The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

Synopsis

Since its first publication in 1989, Helen Cooper's guide to The Canterbury Tales has established itself as the standard work on the poem. This second edition continues to offer the most comprehensive scrutiny of the Tales both as a whole and individually. In addition, Cooper incorporates the most significant recent scholarship and criticism, reflecting current research in the areas of Chaucer's historical and social context and developments in the interpretation of Chaucer's presentation of women.

Excerpt

The Knight's Tale was originally written as a separate work, apparently before Chaucer conceived the idea of the Canterbury Tales. The evidence for this lies in the reference to it in both versions of the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, where Alceste lists it among Chaucer's works as 'al the love of Palamon and Arcite∣Of Thebes' (F. 420-1, G. 408-9). The dates of the two versions of the Prologue are themselves uncertain, but the earlier was probably written about 1386.

The placing of the composition of the early 'Palamon and Arcite' in relation to Chaucer's other works depends on his use of material from the Teseida. He presumably got to know Boccaccio's poem on one of his visits to Italy in 1372-3 or 1378. He made one abortive attempt to use it in the unfinished Anelida and Arcite, which almost certainly predates the writing of 'Palamon and Arcite'. He also used the Teseida in the Parliament of Fowls, for the description of the temple of Venus; and in Troilus and Criseyde, for Troilus' ascent to the heavens. As he has to supply new material for the description of Venus' temple in the Knight's Tale, it would seem likely that the Parliament was written first. The death of Arcite is more problematic. The laconic dismissal of Arcite's soul in the Knight's Tale could be partly due to the ascent of his spirit already having been used in the Troilus, but Chaucer certainly adapts the Teseida freely, and the change is very much in line with his reshaping of the meaning of the story. It is equally possible that the episode was overmatter from the Knight's Tale, and therefore available for use in Troilus. That the two were written in close proximity, whichever came first, is further suggested by the extensive use of Boethius in both. On all counts, a date in the early 1380s is likely.

The question remains as to whether the original 'Palamon' was substantially rewritten for its inclusion in the Canterbury Tales. There is very little that specifically relates the poem to its new context: essentially four lines near the beginning (889-92) with their reference to the storytelling and the supper, and the concluding blessing on 'this faire compaignye', which is paralleled abundantly in the Tales but in no individual works of Chaucer's. There are a number of references to telling the story, such as would suit an oral narration, but these are found also in works such as Troilus; and there are also some references to 'endyting' or 'writing' the tale (1201, 1209, 1380, 2741). The work's aristocratic emphasis makes it appropriate for the Knight, but the 'I' is not personalized beyond that. The apology for inadequate skill in 'ryming' sounds distinctly . . .

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