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Book Review: The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

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I've always believed that if you want to truly understand a people and their culture you need to read the stories they've written, or told, about themselves. It's from these works that we can get an accurate depiction of what a people believe in, what guides their behaviour, and the philosophical and moral precepts they base their code of conduct on. While reading religious texts or morality tales may well outline the hierarchy among the Gods and the requirements placed upon a people for living a holy life, it's only in the stories that we see them in their day to day living. Of course, the stories are also a much more reliable indicator of the tenor of the times they were written in; for while a dictate in a religious text may not change over the centuries, the way people react to its strictures will vary from age to age.

Interestingly enough a number of peoples have turned to their own stories in an attempt to remind themselves of who they are in order to either stave off cultural extinction, like Native Americans and First Nations people in America and Canada respectively, or to reclaim their history and culture from former colonial masters. In India, for example, the British managed to rewrite history so successfully, the nineteenth century bid for independence by Indians is still referred to in most history books as the Indian Mutiny. So instead of it being depicted as the attempt of an oppressed people to throw off the invader it seems an illegal act against a legitimate governing body.

While you can understand the logic behind those efforts to re-visit older stories, what reason would an Englishman have for a similar project? There doesn't seem much danger of that culture becoming extinct nor has there been any recent attempt by a foreign power to re-write their history. Yet British author Peter Ackroyd has written a modern language version of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, being published by Penguin Canada on November 3rd/09.

The original Canterbury Tales is credited with being the first major work of literature written in English. There's no denying it's historical significance either, as at the time French was the common language of the educated, the nobles, and Kings and Queens, the majority of whom were descendants of the Norman invaders of 1066. However, after the publication of Chaucer's book, that all began to change, and by the time the next king crowned English had become the official language of the court and learning. Of course the English it was originally written in is as foreign to most of us as if it were another language – anybody who remembers trying to struggle through reading "The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe" (Wife of Bath) in high school can attest to that – so aside from scholars, most people have probably never read Canterbury Tales in its entirety.

For those who might have forgotten, or never known, the basic story of The Canterbury Tales is a group of pilgrims setting out from London to Canterbury in order to visit the tomb of St.Thomas Becket, agree to each tell the others a story while they travel in order to pass the time more pleasantly. Aside from Chaucer himself who acts as narrator of the overall events, the party consists of a cross-section of the time's society with about a fifty/fifty split between those in the employ of the Church and lay folk. Instead of referring to individuals by name, each of the party is identified by their position be it priest, nun, squire, knight, merchant, pardoner, summoner, friar, or Wife of Bath.

Some of the titles, like pardoner (sold pardons for sins on behalf of the church), and summoner (summoned folk to ecclesiastical courts), were positions in the church that have long since been abolished due to the abuses of those who filled their offices. Others like franklin, the name given to a landowner not of noble birth, and manciple, who we would refer to either as a quartermaster or supply clerk, have long since fallen out of common usage. However, no matter what their title or status, none of them are safe from the caustic commentary of Chaucer's pen. Whether it's the "Knight's Tale" full of extreme examples of chivalry, elaborate and overblown acts of piety, and idyllic depiction of romantic love or the Friar's and Summoner's bawdy and caustic tales about the other's vocation, he manages to satirize both the teller of the tale and tsome aspect of his times.

According to Ackroyd's introduction, when Chaucer went to Italy the major lesson he gleaned from the works he studied there was the importance of producing works in the vernacular of the people you're writing for. For a culture to thrive, it can't just be the province of the ruling classes; everybody needs at least be given the chance to enjoy it. By rendering The Canterbury Tales in language that most of the English-speaking world can understand, Ackroyd is following in Chaucer's footsteps and making the work not only accessible to a new generation, but to a far wider audience then ever before.

Unlike earlier interpretations, which have adhered to the poetic structure of the original work and tried to be as faithful as possible to the text, Ackroyd's version is not only in prose but he has replaced words that are no longer in common usage with ones that convey similar meanings while retaining true to the spirit of the text. He's done a remarkable job, because while he has recreated the style of the original text, in that the cadences and manner it is presented are similar to middle English texts I've read, the language is sufficiently of the 20th century that no one should have any trouble understanding it.

Earlier I asked whether there was anything that could be learned from a retelling of The Canterbury Tales, comparing it to efforts made by other cultures to reclaim their history or relearn their traditions. While there may not be the same urgency or need as with those other efforts, its value as a first hand account of life from our history can't be overstated. Chaucer's frankness when it comes to sexual matters, and his refusal to revere a person because of their office, whether secular or religious, shows that no matter what the age the role of the artist has always been to question and hold a mirror up for society to see itself warts and all. In this day and age, when people look to the past to justify prudery in the name or religion, and far too many in power seem to expect shelter from prosecution based on the privileges granted them by their office, its nice to be able to point out precedent for the opposite.

Aside from any deep sociological and philosophical reasons for this work being re-written, there's also the fact that it's a lot of fun to read. Where else will you find the answer to how to divide a fart into twelve equal parts? Part Monty-Python, part Carry On gang, and part biting satire, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is one of the funniest works of English literature. With his retelling Peter Ackroyd has given everybody a wonderful opportunity to enjoy it to its fullest, and as close to the spirit that Chaucer wrote it in as even the most devout literary purist could want. Sometimes a story is its own best reason for its revival, and that's definitely the case here.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.