Academic journal article Medium Aevum

An Introduction to the 'Canterbury Tales': Reading, Fiction, Context

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

An Introduction to the 'Canterbury Tales': Reading, Fiction, Context

Article excerpt

Helen Phillips, An Introduction to the 'Canterbury Tales. Reading Fiction, Context (Basingstoke: Macmillan (Palgrave) Press; New York: St Martin's Press, 2000). vi + 254 pp. ISBN 0-333-63680--5 (Macmillan); 0-312-22739-6 (St Martin's Press). (English pound)45.00 (hard covers), (English pound)14.99 (p/b). Introductions to the Canterbury Tales are hardly thin on the ground, but this most studied of all Middle English literary works poses so many problems of interpretation, and continues to spark so many heated critical debates, that new studies remain welcome and necessary, particularly for students approaching the subject for the first time. Helen Phillips's work is explicitly designed for such students, and they should find it both illuminating and easy to read.

The introductory chapter gives a brief sketch of Chaucer's life and a whistlestop tour of those aspects of fourteenth-century English history that impinged on Chaucer's life or writing. Under the subheading 'Texts and criticism' is a very useful summary of the major landmarks of twentieth-century critical thought on the structure and interpretation of the Canterbury Tales as a whole. Thereafter the book is divided into chapters that discuss the General Prologue and each of the tales in their order of appearance in the Riverside Chaucer. Some tales are paired, but most receive individual treatment which varies in length from just under four pages for the Physician's Tale to thirteen and fourteen pages respectively for the Man of Law's Tale and the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. The space allotted to these two reflects the current tidal wave of interest in gender studies and the Wife of Bath especially. In comparison to this, it is slightly disappointing to see that the two longest and structurally most important tales, the opening Knight's Tale and the closing Parson's Tale, have only eight pages apiece devoted to them. …

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