The Gathering of Chaucer’s Pilgrims: The Canterbury Tales

Portrait of Chaucer, Canterbury TalesFrom bawdy flirts to noble knights, from the lowest joke to the highest parable, the tellers and tales of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales bring a complex community to life. In this classic work of English literature, pilgrims from all levels of medieval society journey to Canterbury. Their genial Host bids each “to help shorten our way along this journey, two tales to tell,” thus drawing us into a tapestry of unforgettable characters, varied narratives, and interwoven layers of meaning.

For Chaucer is a master of subtle storytelling whose experiments in perspective and genre have impressed readers and writers for centuries. Inspired by Dante and others on the Continent, the cosmopolitan Chaucer turned the everyday language of his people into literature. Modern readers still appreciate Chaucer’s genius, especially in a new facing-pages translation that provides the best of both modern and Middle English.

Through close reading, we see how the perspective of the teller shapes each tale, and how tales respond one to another. Traditional ideas of honour, marriage, and morality all brought under question, as the tales help us connect the microcosm of this gathering to the macrocosm of the changing feudal world. Meanwhile the voices of the Host and of Chaucer himself suggest that the pilgrims’ stories offer but also undermine stereotypes and simplistic moral pieties.

Canterbury Tales mural, Library of Congress

Reading the comic yet sophisticated stories of the Canterbury Tales sharpens our capacity to grasp the interdependencies in our own society. By immersing us in this world that may at first appear so quaint, Chaucer gives us new insights into those questions encountered on our own human pilgrimage.

“Yet do not miss the moral, my good men.
For Saint Paul says that all that’s written well
Is written down some useful truth to tell.
Then take the wheat and let the chaff lie still.”

– The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Photo credit: Ezra Winter, Canterbury Tales mural, Library of Congress/Photo Carol Highsmith

 

Overview

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Leader
In her travels across North America and around the world for the Great Books Foundation, Denise Ahlquist enjoys leading discussions with participants of all ages and backgrounds. A fascination with the power of stories to create meaning in human life has animated her personal and professional reading since childhood and fuels her interest in the Canterbury Tales.

Book
The Selected Canterbury Tales: A New Verse Translation, by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by Sheila Fisher
(W.W. Norton, 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-0393341782

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion. Details will be provided at registration.

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