Chaucer FYI - 1 The Prologue

In every part of The Canterbury Tales there are elements that are fascinating, funny, noteworthy, brilliant and perplexing. The General Prologue is an appropriate introduction to the vast depth that Chaucer displays throughout the tales, but perhaps most importantly it serves as the reader's introduction to the character of Chaucer the Pilgrim, an entity which cannot be wholly separated from Chaucer the Author but stands as one of the great puzzles in English literature.

In my mind Chaucer the Pilgrim is inextricably tied to one of the central themes of The Canterbury Tales, the divergence and convergence of "sentence and solas," or meaning and pleasure.

The General Prologue is almost entirely on the "solas" side of this dichotomy; Chaucer the Pilgrim is irreverent in his descriptions of his fellow travelers, quickly switching between listing their flaws and naming them as "good fellows" or "fine men" or "tender-hearted." Not all of the pilgrims receive a dose of his backhanded praise - the Knight for example really is a pretty decent sort, and the Parson and his brother are introduced in glowing phrases that fairly well match their characters. The Summoner and the Pardoner, on the other hand, are slyly (and not always subtly) criticized before Chaucer the Pilgrim says of the Summoner that "a bettre felawe should men nought fynde" (648) and calling the Pardoner "a noble ecclesiaste" (708).

Clearly Chaucer the Pilgrim is being free with his praise, which should serve as a warning to his readers that Chaucer's praise is a double-edged sword; one which can defend a man's honor or sever him from it as the author sees fit.

In this early portion of the text there is something of a carnival atmosphere, which is hardly befitting the beginning of a pilgrimage, that flows as freely as the Host's wine and the narrator's cheer. Readers at this point don't know what to expect - there is nothing to define the "sentence" of the tales so far when a Prioress is being mocked for her misplaced fastidiousness and a Merchant is being praised for his ability to commit fraud. The "sentence" of the Tales comes later in the individual stories told by the pilgrims, but also later in the development of Chaucer the Pilgrim, who makes a fascinating transition through the course of Chaucer the Author's work.

All in all, the General Prologue is a terribly exciting place to be for a reader. The world of the Tabard Inn is topsy-turvy as its inhabitants are examined and found to be quite an interesting group of road companions wending their way to Canterbury and inviting the reader to join them in their adventures.

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