The Canterbury Tales

GWCS Honors English - the Canterbury Tales
A Road-Trip Well Travelled

Teacher:  Dr. Garon

I love the Canterbury Tales, and I’m not afraid to admit it in public.  I believe most students will love (or at least fondly remember) the tales once they get past the lengthy General Prologue and the difficulties associated with some translations.  I prefer the Nevill Coghill translation because it is user-friendly but not watered-down while feeling true to Chaucer’s style (heroic couplets and all that).  Many students have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea of a religious pilgrimage, but they can appreciate the allure of a road trip.  That’s what the Canterbury pilgrimage was – a road trip/party for many of the pilgrims to celebrate the passage of winter and, oh yeah, the ultimate sacrifice of the blessed martyr.  What makes the Canterbury pilgrimage all the more interesting is that it provided the opportunity for social classes to intermingle, which seldom happened in England during the late Middle Ages. Chaucer’s use of the frame story allows the us to “hear” the voices of characters from all three estates (those who fight, those who pray, and those who work) and the class divisions within those estates.

When teaching General Prologue, I have the students focus on how Chaucer reveals each pilgrim’s character through the narrator’s observations, the character’s own words, and the character’s physical appearance (physiognomy, or the use of physical appearance to suggest attributes of a person’s character or personality).  I ask them to speculate on which characters Chaucer likes best and least and why.  I also have them look for evidence of satire and what beliefs, practices or institutions Chaucer was suggesting – subtly – needed changing.  To this end I have them focus on Chaucer’s descriptions of the Prioress, the Monk, and Friar and examine the extent to which each upholds the holy vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity, respectively.  Students love pointing out the hypocrisy of their elders, especially those who claim to be moral leaders.

Once past the General Prologue, I believe the character prologues and tales more or less tell themselves, the bawdier the better.  We read the Miller’s Prologue and Tale and examine how it is a parody of the Knight’s Tale that precedes it. We read the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale as an example of a Cautionary Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale since she is such an outrageous character and, arguably, the first feminist character in European literature.  I believe the Canterbury Tales offers something for everyone. Maybe it should accompany you on your next road trip.

GW Community School
Honors English
Steve Garon, Teacher
February 7, 2018