Washington State University
What is Canterbury?:
Final Exam Essay
The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer are difficult to put into an explanatory box. They are a casual interjection into a formalistic culture, where chance seems to reign supreme. In this regard the pilgrimage’s very purpose falls into question. By failing to deliver his troupe to their aspired destination, the Poet shatters medieval standard, delivering instead a new kind of doctrine. The result is a rather prophetic effort, embodying a social revolution within literature that seems to have been lost on Chaucer’s contemporaries, and is apparently still missed by narrow-minded scholars.
The CT scenario is set up traditionally enough, with a contest, cartoon portraits of medieval societal staples, horses, wine, and boasts. Yet things soon become convoluted. Where are these pilgrims going, really? There is no real geographical progression conveyed that is in any way increasingly relevant or compelling for the company. This is with the exception maybe, of the excitement cultivated upon the nearing of each new ale house. More importantly, how is this journey holy? Instead of constituting a grand treatise on morality through idealistic and/or tragic events, the tales and pilgrim interplay represents a quirky treatise on the stark and sometimes ignoble reality of human interaction.
Certainly, the Poet writes through the lens of medieval paradigms, but his characters resist the stale classification system so important to the classical traditions of storytelling. Here, no one emerges as transcendently heroic. The closest candidate, the knight, initiating the tale telling partially out of instinctual anxiety, represents the chivalric ideal. As CT progresses though, he appears only to be an ironic tribute to a fading icon awkwardly keeping pace with a crowd of sinners who are alien to him. The effect is like a fairytale character stepping off of the page only to find that he shares no common language with the whiny, irreverent children who tote his book along, but have stopped reading it.
Significantly, no one wins the tale-telling competition by the work’s end. Canterbury is no objective destination for these pilgrims. Rather, Chaucer provides a glimpse during the pilgrimage into the irresolution of real life. In this sense, The Tales signifies an astoundingly early sparkle of modernist writing. The Poet has redefined — or perhaps defined — realism for his generation. Like the exposure of alchemy in the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale as a fragile and imposterous system, Chaucer exposes his pilgrims through their tales and relationships for what they are not. They are profoundly human — the essence of which defies the notion of a magical formula.
Figures such as the Pardoner are steeped in complexities of motivation and personal stability. The effect can be uncomfortable for readers, just as it is for his companions. Much like the spirit of their journey, there proves to be no hard-and-fast map by which to navigate these characters and arrive at a single destination. The travelers persistently feed off of one another, often reacting passionately, introducing a complex dynamic of social politics. The medieval “rules,” so to speak, are often ignored. The hierarchy of roles crumbles and persuasive momentum frequently shifts from character to character. Perhaps this is why scholars struggle to organize the individual tales into a supreme and logical order. Maybe this ideal is somewhat irrelevant — inconsistent with the texture of Chaucer’s chaotic realism.
In this way, the Poet really is examining the process of humanistic reflection. He indeed explores the same sophisticated philosophical discourses as have transcended the eras, yet does so through a naked and subjective portrayal of people reacting to one another, not conforming to any objective social or rhetorical system. For this purpose the perpetual interruptions, taunting, plastic diplomacy and ever-emerging rivalries amongst the pilgrims are quite revealing. Neither The Tales nor the characterizations, then, are wrapped into neat little packages to be stacked and presented upon arrival at imaginary Canterbury. Nor should they be. If the group did eventually appear at their desired, holy destination, a tale winner crowned, flourishes sounded off, and the scene fade with soft lighting, then the potential for substantial reflection would be undermined by the overwhelming narrative resolution.
Chaucer, instead, offers a thorough opportunity for critical evaluation of both interpersonal and intrapersonal evolution, the sort that has no pre-ordained solution. His Tales therefore, is a rowdy interruption of the literary standard. It is by no random quality that Gower and the royal keepers-of-order might have been disturbed by Chaucer’s work. However, it may have been because of the random quality illuminated within the tales that they reacted with discomfort. The Poet ultimately is not espousing the arbitrariness of life itself, but rather he confesses skillfully that some things in life are in fact arbitrary. This is not medieval thought, which is why CT remains fresh for contemporary appetites. Thus, Canterbury as a place to be concretely navigated and conquered cripples the actual pilgrimage’s potent experience, whereas Canterbury as an undefined but reacted-to idea retains reflective possibility. So, what is Canterbury? Well, it is better defined by what it is not than what it is.