Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer - a retelling by Peter Ackroyd

How much do I love Chaucer? Just a lot.

I first encountered Chaucer at A-Level. We studied the original, un-translated Merchant’s Tale and I can remember being absolutely thrilled by the mastery of words, and the way in which the words have changed over time. Did you know that an medieval word, ‘Wight’, means man?

However, it would take me months to fully translate the entire tales, as much as I would like to. So instead I left that to Peter Ackroyd, who does a marvellous job of it.

He’s transformed poetry into prose which includes dialogue and characters and generally fabulous things. Among my favourite tales are the Squire’s Tale and of course, the Merchant’s Tale, but I liked the one about the hens and also the one of the cuckolded carpenter. Ackroyd totally changes the form but still retains the humour of the original stories. What we have here is a rich book of tales that probably everybody has to read.

At some points, the literal translations can be crude. The ‘c’ word is used several times, for example. But it adds to the bawdy humour of Chaucer and it is really amazing to consider that, if the pilgrimage was real, that no-one spoke out against it! The Canterbury Tales gives a whole new perspective into medieval life and is therefore thoroughly enjoyable.

However, as much as I love Chaucer, I have only given this book three stars. The prose is often repetitive (Ackroyd) and the stories similar – cuckolded husbands are a common theme (Chaucer). I would appreciate the stories more in their original state, but I am too lazy to translate them. One must also keep in mind that these stories were meant to be read out loud, otherwise the whole novelty of the pilgrims telling their stories to the rest would be lost. The book was easy to put down, unfortunately. But I can really appreciate the work that Ackroyd has out into it, and although it feels almost blasphemous to say it, it’s mainly Chaucer’s fault that I found the stories slightly aggravating. Sorry, man. You're still the father of the English Language. Maybe mention dragons next time?

I know, I know, a lot of reviews recently, but tomorrow will be exciting. Bath Central Library is holding a book sale so I’ll be reporting that. Also I have four books to debut as well as plans for The Fiction Project.

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