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The Canterbury Tales    by Geoffrey Chaucer & Burton Raffel order for
Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Order:  USA  Can
Modern Library, 2008 (2008)
* * *   Reviewed by Alex Telander

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by one of the greatest writers in history, up there with William Shakespeare himself. Originally published in the late fifteenth century, it regularly appears on high school reading lists, and serves as one of the most important medieval texts if not the most important ever written and published.

Chaucer tells the stories of twenty-nine pilgrims who set out from London to Canterbury. Pilgrimage was a common event in many people's lives in the medieval world, especially if they were looking to be pious and guarantee their ascent into heaven; it was also a good way for those who had committed sins to be absolved of their actions. The Host of this pilgrimage sets the stage in the General Prologue by asking each of the pilgrims to tell four stories; two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back to London. The storytelling will help pass the time, but will also serve to enlighten the group about the lives and actions of the pilgrims.

While Chaucer only completed twenty-two of the hundred and twenty-four stories, there is nevertheless a wide selection from most of his main characters. The Knight's Tale is the story of two royal Theban cousins who love the same woman. In The Wife of Bath's Tale, she discusses her five husbands, the importance of being a wife, and sacrifices she has made in marriage. The Miller's Tale mocks a carpenter who is fooled into believing a flood is coming, while the clerk sleeps with his wife. In the final story, The Parson's Tale, the Parson talks for a long time about the importance of being just and pious and faithful to God.

The Canterbury Tales is not just a collection of entertaining stories from the fifteenth century, but offers a most fascinating insight into the way of life of these people, what they considered funny or sad, what they wore and ate, and what sort of a role the church played in their lives. Chaucer even inserts himself into his book, arguing back and forth with the Host, as he is challenged to tell a superior story.

In this new translation from Burton Raffel, much of the original text is preserved, even though Raffel admits that any translation is ultimately going to be different as it is that, a translation. Nevertheless, where possible, Raffel maintains the rhyming scheme, giving life to the stories and making the old oral tradition of storytelling come alive off the page. This excellent new translation of The Canterbury Tales is perfect for anyone who enjoys these old texts, or for a student having trouble reading the early Middle English; it is also ideal for families to learn through reciting the stories aloud and hearing these classics come to life through voice, as they were originally meant to.

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