After spending the last few days attempting to slog through the Canterbury Tales
, I've had to grudgingly admit that there is some truth to Mark Twain's famous maxim that a classic is a book that everyone wants to have read but no one wants to read.
Now I personally have never put much stock in that particular quotation, because many of my favorite books are "classics," and I've generally found that books with that label are the most entertaining reads around. Pride and Prejudice
, in addition to being my favorite romance, is also a comedy of manners and incisive social commentary (although we liberated 21st century folks miss some of the latter, since we lack the context that readers in Austen's day had). The Jungle Books
are pages of fun with awesome poetry mixed in. (A friend had to rewrite his paper on the definition of poetry after running across one of Kipling's in my away message.) And David Copperfield
is f'n hilarious.
The Canterbury Tales
, however, have nothing to offer other than some impressive iambic pentameter.
Let's consider the Knight's tale. Theseus imprisons two morons - we'll call them Moron 1 and Moron 2, because I can't be bothered to remember their stupid names - in Athens, his city. The morons are cousins and "sworn brothers," which I think means they're really good friends. We won't speculate on just how good. Anyway, Moron 1 spots Emily, Theseus's sister-in-law, from a distance, and decides that he loves her. Moron 2 glances out the window and decides that he loves her too. Moron 1 points out that he saw her first, and Moron 2 says he saw her as a woman first, while Moron 1 was still debating whether she was a goddess. They nearly come to blows. And did I mention that she's the king's sister-in-law
and they're prisoners
? I hardly think it matters who saw her first.
So, after a while, Moron 2 gets released from prison, but on condition that he never show his face in Athens again. They argue over who has the harder lot - the one who never gets to see Emily again, or the one who's in frickin' prison
. Moron 1 continues swooning over Emily, who of course has no idea what's going on, and Moron 2 heads back to Thebes (his hometown), mourning all the way. Eventually, he realizes that he looks so different from all his constant mourning and skipping meals that no one would recognize him. So he goes back and takes service in Theseus's palace, despite the fact that the penalty for returning is death.
Moron 1 eventually manages to escape from prison, and begins making his way out of town. He hides in a thicket to rest up or something...I wasn't clear as to why he was there...and Moron 2 shows up, mooning over Emily. In a monologue, Moron 2 reveals his true identity, whereupon Moron 1 leaps out of the bushes and denounces Moron 2 for trying to get to Emily, in whom he feels a most proprietary interest considering he's never made eye contact with her
. The two start fighting.
Theseus, naturally, comes along at this unpropitious time, with his wife Hippolyta and Emily and a bunch of hangers-on who are dignified by the term "court." Moron 1 tells the whole story, starting off by tattling on Moron 2, and Theseus decides (rightly, in my opinion) that they should both be executed. But all the ladies of the court plead for mercy, and Theseus decides to grant it. He tells them to get 100 knights apiece and return to this spot, where they'll have a tournament, Moron 1 and his knights versus Moron 2 and his knights. The winner of the tournament gets Emily's hand. Emily, of course, is not consulted on the occasion. (Did I mention Theseus is just her brother-in-law? Since when does a brother-in-law have the right to bestow a woman's hand? Ok, maybe her father's dead and she doesn't have any blood brothers, but still.)
Everyone thinks this is a wonderful solution, despite the injuries and deaths that will no doubt result, and Morons 1 and 2 head back to Thebes to get their knights. The knights gotten and the parties returned to Athens, several prayers eventuate on the morning of the tournament. First, Moron 1 prays to Venus for her help, since he loves Emily and Venus is the goddess of love. (I wish I knew which specific term for love is used to refer to her domain. I abso-fuckin'-lutely guarantee it ain't the term for the romantic love that lasts.) Then Emily prays to Diana for her help, since she doesn't want to marry anyone. (I had considerable sympathy for her at this point.) Athena tells her she hasn't got a choice - it's ordained that she's going to marry one of them. Finally, Moron 2 prays to Mars for his help, since the lady's hand will be won with brute strength and Mars is the god of war.
Long story short, Venus and Mars get in a bit of squabble at Olympus, since each has promised victory to his or her penitent, and Saturn secretly agrees to help Venus. So Moron 2 wins the battle, but then, thanks to Saturn, his horse trips and he's mortally wounded. After suffering for many days, during which Emily weeps and laments, which I didn't understand at all, he finally bites the dust, and Theseus gives Emily's hand to Moron 1.
We won't even discuss the Miller's tale. I've read some disgusting stuff, but that was nasty
. I've also read the Wife of Bath's tale, and she's a whore. I read a few more tales before deciding this evening that it wasn't worth it.
Yes, the poetry is impressive, and it is sort of interesting to see how words and phrases have evolved...or at least, it would be if I didn't fully disclaim any and all interest in etymology. But the tales themselves are either f'n boring or absolutely disgusting.
I recommend that no one read this book.
(For those who might be curious, the reason I didn't read the Tales
in high school like everyone else, including the old guy who was waiting in line behind me when I went to get my vehicle registration renewed, is that I was in the International Baccalaureate program, and we focused on world literature. I am glad that we were exposed to such a wide range of cultures, though I could have done without the culture of incest, bestiality, and pedophilia revealed to me by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but sorry that I missed out on English literature. So when I'm not reading brain candy, I'm almost always catching up on some of the EngLit I normally would have covered in school.)