Chaucer and His World - The Gate at Canterbury Cathedral

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The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue

Introduction
Opening Lines and Translations
General Prologue Discussion Points
General Bibliography

1.IntroductionCanterbury Cathedral in 2003

Chaucer introduces the Canterbury Tales with an evocation of the spring, as it is perceived by the human senses; its noises, warmth, smells and sights. This rebirth of life and its sexual vigour is linked to the idea of pilgrimage, a mixture of ‘going on holiday’ and undertaking an introspective religious journey. The ambiguity of this relationship between the spiritual and the secular is retained throughout the Tales, and the pilgrimage story which links them. It mirrors the ‘divine humanity’ of the pilgrims themselves, and of the unseen literary pilgrims (including ourselves) who make up Chaucer’s audience.

There are two possible sources for Chaucer’s characters, both very closely linked. One is Estates Satire, a literary genre which presents holders of various positions in society as representative of their class or occupation. The other is the Dance of Death, which is based upon Estates Satire. In this genre the figure of Death accosts different, representative members of society, and forces them to come with him in his ‘dance’. The nature of the characters, and the ‘levelling’ tendencies of this genre make it somewhat closer than Estates Satire to the framework and ideology of the Canterbury Tales. The characters represent very similar areas of society, and the carnivaleque nature of the pilgrimage and its story-telling ‘game’ produce a similar situation of social ‘levelling’ and ‘overturning’, as the pilgrims quickly reject the Host’s attempts to order them according to social heirarchy. Pilgrimage entails self-examination leading to the death of the self, in order to find personal rebirth or renewal, and the theme of death and rebirth is present in the Canterbury Tales from their opening lines.


Chaucer creates an ‘alter ego’, a pilgrim called ‘Geoffrey’, who is the naïve narrator of the pilgrimage story, commenting on his fellow-pilgrims, and providing the links which join many of the Tales. He also tells two stories of his own, the Tale of Sir Thopas, and the Tale of Melibee. This extends Chaucer’s narrative possibilities, enabling him to open up another layer of opinion other than his own. It also enables the author to distance himself, to a certain extent, from the effects of his own writing. It is very easy to forget that the ‘voice’ we are hearing is not simply Chaucer’s own; it is also the voice of ‘Geoffrey’, and sometimes it is the voice of ‘Geoffrey’ reporting the characters’ own words, as when he gives the Monk’s opinion about old-fashioned rules, and the Wife of Bath’s opinion of her own respectability. Overall, the impression given by a combination of all of these narrators is of an inexhaustible fascination for life and its details, and an enthusiasm for life itself which, unlike Estates Satire, does not judge anyone on the basis of institutional morality, but on the basis of their humanity. Everyone, even the cynical and self-centred Pardoner, should be worthy of (and by implication capable of) salvation. In this pilgrimage towards personal salvation the reader of the Canterbury Tales is invited to participate.The gates to the city of Canterbury

2. Opening Lines and Translations

Prologue one: opening

‘Geoffrey’ then describes his fellow-pilgrims, using a combination of his own observations and their own (reported) words. These descriptions may be found on the pages of ‘Chaucer and his World’, arranged according to their social groups. This simple arrangement is not, of course, the only way of approaching the characters in the Canterbury Tales; you should try to think of other ways – historical, social, literary - in which Chaucer’s pilgrims might be grouped or understood.

If you use the ‘flash’ viewer, you can listen to a reading of each pilgrim’s description, whilst reading either the modern translation or the medieval text.

Prologue two: the story-telling game

3.

General Prologue Discussion Points

 

4. General Bibliography for the Canterbury Tales


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