each of them with their own idioms and slightly different grammar rules, all of which Chaucer manages to ape at one point or another; and of course don't forget the already mentioned differing expectations among social classes of what stories were even supposed to be about, not to mention the sometimes even different language that existed between the rich and the poor, making this one of the first times in English history that a writer makes fun of specific groups by creating puns out of their local dialect. (Just to cite one good example, among the nobility, to "take pity" meant a selfless act of sympathy, while among the lower classes it was slang for having sex, a double-entrendre that Chaucer makes great use of in his book.) Less an interesting literary story and more an interesting literary exercise, The Canterbury Tales profoundly helped shape not only the modern English language we use today, but how we even think of the proper role and structure of the narrative format in general.
The argument for it being a classic:
The ways that this single volume has had an impact on society is almost innumerable, say its fans, the most important being many of the things already mentioned -- how by being one of the first books to be widely printed and distributed during the Renaissance, for example, it not only became the very first English "bestseller," but profoundly helped spread and normalize the use of so-called "chancery standard," the form of English invented by the government's then-burgeoning civil service, of which Chaucer was a well-paid veteran his entire adult life. (In fact, Chaucer in many ways was a precursor to the fabled "Renaissance Man" just around the historical corner -- he was a well-educated master of not only language but also math and proto-science, even while being an accomplished politician, office manager and sociologist.) Then there's the fact that Chaucer subverted the very way that stories were even told, bypassing the usual pecking order of the Middle Ages (in which it was expected that knights go first in all public endeavors, from telling stories to using the bathroom, then priests, then aristocrats, then merchants, then laborers, etc), mixing up his own story order between high-class and low-class tales and often having them be angry reactions to the story just told, ironically making this an early example of our modern notion of moral relativity; and by consciously inserting witty "fourth wall" references to the act of writing itself -- including the aforementioned "unfinished" stories that may or may not be deliberate jokes, as well as making himself an actual character in his own book, albeit a self-deprecatory version of himself who is often berated by the rest of the group for being a nerdy, unimaginative bookworm -- Chaucer also turns in a fine early example of metafictional postmodernism, only half a millennium before the term was first invented. And on top of all this, say its fans, it's simply an entertaining manuscript, full of fart jokes and pointed barbs at both corrupt clergy and dumb white-trash, the final element in the equation for elevating a book from merely "important" to a full "classic."
The argument against:
There's really only one main argument against this book that you see online, a huge problem that stops its haters from even reading it and coming up with other criticisms, which is the dense, obtuse Middle English that the original is written in, an outdated form of the language that literally hasn't been used in 600 years now; and indeed, you are in for a chore if you try to read the book this way yourself, despite your pretentious friend's insistence that Middle English is easy to follow once you "get the hang of it." (Liars! LIARS!) But I myself happened to read a modern translation of the book, making this criticism not really applicable to my specific review.
So yes, it's important to know that I read a modern translation of The Canterbury Tales, which I'm sure has purists foaming at the mouth even as we speak; and I gotta plainly admit, I highly recommend that you do the same unless you're specifically studying Middle English, in that otherwise you won't even have a chance of getting the full gist of what Chaucer is trying to say. If you do read the modern version, then, like me you'll realize that its fans are correct, that this is a much smarter and more contemporary book than what you thought could ever be accomplished during its time period, which as a side benefit offers a treasure trove of supplemental information about such period events as the 1381 Peasant's Revolt, the Great Schism of the Catholic Church, the Hundred Years' War and the invention of tree-based paper. (Of course, this then brings up the question we often seem to be debating among older titles here, of whether a book can truly be called a "classic" if it requires a week of homework beforehand to even understand what's going on; and along those lines, I highly recommend doing a close reading of this book's long Wikipedia entry before tackling the manuscript itself.) It really is surprising to see how readable and sometimes even lowbrow filthy this book actually gets at points; and although a little of this stuff goes a long way (I only read about half the book myself, then read simple recaps of the second half as a way of "finishing"), it's also an unexpected delight, and about the closest you'll get to a book this old still feeling fresh and relatable. Like most pre-Victorian books being reviewed in this series, it comes with a limited recommendation only, and I'll warn you that you need to strongly be in the mood to read this book in order to actually read this book; but certainly I think it's safe to call The Canterbury Tales a classic, a designation I don't envision it losing for a long, long time.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)