An Overview of The Canterbury Tales

That he found what he wanted in the scheme of The Canterbury Tales, and that,
though these also are unfinished (in fact not half finished according to their apparent design),
they are one of the greatest works of literature—everybody knows. Of the genesis of the
scheme itself nobody knows anything. As Dickens says, “I thought of Mr. Pickwick”: so, no
doubt, did Chaucer “think of” his pilgrims. It has been suggested—and denied—that
Boccaccio, so often Chaucer’s immediate inspirer, was his inspirer in this case also, by the
scheme and framework of The Decameron. It is, indeed, by no means unlikely that there was
some connection; but the plan of collecting individually distinct tales, and uniting them by
means of a framework of central story, was immemorial in the east; and at least one example
of it had been naturalised in Europe, under many different forms, for a couple of centuries, in
the shape of the collection known as The Seven Sages. It is not necessary to look beyond
this for general suggestion; and the still universal popularity of pilgrimages provided a more
special hint, the possibilities of which it certainly did not require Chaucer’s genius to
recognise. These fortuitous associations—masses of drift-wood kept together for a time and
then separated—offer almost everything that the artist, desirous of painting character and
manners on the less elaborate and more varied scale, can require. Though we have little of
the kind from antiquity, Petronius shows us the germs of the method; and, since medieval
literature began to become adult in Italy, it has been the commonest of the common.
To what extent Chaucer regarded it, not merely as a convenient vehicle for anything
that he might take a fancy to write, but as a useful one to receive anything of the less
independent kind that he had already written, is a very speculative question. But the general
tendency has been to regard The Knight’s Tale, that of the Second Nun and, perhaps, others,
as examples of this latter process, while an interesting hypothesis has been started that the
capital Tale of Gamelyn—which we find mixed up with Chaucer’s works, but which he cannot
possibly have written—may have been selected by him and laid by as the subject of
rehandling into a Canterbury item. But all this is guesswork; and, perhaps, the elaborate
attempts to arrange the tales in a consistent order are a little superfluous. The unquestionable
incompleteness of the whole and of some of the parts, the irregular and unsystematic
character of the minor prologues and framework-pieces, alike preclude the idea of a very
orderly plan, worked out so far as it went in an orderly fashion. In fact, as has been hinted
above, such a thing is repugnant to Chaucer’s genius as manifested not merely here but
everywhere.
Fortunately, however, he was able to secure a sufficient number of happy moments to
draw the main part of the framework—The Prologue, in which the plan of the whole is
sketched, the important characters delineated and the action launched—without gap or lapse.
For it would be short-sighted to regard the grouping of certain figures in an undescribed batch
as an incompleteness. Some writers of more methodical disposition would, probably, have
proceeded from this to work out all the framework part, including, perhaps, even a
termination, however much liberty they might reserve to themselves for the inset tales. But
this was not Chaucer’s way. There have been controversies even as to the exact number of
tales that he originally promises or suggests: and the incident of the canon’s yeoman shows
that he might very well have reinforced his company in numbers, and have treated them to
adventures of divers kinds. In fact, the unknown deviser of the The Pardoner and the
Tapster,though what he has produced is quite unlike Chaucer in form, has been much less out
of the spirit and general verisimilitude of the whole work than more modern continuators. But
it is most probable that the actual frame-stuff—so much of it as is genuine (for there are

almost as great as the unity of frame-story. not only of English poetry up to their date. though they illustrate the clearness with which the greatest English men of letters appreciated the value of the mixture of tragedy or romance with farce or comedy. though it may sometimes be mistaken. has “handed in its proofs” once for all. but enlarged and enriched by additional doses. inviting. where the art of the poet is probably more instinctive than deliberate. but not less consummately. both of the personal element and of that general criticism of life which. A medium which can render. has been acknowledged even by those who. are the most accomplished. barring the strictly lyrical element. It is no exaggeration or flourish. but it is hardly fantastic to say that the whole Prologue ought to be read. such as the facts that nobody is shocked by the The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (the interruption by the friar and summoner is of a different character). perhaps even without the varied metre. Such is the way in which the satire of Sir Thopas is left to the host to bring out. not only does each tale supply. As to the connection of origin between individual tales and the whole. What is certain is that the couplets of The Prologue. criticising. thoroughly mastered verse that we find in Chaucer himself or in any English writer up to his time. The sharp and obvious contrasts. while they are not exceeded by any foreign model unless it be the terza rima of Dante. had rarely . They comment and complete each other with unfailing punctuality. but always keeping himself in evidence. and the essential congruity of the tales as a whole with the mixed multitude supposed to tell them. narrative and pictorial effect. which are very