The Canterbury Tales, cover

Peter Ackroyd has produced an excellent new translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He retains the classic medieval charm whilst making it easier for modern readers.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1343-1400) was originally published at the turn of the 15th century.

It was the first literary, and probably the greatest poetic, work in English; the language of England since the Norman Conquest in 1066 had been Norman French.

The Tales chronicles the journey to Canterbury and storytelling of a socially mixed group of pilgrims. They are on their way to pay homage at the shrine of Thomas Becket, the murdered archbishop. The form The Canterbury Tales is of short stories interspersed with references to the pilgrim’s journey and behaviour.

Peter Ackroyd, writer and historian, has produced a new translation which should bring The Canterbury Tales to the attention of many new readers. Originally The Canterbury Tales was in verse form and as one can see from the original text a translation into modern prose form is needed to make the stories come alive for today's reader.

Medieval in Feel but an Engaging Modern Read

Ackroyd has retained the medieval feel of the language and the formally mannered style is still there. Or at least it rings true to the modern ear which makes it accessible to today’s reader. Peter Ackroyd’s translation keeps the formally flowery style with the many medieval exclamations and expletives. The diverse and varied styles of medieval story telling are represented with allegory, fable, romance and anecdotes that cover the themes of life and love that still apply today.

Robust and Ribald Celebration of the Joys of Life

The Canterbury Tales is pious, bawdy and lewd in equal measure. The language, whilst true to the original, may be rather robust for some modern sensibilities and may offend a few readers. That said perhaps our medieval forebears where less detached and rather more honest in their acceptance of basic bodily functions. Ackroyd has avoided the temptation to bowdlerize the text to make it more acceptable to sensitive modern readers; the only euphemisms are Chaucer’s originals. The translation is better and more honest as a result.

Christian Piety and Realistic View of Religious Authority

Despite that there is a consistent thread of piety through The Canterbury Tales and even the bawdier tales have a moral theme. It reflects a time when everyone went to church and Christianity was embedded in the culture. That said priests were, even then, not always held in high regard and in The Canterbury Tales there is a cynicism about the Church and other authorities that would not seem out of place today.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Celebrity and the First Self-Publicist

Ackroyd retains the references to Chaucer himself. At times they denigrate the writer who was already well known and there is shameless promotion of Chaucer’s other work. Chaucer, one feels, would relate to modern celebrities appearing on chat shows to promote their latest book, record or show.

An Enjoyable and Readable Change from the Modern Novel

An enjoyable read that can take the place of a regular reader’s modern novel as an enjoyable diversion and change of pace. The individual tales are generally of a length that would make them a good bed time read as it is a book can be picked up whenever there are few minutes for reading.

Indeed it would be an interesting experience for readers’ groups to explore The Canterbury Tales, the first major literary work in English, in Peter Ackroyd’s readable new edition. In this translation it is still a lively read after 600 years.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1400) translated as a prose retelling by Peter Ackroyd (2010, ISBN:978-0-141-44229-7) is published by Penguin in paperback at £9.99


First appeared on Suite101


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