Jan 07

Book Review: The Canterbury Tales, a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

The Canterbury Tales: A RetellingThe Canterbury Tales: A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

I took a class in Middle English in college, and quickly realized that it was about as comprehensible as Dutch. Unlike Shakespeare, Middle English has to be translated. Too bad, because what I read of The Canterbury Tales seemed interesting.
So when I saw this at the library, a translated retelling of the classic Medieval document, I decided to give it a go. As many people know, it’s an anthology of stories told by fellow travelers who are on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Many of the tales are lewd and bawdy, and Ackroyd uses the appropriate Anglo-Saxon four letter words when applicable. Many of the tales have religious overtones, as fitting for a 14th century novel. But most of all, they’re an interesting window into a misunderstood time.

What I liked most about this novel were the references to stories from antiquity. At one point, someone is speaking of ancient heroes, and he references a song with the line, ‘Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules.’ This delighted me, because I know the song they’re talking of, and as an American I rarely have the feeling of being part of a people with a long history. I think I learned quite a bit about the middle ages from this. For example, I didn’t realize that there were so many different types of clerics. It was like trying to compare different types of beer or something. This one does what now?

I can’t say I really liked the stories very much. As when I read the Bible, or any other centuries’ old literature, the hatred, bigotry, anti-semitism and most especially the misogyny revolted me. The “perfect” heroine is like a fem-bot. She’s flawlessly beautiful, completely obedient, has no needs or desires save obedience, and she never complains when you beat or torment or mistreat her. Look, she didn’t even complain when you murdered her baby! What a perfect woman! She thinks she’s dirt! How humble! Why can’t all women be like that! The medieval hero slaughters all who come across him, unless he sees a pretty teen, in which case he convinces her that unless she fucks him, he will die and it will be all her fault.

I was struck, too, by the similarities between the medieval English culture and certain modern cultures which also praise religiosity and obedience. Everyone is obsessed with whether a man is cuckolded. Almost all the men are extremely jealous. And no wonder, when even the ‘heroes’ of some stories care as little about whether the Miller’s daughter wants to have sex with him as whether the apple wants to be eaten. She says “no” when he rapes her, but in the morning she’s calling him “lover.” Yuck. Wives are miserable because they want their husbands to obey them and be faithful, and husbands are miserable because their wives aren’t obedient and faithful. No one is happy.

It’s also amusing the way that the characters will interject opinions as they tell their stories. It’s not enough to describe the way the evil mother-in-law frames her daughter-in-law for murder, the narrator has to go on at length with heavy metaphors to let us know that she’s a viper. Sometimes, this hyperbole got a little out of hand. Near the end, I found myself skipping ahead to find out which story the Host judged the best (never did say).

In summary, it’s a little dry and exaggerated for modern tastes, but it’s a nice peep into the lives of people seven hundred years ago.

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