unlikely to be so)—was composed by its author in a very haphazard manner. the manners-painting of The Prologue. But this can never be known as a fact. but of medieval literature. the peculiar effect of “God’s plenty” (a phrase itself so felicitous that it may be quoted more than once) would not be produced. shown. as they are rendered here. and (still more incomprehensible to the mere modern) that nobody is bored by The Tale of Melibeus. and admitting a part only of the didactic. and those of most parts of it where the couplets appear. Of the humour which is so constantly present. who gives a unity of character. and. however. more hazardous conjectures in things Chaucerian have been made than that the couplet-verse pieces were all or mostly written or rewritten directly for the work. Whether. to say that The Canterbury Tales supply a miniature or even microcosm. before reading each tale. the comic monodrama of The Wife of Bath and the magnificent description of the temple of Mars. or a higher artistic sense which transcended a mere mechanical conception of unity. more rarely. and that those in other metres and in prose were the adopted part of the family. are less instructive. would be wholly impossible. there can be no doubt of the felicity of the result.fragments of link in some MSS. But. than other contrasts of a more delicate kind. on the nature and constitution of that variety which has also been insisted on. or vividly remembered. when properly appreciated. but a sound and informing critical and historical observation. it will be more convenient to speak presently in a separate passage. except in Dante. sometimes to cobble on one which he had written more or less independently. have failed to appreciate Chaucer as a whole. of the tales. which must be of the essence of the scheme. such as that of The Knight’s Tale with the two that follow. in order to get its full dramatic. Nothing is more remarkable than the intimate connection between the tales and The Prologue. and yet others. it was mere impatience of steady labour on one designed plan. less delightful. important correction as well as supplement. Without the various subject and quality. to the whole work. It cannot be missed. denouncing. sometimes with the tale he had in his mind. admiring. various. The only clear string of connection from first to last is the pervading personality of the host. as those of the Monk and the Prioress especially. like Matthew Arnold. The exquisite and unlaboured pathos which accompanies it. Not only is it of great importance to read the corresponding portion of The Prologue with each tale. it may be desirable to say something here and at once.

after his long preparation. on the contrary. there is in Chaucer no sign whatever of hostility to. That it is representative of romance in general may escape those who are not. and it is impossible not to admire his determination to be satisfied with nobody less than the Fairy Queen to love par amours. is absolutely natural to man. or. and which may even. the beautiful and pathetic story of the innocent victim of Jewish ferocity is an excursion into that hagiology which was closely connected with romance. though sing-song enough. such as Torrent and Sir Eglamour. is broken off short without any explanation after about fifty lines—one MS. thirteenth and fourteenth centuries regarded the heroes of the Charlemagne and Arthur stories. parody. but worked out with Chaucer’s now invariable idiosyncrasy of handling and detail. usually. Now. For. and it had been frequent in the Middle Ages. the pathetic story of the guiltless and injured Constance. but. asserting that Chaucer “maked namore” of it. it cannot be proved that. Chaucer’s is of the politest kind possible. if not on the longest. serious stuff after perilously doubtful matter.” But the monk’s experience is less happy. he did not actually encounter something more terrible than buck and hare. and his catalogue of unfortunate princes. The Prioress’s Tale and Chaucer’s own Sir Thopas. But Chaucer was not the man to be monotonous in his variety. But all the weak points of the weaker romances. at least. and with the presence of the author not obtruded but constantly throwing a shadow. but both of the strict fabliau kind—that is to say. enjoy the finer irony. sound. again strongly indebted to Boccaccio. returns to a favourite romance-motive and treats it in rime royal—the most pathetic of metres—while The Shipman falls back on the fablian and the couplet. or undervaluation of. true to the main elements of “fierce wars and faithful loves”. localised. original. but a few are. be it observed. There is little doubt that. that it makes them uncomfortable and suspicious of being laughed at themselves. “whot a owt to ’a said. imbued with much more individuality of character. of its more foolish and more degenerate offshoots. is . The first or Knight’s Tale is romance on the full. based on Boccaccio’s Teseide. are brought out as pitilessly as politely. the nature and the manners of that time—the nature and manners no longer of a poetic Utopia. scale. in the language of Tennyson’s farmer. be regarded as one of its probable sources. as a rule. great and consummate practice thereof on his own part. And it is pretty certain that Chaucer was aware of this point also in human nature. the story of ordinary life with a preferably farcical tendency. indeed. perhaps. It is certain that uneducated and uncultivated people do not. concentrating and giving body to their rather loose and stock description. perhaps. The verse. but keep it up in quite a different manner. And it is appreciated accordingly as. in a double way. the other. in a somewhat rough and horseplayful form. What threatens a third story of this same kind. It is one of the minor Chaucerian problems (perhaps of as much importance