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Books: Chaucer's pilgrimage

Books | Canterbury shows the real world without defiling the mind

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

The Canterbury Tales is a remarkable work that not only described but defined its age. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century, the book is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Chaucer gives us a glimpse into the odd nuances of daily life during the halcyon days of the High Middle Ages. He offers us a remarkably enlightened-and thus a surprisingly revisionist-approach to the questions of medieval love, marriage, and family. He gives a chronicler's account of the raging social, political, and theological issues of the time (including Reformation-like critiques of corrupt clergy and indulgence-peddling).

But he is also a chronicler of the universal human condition. He has a genius for capturing the quirks and nuances of ordinary life, the twists and turns of ordinary conversation, and the motivations and inclinations of ordinary people. Chaucer painted a vivid portrait of the whole range of humanity-high and low, male and female, old and young, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, cosmopolitan and provincial-in some of the most beautiful descriptions ever penned and the most compelling plots ever imagined, all rendered in a rollicking good storyline brimming over with good humor.

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And he did this in a language that was hardly usable until he used it; he did this for a nation that was hardly recognizable until he recognized it. The Canterbury Tales is actually a collection of campfire stories told in varying styles by a diverse group of fictional pilgrims traveling together to the shrine of Thomas Becket's martyrdom in Canterbury. Chaucer originally planned to include the tales of 30 different pilgrims-two from each on the way to the shrine, and two from each on the return. Sadly, he was only able to complete 22 tales, portions of two more, a prologue, and a few dialog segues and introductions. It is an unfinished masterpiece.

Nevertheless, the pilgrims leap off the pages of this incomplete work with startling completeness. Aside from the language, his characters are Chaucer's most extraordinary achievement. They are so vividly drawn that even the stories they tell seem perfectly cast.

Chaucer not only rendered a realistic cast; he created an astonishing degree of authenticity, rarely seen before or since. Of course, with such a commitment to realism come certain dilemmas-such as how to portray the coarser side of certain personalities or even the more perverse aspects of sin. As a pious Christian, Chaucer faced those dilemmas with real artistry and sensitivity. He attempted to convey the reality of sin without defiling the mind of the reader with unwarranted reveling in the details of sin.

This is a vital distinction. We moderns tend either to embrace the grotesqueries of perversion or to bury our heads in a kind of sanitized make-believe world. Chaucer, on the other hand, follows the narrative discretion of the Bible itself in dealing with sin realistically.

His is not an idyllic world. Instead it is a fallen world, populated with broken, eccentric, and foolish people. It is, in other words, a very real world. But it is a real world that has nevertheless been invaded by the hope of redemption and the relief of forgiveness.

This book is not a classic because some stuffy old professors in musty ivory towers decreed it so; it is a classic because it is classically good and vitally important. Chaucer crafted an immortal work that should take a priority place in any Christian's must-read list.

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