Quote of the Week

You lovers, here’s a question I would offer,
Arcite or Palamon, which had most to suffer?
The one can see his lady day by day,
But he must dwell in prison, locked away.
The other’s free, the world lies all before,
But never shall he see his lady more.

-Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Justice Redefined (and Rhymed)

This is a short tale-within-a-tale from Chaucer’s peerless Canterbury Tales that has stuck with me since I read it a few years ago. It’s not exactly a cheery, end-of-Friday, sunlight-on-your-face read, but clever all the same.

Once on a time an angry potentate,
Seneca says, bore rule over a state.
A certain day two knights went riding out
And fortune willed that it should come about
That one of them returned, the other not.
The knight was brought to judgement on the spot;
This judge gave sentence: “You have killed your friend.
You are condemned to death and that’s the end.”
And to another knight was standing by
He turned and said, “Go, lead him out to die.”
And so it happened as they went along
To the appointed place, towards the throng
There came the knight that was reported dead.
So it seemed best that both of them be led
Together back before the judge again.
“My lord,” they said, “the knight has not been slain;
His friend is guiltless. As you see, they thrive.”
“You all shall die,” said he, “as I’m alive!
You first, the second, you, and you the third!”
And turning to the first he said this word:
“I have condemned you. You must therefore die.”
Then to the next, “You too, and this is why:
Your comrade clearly owes his death to you.”
Then to the third he turned and said, “You too;
You had my orders; they were not fulfilled.”
And so it was the three of them were killed.


#65 The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer


In the summer of 1170, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, royally pissed off King Henry II. (Pun intended, obviously.) Tired of listening to Henry whine, a group of his loyal followers rode off to Canterbury Cathedral and murdered poor Thomas, mid-Vespers.

Fast-forward a couple hundred years, and Canterbury Cathedral had become the hot destination for European travelers. A pilgrimage from Southwark in South London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral provided the frame for Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales.

Canterbury Cathedral: Trying too hard since 1077.

Canterbury Cathedral: Trying too hard since 1077.

This not-quite travel narrative is made up of a collection of short stories, told in turn by each member of a group of thirty travelers. The tales, penned in the English vernacular, showcase Chaucer’s mastery over diverse forms of writing (including both poetic and prose styles) and his fluency in human nature across social strata.

While 120 stories were planned, with each pilgrim sharing a total of four stories, only 24 were completed. But rather than calling Chaucer an underachiever, we’ll use the more polite term: “ambitious.”

Here’s a quick summary:

The Good

The Knight’s Tale. The Pardoner’s Tale. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. The Summoner’s Tale.

The exploration of social class is one of the most compelling aspects of The Canterbury Tales. The Knight’s Tale is one of chivalry; the Miller’s Tale is raucous and lewd; the Pardoner’s Tale (hypocritically) preaches morality. The class tensions of Chaucer’s era come out in the form of spats between storytellers.

One of my favorite moments is Chaucer’s turn to tell his own tale. (He has fictionalized himself as a reticent member of the traveling party.) He begins the frivolous, rhyming Tale of Sir Topaz, a knight in search of the Elf Queen he has dreamed about. When Sir Topaz is preparing to go to battle against a giant, the host of the pilgrimage interrupts Chaucer to beg him not to subject the travelers to the rest, and to tell a different story—this time in prose. Fictional Chaucer then goes on to tell the Tale of Melibee, which turns out to be long, tedious, and moralizing to the point of stupor.

Chaucer’s self-portrayal as the worst storyteller of the bunch is hilariously ironic and endearingly humble. Best of all, the Tale of Sir Topaz has remained a source of perplexity for literary scholars over several centuries.

Well played, Chaucer. Well played.

The Bad

The Madonna/whore characterization of nearly every female. The Tale of Melibee (obviously). The occasional crude/gross-out humor (Adam Sandler himself would blush). The Pardoner, in general.

Overall, the tales bounce along nicely under Chaucer’s genius, like a trotting horse on its way to do some sightseeing in Kent. And truly, for a manuscript written in between the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War, this is an admirably perky read.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

This is a no-brainer. The Canterbury Tales is brilliant, insightful, innovative, expertly crafted, and thoroughly entertaining.

Favorite Quotes:

Well, well, try anything once, come hot, come cold!
If we’re not foolish young, we’re foolish old.
I long have known myself what Love can do,
For, in my time, I was a lover too.

Age has a great advantage over youth
In wisdom and by custom, that’s the truth.
The old may be out-run but not out-reasoned.

Who then may trust the dice, at Fortune’s throw?

Then you compared a woman’s love to Hell,
To barren land where water will not dwell,
And you compared it to a quenchless fire,
The more it burns the more is its desire.

If the law compels you to swear, be ruled in your swearing by the law of God, as says Jeremiah, chapter four: “You shall keep three conditions: swear in truth, in judgment, and in justice.”

I gave my whole heart up, for him to hold.

Read: 2013