as some that have received more attention). though. With the high seriousness and variegated decoration of this romance of adventure and quality contrast the two tales that follow. possibly. possessing much more regular plot than most of its fellows. but of the towns and villages of England—are drawn with a vividness which makes their French patterns tame. But the burlesque of chivalrous adoration is not of the fabliau kind at all: it is parody of romance itself. Of The tale of Melibeus something has been said by a hint already. for the moment. If the morals are not above those of the time. in France or Britain or Greece or Rome or Jerusalem or Ind. The Man of Law’s Tale. as such. as absolutely on a par. the nobler romance in any way. Approximately in every way. The Cook’s Tale. The next pair. is of the smoothest variety of “romance six” or rime couée (664664 aabccb). and those of antiquity. thoroughly acquainted with romance at large—and especially those who do not know the man of the twelfth. whether the host’s outburst of wrath is directed at the thing as a romance or as a parody of romance. it is meant as a contrast not merely of grave after gay. keep up the alternation of grave and gay. but of good.been present. one derived from a known fabliau. the hero is “a very parfit carpet knight”. as.

” his portly person—and his display of studious and goody pessimism. relatively.interrupted and complained of. each gibing at the other’s profession. lead to a pair of satiric tales. exactly as the fancy took him. intentional. known as far back as Marie de France. is not bad in itself. Although Chaucer’s flings at ecclesiastics have been exaggerated since it pleased the reformers to make arrows out of them. and. The friar’s is a tale of diablerie as well as a lampoon. There is uncertainty as to the actual order here. the prologues. it may be observed. probably. purity and pathos with the summoner’s ribaldry is. between the frank worldliness of the monk—his keenness for sport. as a matter of fact. by Chaucer himself) on the supposed excessive patience of the heroine. or finished them off briefly and to scale. the ancient and grisly but powerful legend of Death and the robbers strikes a new vein—in this case of eastern origin. following Petrarch’s own Latin rendering of Boccaccio’s Italian. with her short. and it is noticeable that the doctor. no doubt. they do exist. but the original of neither is known The interruption by the friar of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. but told here with the quintessence of Chaucer’s humour and of his dramatic and narrative craftsmanship. and a consequent wrangle between him and the summoner. which correspond to the earlier duel between the miller and reeve. but it would be quite a mistake to found on this a theory that the length was either designed or undesigned. . no doubt. and that of the prologue itself to the others. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. the nun’s priest. This disproportion. and by a most interesting reference of the clerk’s own to “Francis Petrarch the laureate poet. for he makes the friar comment on it. as well as for that of his more welcome knowledge of humanity: the tale is like that of Florent in Gower. his objection to pore over books. At any rate. and the incident altogether not less so. if The Clerk’s Tale was really intended to follow. and. but the Virginia story. tale. Broadly. not merely by the irrepressible and irreverent host but by the knight himself—the pattern of courtesy and sweet reasonableness. infinitely older. but a little inconsistent considering the patience with which they had listened to the woes of Constance and the prioress’s little martyr. And then we have one of the most curious of all the divisions. and of very considerable merit. restores its popularity with the famous and incomparable tale of the Cock and the Fox. comes in fairly well. seems to have struck Chaucer. introduced by some pleasant rallying from the host on the clerk’s shyness and silence. though anticipated. For the tale. Vogue la galère seems to have been Chaucer’s one motto: and he let things grow under his hand. or abandoned them unfinished. the summoner’s is of the coarsest fabliau type with a farcically solemn admixture. the contrast of its gravity. After this. his polite contempt of “Austin. but often worked in the Middle Ages. gives opportunity for the display of reading which he loves. above referred to. The objection to the histories. But he may have meant to create a sense of incongruity. Perhaps the explanation is meant to be that the monk’s accumulation of “dreriment”—disaster heaped on disaster without sufficient detail to make each interesting— was found oppressive: but a subtler reading may not be too subtle. as too dismal for a mixed and merry company. and were to listen (in this case without even the sweetmeat of a happy ending) to the physician’s story of Virginia. He had thought it well to atone for the little gibes in The Prologue at the prioress’s coquettishness of way and dress by the pure and unfeigned pathos and piety of her tale. if not even of hypocrisy. merely postscript-like.” is nothing less than the famous story of Griselda. The criticism is curious. we may say that the tales display the literary and deliberately artistic side of his genius. There is no comment upon it. and by no means insignificant but. the observing and dramatic side. Some rather unwise comment has been made (in a purely modern spirit. evidently a good judge of symptoms and of his patient’s powers of toleration. the long and brilliant Wife of Bath’s Prologue. another member of the cloth. cuts it short. It comes with a sort of ironic yet avowed impropriety from the pardoner: but we could have done with more of its kind. but it will not do to push this too hard.

