24 May 2006

Review: The Canterbury Tales

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.

The end.

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.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to try to read Middlemarch.

How about detective stories, you like them? Steve Hamilton and James Lee Burke write some good ones.

My favorite book in the whole world is a collection of short stories. When I was a kid, I had short attention span and I wasn't too bright.

What was I saying?

Oh yeah, I remember. So, one night, I couldn't sleep, I went downstairs to the big bookcase to find a book to read. That's when I found Short Story Masterpieces. The stories in that book opened a whole new world to me -- a stupid kid who spent most of his free time watching television.

That was a long long time ago. I still have the book. It's falling apart and yellowed, but I'll always keep it.


11:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zounds! You don't think...
Spek, sweete bryd, I noot nat where thou art.
This nicholas anon leet fle a fart,
As greet as it had been a thonder-dent,
That with the strook he was almoost yblent;

...is great poetry?


12:23 AM  
Anonymous someone said...

Actually, that summary made me want to pick up the book.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Mrs. Peel said...

Eliot, ack!

Silas Marner actually wasn't too bad, but I had been so conditioned by the horrible endings of all the other books I'd read that year (suicide, babies getting eaten by ants, a guy getting fatally poisoned, the horrifying last four words of 1984, etc.) that I found myself getting more and more suspicious as the book drew to a close and appeared to be ending happily. I kept expecting the guy to change his mind about marrying Eppie, or a natural disaster to take out the village, or something.

Short stories are good stuff. I have several collections of those.

someone, was it "f'n boring" or "absolutely disgusting" that made you want to pick it up? Or are you into etymology?

8:05 AM  
Anonymous someone said...

Neither, really. But I'm always interested when a book gives the insane, irrational, and indispensable fever that's love some of the respect it deserves.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Peel said...

I take it you have a more salutary opinion of love at first sight than I do...I'm forced to believe it is possible to feel a connection with someone at first sight, because that's happened to me, but that's different from love. I just can't believe that one look gets endorphins and oxytocin going. I mean, sure, you can get elevated levels of dopamine, but it's not the same.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Peel said...

Also, said connection-at-first-sight involved actual eye contact and exchange of words and smiles, not one of us staring at the other from hundreds of feet away.

In prison.

10:52 PM  
Anonymous someone said...

Now wait, which of my adjectives had the sense of "salutary" to it?

More like: love is a terrible, unpredictable thing, which one shouldn't misrepresent as the opposite...

Not even Vulcans can pull off being rational about such stuff.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Mrs. Peel said...

Well, I don't think love at first sight exists at all. So what I meant by "salutary" was your implicit acknowledgement that it does exist.

I don't really think reason has any place in matters of the heart, but I also don't think infatuation and love are synonymous. And I couldn't love a man romantically without loving his mind.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Russ said...

We read a little bit of Chaucer's work in 10th grade World Literature. It was bad, but it wasn't ETHAN FROME-level bad. That freakin' book kept me on my toes,waiting for the serial killer or raiding party of Iriquois to stop by the Frome household and give all those whining losers the gruesome deaths they so richly deserved. "Death by sled" is such a weak-assed literary trick.

10:40 AM  
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5:21 AM  

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