I have recently been to Canterbury and back, in company with Geoffrey Chaucer (England, c. 1400). I made a round trip. On the way out I traveled by horse with Nevill Coghill in his modern English translation of the middle English original. The Canterbury Tales is a collection, so the mood of each tale changes to fit the story. The travelers themselves tell us how it is. An aging Reeve says
…the strength to play that game
Is gone, though we love fooishness the same.
What we can’t do no more we talk about
And rake the ashes when the fire is out.
The ashes are the ashes of love and deception, a common theme in many of the stories, and I was not surprised by them. I was surprised by the anti-clericalism of many of the tales, although Chaucer is careful to condemn individual churchmen and not the doctrines of the church.
Since you have heard this filthy friar lie,
Let me refute him. I’ve a tale to tell!
This friar boasts his knowledge about Hell,
And if he does, God knows it’s little wonder;
Friars and fields are seldom far asunder.
I also found some bathroom humor; the kind of thing that 10-year-olds think is funny.
The return trip from Canterbury was faster. I came back by motorcycle with the Host from the tavern driving and Chaucer in the sidecar.
This trip was made possible by Seymour Chwast, with his graphic interpretation of that long-ago pilgrimage. Nothing is left out — all the tales, prologues and epilogues are there. I enjoyed this version. The irreverent spirit seems very true to the spirit of the original.
There is still another way to Canterbury: the original route through the thickets of Middle English. I’m not the person for that trip — too old, too little time — but if you want a preview of the journey, here is a reading of the Prologue to get you started.