Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the `Canterbury Tales'

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Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the `Canterbury Tales'. By Edward I. Condren. Gainesville, Tallahassee, and Tampa: University Press of Florida. 1999. viii + 295 pp. $49.95.

Edward Condren's study of the structure of The Canterbury Tales is sound in principle, but produces convincing results only in respect of Fragment I. Here he demonstrates a pattern of `increasing degradation' (p. 25) supported by suggestive evidence of numerical composition binding the four tales in a manner much like that brilliantly exploited in Sir Thopas. This demonstration is reinforced by a perceptive discussion of justice in the Knight's Tale in relation to the personal fortunes and moral worth of Palamon and Arcite (pp. 30-31), combined with a subtle use of heraldic detail to show that the two are `not merely similar, but actually identical' (p. 33). But it is hard to see such clarity of structure in The Canterbury Tales as a whole, and the diagrammatic representations of that structure scattered throughout the book prompt bewilderment more often than ready assent. The effect of a large-scale comparison with Dante's Commedia (in part and in whole) reminds us rather of the contrast between a finished and an unfinished work of art. Virgil's exposition of love in Purgatorio, XVII is undoubtedly at the centre of the Commedia, but it is far from evident that the Merchant's Tale is similarly at the centre of Chaucer's great work. Indeed, there is a lack of proportion, morally and imaginatively, in the correspondence proposed between January and Dante personaggio. The fact that Dante is a source of poetic inspiration for Chaucer leads one to question imprecise analogies of this kind, and also to hesitate before describing specific allusions to Dante (even in the mouth of the Franklin) as `flowery excesses' (p. 156).

The main theoretical objection to this study lies in its imputed primacy of teller to tale, and especially to the over-enthusiastic reception of the Donaldsonian view of the Narrator (privileged by capitalization). Characters are seen not merely as the instruments of Chaucer's art, but as poets in their own right. Thus the Knight has `crafted' his `long tale' (p. 50), Arveragus is the creation of a `Franklin creator' (p. 163) and the `rioters' of `their Pardoner-creator' (p. 183). Moreover, the notion of a fallible narrator is pressed to extreme lengths. …