In The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims is traveling to Canterbury to worship at the tomb of Thomas a Becket.
Before they start out, they all meet at the Tabard Inn in London. There, they meet the host of the Inn who proposes a plan. It is this plan that forms the basis for the rest of the book.
The Host's plan is that each pilgrim will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back to London. The point of this is that the telling of the tales will help to pass the time on the long journey.
At the end of the trip, the Host will pick the best story and its teller will receive a prize -- a free dinner.
Chaucer the pilgrim, who narrates the General Prologue, describes the 29 pilgrims as a company of various sorts of men and women, from all different social ranks and professions, who have collected, by chance, in fellowship: Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle / In felaweshipe” (ll. 25-26). At the opening of the General Prologue, the pilgrims have gathered in Southwark, just outside of London, at the Tabard Inn and intend to ride toward Canterbury to worship at the shrine of Saint Thomas. During his life, Thomas Becket had been the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Host, Harry Bailey, owns the Tabard Inn. He proclaims that he has never seen such a merry company of pilgrims and would gladly make them happy. With this, he remembers that most pilgrims tell tales on their way to Canterbury to pass the time. Thus, Harry Bailey devises a game: “And therfore wol I maken yow disport, As I seyde erst, and doon yow som confort” (ll. 775-776).
The Host, Harry Bailey, rules that each pilgrim will tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the trip home: “…ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye, / In this viage shal telle tales tweye / To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so, / And homward he shal tellen othere two” (ll. 791-94).
The best tales, proclaims the Host, are those that have the most pleasure and moral meaning: “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas –“ (ll. 798). The winner, chosen by the Host, will receive dinner at the Tabard Inn at the expense of all the other pilgrims.