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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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How does Chaucer combine oral and written traditions in Canterbury Tales?

The Canterbury Tales is a very interesting read. It's not a long book -- and it should be because Chaucer has to fit in ten stories and one end tale in only four books of poetry. It's also not an easy read -- it takes some work in order to grasp the meaning of the language and the structure of the book. But, it is worth all that hard work because the stories are presented beautifully by Chaucer and if you let yourself get into them, you will thoroughly enjoy reading The Canterbury Tales .

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While The Canterbury Tales is a written text, Chaucer still acknowledges the oral tradition of story telling by the way he crafts the work as a whole.  In the General Prologue he establishes the "frame" of the work:  there are approximately 30 people of all different classes and professions gathered...

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While The Canterbury Tales is a written text, Chaucer still acknowledges the oral tradition of story telling by the way he crafts the work as a whole.  In the General Prologue he establishes the "frame" of the work:  there are approximately 30 people of all different classes and professions gathered so that they can head out together on a pilgrimage to the holy site of Canterbury Cathedral.  They are all going on a journey for spiritual renewal.  Along the long journey it is decided that they are going to have a "tale-telling" contest and the person who can tell  the tale with most "good morality and general pleasure" shall win.  It is with this structure that Chaucer is paying homage to the oral story tellers of the past. 

In the prologue Chaucer the narrator gives a brief description of the each of the pilgrims, and then the stories start.  As the characters come forward to tell their stories, we are intrigued as to which type of character will tell which kind of tale.  We are not surprised to have the story telling start off with a grand, but a bit dull, story by the highest ranking person on the trip -- the Knight.  But is part of the overall story that the drunken, rude Miller jumps in next and tells a rather bawdy, but clever story.  It serves as an interesting contrast to the previous story.  Each tale and it's teller gives us further insight in to the character who is telling their story.  Chaucer masterfully weaves the reader in and out of the frame of the pilgrimage story and then back into a tale.  We are continuously reminded that this is a oral story telling event that we are reading about, thus is blends the two traditions very well.

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