Thursday, May 18, 2006

A 21st-Century Generation X’er Reflects Briefly on Reading the Venerable Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales for the First Time

How’s that for a windy title, boys and girls? Somehow it seems weirdly appropriate though, when the subject matter of the post is an epic medieval poem about a group of travelers making a pilgrimage on foot to a holy site in England, telling wild and wooly stories to pass the time… but who would want to read such a thing in 21st century, postmodern, pop-mart America? And how could such an arcane work possibly be relevant or meaningful to anyone in this day and age?

Well, for starters, this is The Secret Thread after all, and that’s one of the things we do here: dig out obscure and overlooked (or underappreciated) classics, give them a good reading, and mine them for truth and insight that applies to all of us, in any age. That’s not to say we don’t read for the pure enjoyment of the thing – that’s the primary goal and function of fiction reading of any sort, if you ask me, or art in general for that matter! – but on this blog, we try to seek out, share and discuss bits of wisdom and creative expression that have the power to make significant, even indelible, impact on modern lives.

Sorry, but that stuff is always worth repeating… at least, to me. (End of commercial! I'm Duke Altum, and I approve of... ah, forget it!)

Secondly, there is the unique universal nature and theme of this work, which makes it not only credible but meaningful to all people everywhere, at any time. I’d like to expound on that, but the great 18th century poet William Blake has already put it more eloquently and accurately than I ever could... so why reinvent the wheel? Here is what Mr. Blake wrote about Chaucer’s most well-known and beloved work:

“Of Chaucer's characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remained unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps… Chaucer is himself the great poetical observer of men, who in every age is born to record and eternize its acts.”

That right there captures the essence of not only of why I wanted to read the book, but why it still very much matters to people of the 21st century, and will likely matter to all people for as long as we’re kicking around on this planet. To put it very, very succinctly: we’re all pilgrims. I know that sounds like a cliché, and perhaps it is, but as in all clichés, it contains a kernel of good old-fashioned truth. For as long as there have been recorded stories and myths, man has continually and faithfully returned again to the metaphor of life as a journey. A line can be traced from the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh to the Odyssey to The Canterbury Tales to The Pilgrim’s Progress to Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine to The Lord of the Rings and beyond.

I would venture to say that most people, no matter what their specific religious persuasion/history may be, tend to look at their lives as a series of steps taken along a certain path. Unless you are a true, dyed-in-the-wool nihilist or atheist who believes that life has no meaning whatsoever and all is random in the cold, unfeeling universe, such a metaphor probably makes sense to you on some level. We can argue endlessly about Who/What may have designed that path, and about whether or not the trail was fixed beforehand or blazed by your ourdecisions and actions… we can even speculate over what might have happened to us if we had taken a turn in a different direction at some key point along the way. But I think we’ve all got a natural inclination to think about our lives in such terms.

Within the Christian tradition of course, the word “pilgrimage” comes loaded up with some significant freight indeed. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path…” The belief in Divine Providence, of a benign God who loves us and desires to lead us home to the Promised Land, is obviously a key concept within this tradition. And then there is the journey Jesus Christ took from the Manger to the Cross… ever since then, Christians have always seen their lives as a pilgrimage, a via dolorosa (“way of suffering”) in which we must atone and do penance, and prepare ourselves to enter into the Kingdom of God. Such concepts are embedded not only within the Christian tradition, but within the entire mindset of Western culture, in one way or another. (The fact that the German word bildungsroman is still used in our vocabulary to describe novels, and sometimes even films, is an interesting case in point.)

And so in using the pilgrimage to Canterbury as his literary device, Chaucer showed forth his literary genius – the trope has meaning for just about everybody, and what better way to describe the "human comedy" in all of its folly and fallenness? A motley crew from all classes and walks of life find themselves together in a country pub, from which they will leave at dawn the following morning for the long walk on foot to Canterbury Cathedral, where a shrine to St. Thomas a Becket is located. Their host calls them together and suggests that, in order to pass the time on their trek tomorrow, they play a game in which everyone relates some kind of tale, and when it’s done they can vote on which is the most memorable of them all. So the rest of the long narrative poem (more accurately, a series of long narrative poems, which are written, interestingly enough, in different styles and meters) consists of each character relating some kind of outlandish tale, and the other pilgrims reacting to it.

And the amazing thing, despite the arcane language and the obviously different social mores and conditions, is how much we can still recognize and relate to in the stories. Other surprises include how hilarious the book can be at times, and also, how bawdy and downright salacious! I continually found myself impressed by how down-to-earth (perhaps even at the dirt level, to some readers!) the humor and the human voices are in this book from 1387. We look down on people from this era (betraying the "chronological snobbery" that C. S. Lewis so often railed against) as being hyper-religious, prudish, superstitious dolts... but Chaucer’s characters display wit, intelligence, sly humor and, very often, a sort of homespun wisdom that, for this reader anyway, gave off the unmistakable whiff of truth.

One final note: most people are immediately put off by the unfamiliar format of a classic like this… we’re not exactly a culture that has much patience for long, narrative poetry. But this is really a very minor hurdle, that is easily cleared by finding a good, readable modern English version (and there are several available). If you accept such a format as a necessary reflection of the times which produced it, and take it as part of your immersion into another time and culture, what you find is that, perhaps against all reason, you come away with wisdom that still applies to this time, this culture… indeed, still applies to that shuffling parade of weary pilgrims currently making its way along the dusty road towards eternity, a procession within which we all have a place.


Mutt Ploughman said...

Excellent post. Not exactly a review per se, since Duke is well aware that numerous others (like Blake) have already rung in on a work like this, but unique reflections from a 21st Century 'pilgrim', a man and a Dad. I learned a lot about the book from this post, and can't see why I wouldn't resolve to read it after checking out these comments. The narrative poetry aspect has always seemed like an obstacle to me, so I was particularly glad for Duke's comments on that score. With his logic, this seems like a frivolous hurdle indeed. I have never owned a copy of this book, but if i can find one on the cheap i will definitely need to pick it up. Great literary conquest, Duke. Your comments were astute and reflective; the point about the German word was particularly interesting. Bravo!

Aura McKnightly said...

I remember reading the 'Tales' at X. I remember it really capturing a good sense of Life...vibrant and unique.