This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
As part of my vehicular approach to literature, I needed some walking protagonists. I couldn’t think of anything, but then it hit me: The Canterbury Tales.
So I picked up a copy, years after having studied it. Here was the brawny Miller, the braggart Knight, the crafty Wife, but, wow, it was difficult to read. I could already hear my students’ groans as they voiced their struggles with Chaucer’s archaic language.
In college, I was privileged to have an expert in Middle English read the text aloud to us, so that when we read alone, we heard his voice in our heads. I am far from an expert. But how could I re-create such an experience? I did some research and discovered a slew of Canterbury mp3 files, some professional, some not so professional but adequate for my purposes. In addition, I found a film of a modern—rather racy—adaptation of the Wife of Bath’s tale (in which the wife is played by Julie Waters).
I also decided to pair Chaucer with something contemporary. This is a great strategy to avoid the why-were-people-back-then-so-boring comments that come up from time to time. Of course, given my course’s constraints, this text would also have to have a walking protagonist.
A colleague of mine was teaching Cormac McCarthy’s recent apocalyptic novel, The Road, and told me the students generally liked it. Perfect! My students could read The Road as another type of sojourn, very different from the happy-go-merry pilgrims but similarly crude and elemental. Furthermore, in McCarthy’s postapocalyptic world they had the same mode of transportation as Chaucer’s pilgrims: their feet. In some ways, this return to the basics reflected a new Dark Ages. So, I decided, why not? Let’s run with it (pardon the pun). And run we did.
Students were asked to blog their experience reading The Road—the format for which I outline at the beginning of the semester and conference about with my students once every two weeks. Although most seemed to focus on the novel’s father-son relationship, or the overall gloom, some bloggers did choose to compare the novel to The Canterbury Tales, so I guess my connection wasn’t as outlandish as I thought.
After watching an Oprah interview with McCarthy with my students in class, I decided that for their final projects students would write an imagined interview between the Queen of daytime TV and Chaucer in which Chaucer would speak in heroic couplets. Or, students could pick a character from The Road to narrate a tale in heroic couplets. I won’t share the gore of the Cannibal’s Tale, but let’s just say Chaucer and McCarthy make a trip to the emergency room seem bright.
Here’s a sample from student Victor Vainberg's Oprah interview:
Oprah: So tell us, Mr. Chaucer, what motivated you to write your work, The Canterbury Tales?
Chaucer: O my, o my, directly to the point. So now we shall explore my sad viewpoint: Why do all folk decide to play this game? Hypocrisy and trickery by name, We’ll see on days that passed and those to come. The state of lies not spoken makes me numb. If none decide to breach the lie they tell, Then I shall joust the dragon from its shell. The world now stinks of narcissistic frauds, So proudly living openly as gods, Defying all the laws of a true life. I am, my friends, explaining my deep strife With all that claims to be, yet is not so. A cynic and a pessimist, my foe Is the whole world, which sadly is so low.
Oprah: So are you saying that the world is full of hypocrites and always will be?
Chaucer: I envy your naiveté with my heart That you will never speak of any fart, Which comes from one who you so dearly hold, For how could such a thing from “beauty” come? The knight is not excepted from the sum Of those who claim to honestly conceive A life without the riches they receive. My sword against the lies has been my pen, To end the falsehoods everywhere, amen.
Oprah: Thank you so much, Mr. Chaucer, for your insights. A hand for Mr. Chaucer… (Applause)