"The life so short, the crafts so long to learn"
October 21, 2011 10:45 AM   Subscribe

I have never read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but I would like to. Please recommend to me your ideas for the best way to approach this. Web, Kindle or iOS friendly methods welcome.

The Canterbury Tales. I want to go to there. I vaguely feel their influence in films, literature and other art from time to time, and feel like this is a work of literature that I really should know and understand on my own. I'm also aware of how old it is, how constantly in flux its contents were over time, and how many, many versions are out there.

It's all a bit overwhelming. I'd like to start on the right foot. Is there a definitive, not-too-difficult to read text? I'm not looking for Cliffs Notes, but I'm not necessarily keen on reading the original Middle English either (unless it's totally The Only Way and I'm happy to be conincned of that)...although if there's something like the old Dover Shakespeare plays with explanations on the other side of each page, that would be cool. Maybe an eBook equivalent? I have a Kindle, and iPhone and an iPad if that helps.

Additionally, any tips for just how to approach reading it in general?
posted by Doleful Creature to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you want to try to tackle the original Middle English, take a look at the Riverside Chaucer, which I got for Christmas a couple of years ago. Lots of supporting materials within, footnotes throughout, etc. It's not exactly portable, but is probably as close as you can get to a be-all and end-all edition of everything Chaucer (the Tales, Parliament of Fowles, and his instructions - to his son - on the use of the Astrolabe).

I found the Middle English a little challenging at first, but not too hard to get through after getting used to it. I returned to the Canterbury Tales after not really looking at it since high school, and part of our learning then included memorization of the prologue in ME. I sort of had that to go on, and there are other websites (like this one) out there that can guide you through the pronunciation and meter so you can pick up on the rhymes and whatnot.
posted by jquinby at 10:52 AM on October 21, 2011

Best answer: I would recommend NOT reading it in electronic format just because it makes it more difficult to flip back and forth between the story and the appendix/glossary.

When I had to read it in college, the most helpful thing I found was a reading of it. Having someone else read it to me made it easier to understand, I wasn't getting caught up in trying to read the words and sound them out but instead I could hear them (and when you hear them it is much easier to figure out what is being said).
posted by magnetsphere at 10:57 AM on October 21, 2011

Best answer: If you would like to learn more about the Tales and about Chaucer in general, I highly recommend checking out Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by Michael Drout and the Modern Scholar. Drout is an excellent lecturer and he has a sense of humor too. I haven't tackled reading the Tales in the original yet, but Drout claims that it should only take 3 or 4 weeks to become proficient enough to do so.
posted by Homo economicus at 11:22 AM on October 21, 2011

Best answer: Seconding the Coghill - at school, we had the Coghill translation on a page opposite the Chaucer original. Liberties are taken to keep the rhythm, but it's very readable, and to me, far more mischievous and appealing than the Ackroyd version (see below)

If you go for the ME, get an edition with copious footnotes - this makes it pretty much a non-starter on the Kindle, though.

The first review on Amazon has a good summary of available versions.

Also, start with the good and bawdy stuff - The Prologue, Friar's or Miller's Tale and etc. Some of the prose pieces are a little stiff, and Chaucer seems to have been in keeping with his self-depreciation by keeping the most boring bits for his own character.

Reading it in the Middle English is one of life's pleasures. Once you get a rhythm for it, it's not too much of a problem even if you don't exactly know why a "mormal" is a bad thing for a cook to have on his leg...

I didn't enjoy the Peter Ackroyd "Retelling" at all, but the people on Amazon seem to love it. I found it really stiff, but I suppose if you just want to know the actual stories, it's a good resource.
posted by nicktf at 11:31 AM on October 21, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, this is all really excellent advice, and exactly the kind of guidance I was looking for. Thanks so much!

Ya know, MetaFilter could charge $5 a month just for access to the Ask portion of the site and it would still be a killer deal.
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:03 PM on October 21, 2011

Seconding the Riverside. ME is incredibly rewarding and not very difficult to pick up. Have fun!
posted by villanelles at dawn at 2:48 PM on October 21, 2011

Agreed, try the Middle English, that's half the fun!
posted by fivesavagepalms at 3:47 PM on October 21, 2011

Best answer: I would also start with a lighthearted tale instead of plunging into the General Prologue, which is harder to read than the rest. The Summoner's and Friar's Tales might be a good place to start. One of my absolute favorites is the Nun's Priest's Tale, in which two chicken debate the nature of dreams. God, I love that one. Anyways, once you're used to the Middle English, go back to the Prologue.

The Canterbury Tales are an amazing achievement in literature. You won't regret reading them if you take the time to do so. Trust me.
posted by duvatney at 9:32 PM on October 21, 2011

Best answer: Oh, learning Middle English pronunciation also makes a huge difference. Here's a cheat sheet. I don't know phonetic symbols, so bear with me.

A is pronounced like "ah."
E is pronounced like the letter "a."
I is pronounced like the letter "e."
O is pretty much still "o."
U is more like the French "eu."
Y is also like the letter "e."

You pronounce the k in "knight," and the gh is like the German "ch." So "knight" is pronounced completely differently.

There are a few other small differences, but these are the most important ones.

Why am I doing all this? Get an audiorecording. You will swoon. Middle English is freaking beautiful.
posted by duvatney at 9:35 PM on October 21, 2011

Oh yes, definitely the Riverside. You'll get "Troilus and Criseyde" and his other major poems as well!
posted by Paris Elk at 8:07 AM on October 22, 2011

I actually have my Riverside close by since I pulled it out yesterday to check the spelling on a post I made; looking at the introduction it has a very decent section that covers spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and versification in Middle English. Basically everything you'd need to make your way through the Tales aside from actually hearing someone speak it out loud, something easily found online or in audiobooks. As a side-note, the hardcover Riverside is a massive thing but the paperback (which I think is only available in the UK) is much more manageable; you're not going to be carrying it around in a jacket pocket but you won't risk breaking anything if you drop it on your foot either.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 8:20 AM on October 22, 2011

Read the Middle English aloud, or listen to it as you read. I had The Wife of Bath's Tale assigned for my A'level in English Literature, and that's how 17 year old me read, understood and most enjoyed it.

And yes, start with individual tales rather than jumping into it from beginning to end.
posted by tavegyl at 9:08 AM on October 23, 2011

I read (on a Kindle, in fact) this version, which I guess is not translated, but has had the spelling standardized. Anyway, I found it to strike just the right balance of readability and authenticity. Having the vocab notes alongside the text made it much easier to glance over to get the definition of an unfamiliar word without breaking the flow.
posted by primer_dimer at 5:00 AM on October 24, 2011

Another vote for listening to the Middle English.

My favorite part -- aside from the General Prologue, which you have to be dead and disassembled not to love -- is the segue from the Squire's Tale to the Franklin's Tale. But I realize that's an oddball preference.
posted by tangerine at 10:50 PM on October 24, 2011

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