What is the value and the meaning of tale-telling in The Canterbury Tales?
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There is certainly a very definite sense in which this collection of stories represents tale-telling at its finest, as we have a collection of very different stories all jockeying aside one another, presenting us with very different views on topics and themes such as religion, marriage and hypocrisy. Let us remind ourselves that in the Prologue, the storytelling competition is suggested as a means of passing the time, and introduced as a kind of friendly competition, as there is a prize at stake:
It's that you each, to shorten the long journey,
Shall tell two tales en route to Canterbury,
And, coming homeward, tell another two,
Stories of things that happened long ago.
Whoever best acquits himself, and tells
The most amusing and instructive tale,
Shall have a dinner, paid for by us all,
Here in this inn...
Note the two criteria that are suggested for the stories that the pilgrims must tell. They are to be "amusing and instructive." This points towards the meaning implicit in the barage of stories that we read, as there is often a moral or didactic element in addition to the way in which so many of the stories are clearly mean to entertain us. Stories, in addition, serve as a very compelling insight into character, as we are forced to relate the content of each pilgrim's tale to what we are told about their identity. Often, stories are used as a response or a rebuke to the stories or ideas of other characters, and we can see that the kind of stories that are told and the characters that are in them can often be a subtle, or not so subtle, way of characters expressing their differences.
Storytelling therefore is a very important theme of this work, and it contains many different elements to it when we begin to think about the competition, the purpose of the tales, and the way that they both cast light on the pilgrims themselves and their interactions.
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