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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

Like every good lit major I read the original in college, but this prose version by Ackroyd got such high praise I couldn't resist it.  I mentioned in my review of Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars that I was saddened by the knowledge that future generations will need to read translations of Shakespeare. This is even more the case with Chaucer, because he wrote in Middle English, not Early Modern.  I was able to read the Tales in the original, with the help of a glossary and a very slow pace, and so I got to enjoy the exotic (to us) rhythm and sounds which are lacking here.

On the other hand, by using Modern English Ackroyd made it easier and faster to understand the actual content of the Tales (I suspect this version may be used by students who can't quite bring themselves to buy the Cliffnotes version).  Of course Ackroyd didn't create just any old translation -- he manages to capture the feel of the original by his use of rhythm, dialects, colloquial expressions, and slang.

Which brings us to the Tales themselves.  Reading this book I was struck over and over by how very exuberant the stories are -- passionate, crude, funny, pathetic, religious, romantic, cruel, sly, blasphemous, and very real.*  Life back then was often brutish and unfair, but it is fully embraced by the characters.  Modern fiction, particularly that depicting so-called "first world problems," seems downright neurotic by comparison.

My cats liked the book too:

*Not literally real, of course -- the stories are littered (heh) with magical creatures, mythical beings, and improbable circumstances.  But that kind of realism not the point, despite the fact that a distressing number of the students in my Medieval Fiction class could find nothing to say about Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Marie de France other than "it's not realistic!"

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