I had this teacher in high school that made my whole class memorize the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I complained about it at the time, but when it came time to re-read it for the GRE subject test, I was grateful. I fell right into the rhythm right away. It made reading the story a hundred percent easier, and much less daunting.
There’s no denying Chaucer was brilliant, but what we glossed over a lot in High school was that he was a pervert. The premise of the tales is that a group of pilgrims are journeying to Canterbury and decide to pass the time engaging in a story telling competition. The tales don’t end. So spoiler alert. you’ll never figure out who won, but I’m rooting for the Nun’s priest.
Some of the more notable tales are the Knights Tale (nothing like the movie), the Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, The Merchants Tale, The Reeves tale, and the Nun’s Priests tale.
Cynical One line summaries:
Knights tale: Two guys fight to the death over a girl that doesn’t want to marry either of them. Also be really careful how to phrase your prayers. “I wish to win AND live” would be good.
The Miller’s Tale: Woman cheats on husband while he takes a bath to wait out the second flood. Open your eyes when you kiss.
The Reeve’s Tale: Students screw over a dishonest miller in more ways than one.
The Cooks tale: unfinished. But lots of drinking and revelry
The Man of Law’s Tale: people at a feast get killed, woman gets set adrift in the ocean, gets found, converts to Christianity, goes on lots of adventures, eventually lives happily ever after. Long tale.
Wife of bath: her prologue is more interesting than the tale. But here goes, knight rapes woman, punishment is to find the thing all women want in a year and a day. Seriously, his punishment is to wander the land looking for answer, because criminals should be a transient population? An old woman gives him the answer (sovereignty) but he has to marry her. Wedding night comes, he’s grossed out, but she turns into a pretty young woman when he gives her sovereignty. Because even rapists deserve a happy ending.
The Friar’s Tale: Arch deacon black males lecherous people, compares notes with the devil, wins, gets dragged to hell.
The summoners tale: a fart joke. Friars are so greedy they try to divide up a fart among them
The Clerk’s Tale: man tests his wife’s loyalty by pretending to kill her children and leave her for a younger woman. She stays loyal. Seriously?
Squires tale: magic sword heals bird, unfinished
Franklin’s tale: wife promises to sleep with a man if he removes dangerous rocks from the coast so her husband can get home safely. He does, her husband tells her the honorable thing to do is fulfill the bargain. Man regretfully turns her down.
Physicians tale: virgin would rather get behead than have sex with a particular man. Her father complies
Pardoners tale: men go searching for death and end up killing each other
Shipman’s tale: merchant tricks someone else’s wife into sleeping with him by lending her husband money.
Chaucers tale 1 and 2: 1, doggerel. Horrible poetry about sir Thompas fighting a dragon. 2: house is robbed and wife and child are beaten. Wifeb(prudence) tells husband (melibee) to forgive and forget
Prioress’s tale: a Jewish child is killed, his singing leads his mother to his body
Monks tale: every hero has a low point
Nuns priests tale: chanticleer the rooster has a prophetic dream about getting chased by a monster. His wife thinks he’s silly, but the next day he is attacked by and outwits a fox
Second nun: wife sends husband on a holy journey to convert him to Christianity before allowing him to have sex with her
Canon and yeoman’s tale: they pretend to use alchemy to trick people into buying gold and get caught
Manciples tale: borrows from Ovid’s Metamorphasis and a thousand and one nights, crow (formerly white) tells man his wife is cheating, man kills crow and curses it with blackness
The parsons tale: preaching against the seven deadly sins
Chaucers retraction: give god credit for what you like, give me credit for what you don’t.
To reward myself, and to review what I’d read, a friend of mine and I went to see the The Canterbury Tales at the Shakespeare tavern. I’m so glad I went, it was hysterical. The pilgrims were on a tour bus, and the tales were acted out very tongue and cheek (the nun’s priest was a drunk, the millers tale ended in a shoot out, ect). My favorite was the nun’s priest tale. They were SO funny and over the top. I’m glad I went, I feel like I’ll remember those tales for sure.