Press "Enter" to skip to content
The publisher wouldn't even spring for better artwork.

“Canterbury Tales” is a confusing, undecipherable mess

In my ongoing mission to critique the world’s crown gems in classical literature, recommendations kept pointing to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Now I wish they hadn’t wasted their breath.

  • “One of the most important and seminal works in English.”
  • “A brilliant achievement in satire and social commentary!”
  • “A pivotal moment in the development of western culture.”

Bah.

It’s barely legible. The spelling is atrocious and one could barely recognize it as English. But that’s only the beginning of the problems for this tripe.

Instead of being one coherent narrative, Tales seems to be a loosely bound collection of stories told by numerous different people. Like a Tarantino film without all the shooting and cursing, and infinitely more boring.

For example:

‘Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,’ Quod the Marchant, ‘and so doon oother mo That wedded been.

Text from The Merchant’s Prologue

Yeah. That’s a real quote from the book. The entire book is like that. I don’t know if the late Chaucer suffered from head trauma or substance abuse, but my first grader has put together clearer sentences than that. With crayon.

It’s workable enough to follow the text at points, but the overall pace is slowed to a crawl with constant deciphering of misspelled words and words that I’m not even sure are real.

One of my colleagues pointed out that the entire work is written in Middle English, but I’ve never heard of such a place. Maybe she meant Wales? They’ve got one of those jacked up languages that nobody can read.

I certainly hope she didn’t mean Middle Earth, because that’s a long gone country and their language is no longer even spoken. Irregardless, I’m the language expert here.

The Canterbury Tales initially holds a lot of promise as you read the jacket. Pilgrims on a pilgrimage, telling their stories along the way on their quest to visit the shrine of Thomas Becker (whoever that is), and the winner of the storytelling contest wins a free meal on the way back.

Chaucer’s publishing deal was evidently with a budget imprint. Note the cheap stock.

This primed me for scintillating waves of recitations from the travelers. Given the hype about satire, I was hoping for some yarns in which the surface reality as told didn’t match up with the actual conditions once you looked closer. I found no such thing, as before I mentioned the mishmash of mangled words.

Some of the praise heaped on the Tales posits that Chaucer deserves credit for popularizing English vernacular in mainstream literature. More like a faltering attempt at an early version of English as spoken by people who lived hundreds of years before we finished developing it.

Irregardless, I’m the language expert here.

Speaking of finished, I understand that Canterbury Tales isn’t even a completed work. Fair enough, the author died before its completion, but you’d think the publisher could work with the estate to cobble together some manuscripts or search old hard drives for drafts.

One final bit of evidence of the amateurish execution is the artwork. It looks like it was literally carved in blocks of wood and hand-stamped on the page. There is no indication that this was intended as a children’s book, so the cartoonish illustrations don’t make sense.

Eventually, I intend to watch some of the various film adaptations of the book and see if I can discern some kind of through-line. It’s disappointing that the setup of some 30 characters falls so flat in the midst of jumbled text. I hope they didn’t carry that conceit over to the big screen.

RATING: 1 OUT OF 5