The only vestige we have of a double tale is in the fragment of the cook’s above referred to. All these matters. This is one of the most poetical of all the tales. But trusteth wel. as the minor romances of adventure branch off from the Arthurian centre. in The Merchant’s Tale of January and May—with its curious fairy episode of Pluto and Proserpine. It may be observed that. but worked at parts of it as the fancy took him. and unnecessary.But it is improbable that Griseldas ever were. and the beauty of the piece on its own scheme and sentiment is exquisite. of which it and The Tale of Melibeus are specimens. but this is largely made up by what follows— the tale of the follies and rogueries of alchemy told by the Yeoman of a certain canon. . “flees away for very sorrow and shame. The Second Nun’s Tale or Life of St. though Marco Polo. famous in literary history for their obvious allusion to alliterative rhythm. and the direct origin of which is quite unknown. Cecily is introduced with no real link. of penitence and the seven deadly sins. But. and has. or ever will be. This. as last mentioned. with their strange but fascinating contest of honour and generosity. or that he had profited by the misfortunes of his friends in that kind. and ending with the “retraction” of his earlier and lighter works. and the host’s attempt to get another out of him when. the pilgrims were to tell four stories each—two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey—or two in all —one going and one returning. and whose art and mystery is so frankly revealed by his man that he. usually. are very problematical. ruf by lettre. and in the retraction at the end of The Parson’s Tale. the manciple comes to the rescue. The romantic tone is kept up in The Franklin’s Tale of Arviragus and Dorigen. the French romance of Cléomadès and other things may have supplied parts or hints. it will be to notice briefly the parts of it not yet particularised. and specially interesting in its portrayal —side by side with an undoubted belief in actual magic—of the extent of medieval conjuring. failing to get anything out of the cook. explicitly attributed to Chaucer himself. elaborate treatise. The Parson’s Tale. taken from both Latin and French originals. that Chaucer never got his plan into any final order. Of the attempts already mentioned t distribute the tales according to the indications of place and time which they themselves contain. who is in the drowsy stage of drunkenness. before speaking shortly of the general characteristics of his work. together with the distribution into days and groups. and the squire Aurelius and the philosopher-magician. is introduced by a verse-prologue in which occur the lines. which has been already referred to. who falls in with the pilgrims at Boughton-under-Blee. and shows pretty clearly either that Chaucer had himself been fleeced. extracts from the manciple The Tale of the Crow and the reason that he became black—the whole ending with the parson’s prose tale. according to the host’s words in The Prologue. I can nat geste rum. It has no dramatic or personal interest of connection with the general scheme. the “story of Cambuscan bold”. if the hypothesis favoured above be adopted. been taken as one of the poet’s insertions of earlier work. nor of the moot point whether. will connect itself well with the remainder of Chaucer’s prose work. The indebtedness to Boccaccio is still more direct. nothing more need be said here. at the beginning of Melibeus. as just recorded. I am a southren man. the canon. or. and the fabliau element reappears. which Spenser did not so much continue as branch off from.” The exposure which follows is one of the most vivid parts of the whole collection. ram. Then the host. of which Milton regretted the incompleteness in the famous passage just cited. there are some curious fragments of blank verse. rather. unduly common. And then romance comes back in the “half-told” tale of the squire.