The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s last major work, was written between the mid-1380’s and his death in 1400, although some of the stories, such as “The Knight’s Tale,” were composed earlier. It is considered one of the greatest works of English literature. Most of the work is poetic, but a few of the tales are written in prose. In the twenty-four tales, Chaucer demonstrates mastery of almost every literary genre known in the Middle Ages. Various pilgrims tell tales of romance (the Knight, the Wife of Bath), farce (the Miller), and beast fable (the Nun’s Priest). Although many of the stories were not new, Chaucer transformed the material with an originality that made the tales unique. He imbued his characters with vivacity by skillfully playing the general types of stereotyped social classes and occupations against specific details of individuals’ appearance and mannerisms.
The tales begin with a general prologue that sets up the frame narrative of the pilgrimage. It provides the rationale for the stories and introduces the pilgrims. The concept of a story collection has antecedents in medieval literature, including Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), written in the fourteenth century by the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio. The frame of telling stories on a pilgrimage, however, was unprecedented and creates the potential for interaction among the storytellers, which Chaucer exploits. The descriptions of the pilgrims show how well Chaucer combines the typical with the particular. While the “true, perfect, gentle knight” represents the ideal estate of medieval knighthood, the Wife of Bath, a middle-class textile maker, comes to life with more individual details about her appearance and her ability to laugh and gossip.
“The Knight’s Tale” is a romance, a medieval literary genre in which the setting is the distant past, the protagonists are from the nobility, and the plot stems from deeds based on love and chivalry. The tale is set in ancient Athens, the principal characters are knights, and the plot unfolds from their contest to win the love of a noble lady. Although Boccaccio’s Teseida (1340-1341; The Book of Theseus, 1974) provided the idea for this tale, Chaucer shortened and changed the emphasis of Boccaccio’s narrative. He also introduced new elements, particularly about the role of fate, from diverse sources. Individual character development is subordinated to maintaining the conventions of the romance genre.
With the drunken Miller’s outburst, Chaucer poses a dramatic contrast between “The Knight’s Tale” and“The Miller’s Tale.” The fable told by the Miller is the exact opposite of the Knight’s refined, noble romance. Characters in a fable typically are from a lower social class, as is the Miller. John, the husband in the tale, is a carpenter; his young wife, Alison, is a pretty but common damsel. Her suitors are the student Nicholas and the clerk Absalom. The action takes place in Chaucer’s Oxford. The plot generates humor from sexual exploits, as Nicholas and Absalom vie for Alison’s favors. Chaucer’s inspiration for this tale came from similar themes characterizing medieval fabliaux. He created lively characters through their appearance and actions. For example, his lengthy description of Alison utilizes comparisons with animals (“skittish as a colt”) to emphasize her playful attractiveness. Its fast-moving plot, contemporaneous setting, and earthy characters make “The Miller’s Tale” memorable.
With the Wife of Bath, Chaucer returns to the romance genre. The Wife of Bath prefaces her tale with a lengthy discourse on marriage, in which she recounts her life with her trials and triumphs over five different husbands. The prologue to her tale allows Chaucer to develop her garrulous character. This passage is famous for the Wife of Bath’s diatribe against medieval misogyny.
In contrast, the tale about a knight at King Arthur’s court is restrained. Its...
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