Magazine article The Spectator

Instead of the Poem

Magazine article The Spectator

Instead of the Poem

Article excerpt

THE CANTERBURY TALES

by Geoffrey Chaucer, retold by Peter Ackroyd

Penguin Classics, £25, pp 437, ISBN 9781846140587

£20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

On this book's title page its publishers enlarge on Peter Ackroyd's 'retelling': his book, they declare, is at once a translation and - wait for it - an 'adaptation' of Chaucer, and from the beginning, you are made aware of what form this adaptation will take.

This is how Chaucer introduces his Prioress in the General Prologue, and it is a moment of quiet, if sly, humour as he sketches the prissy little ladylike ways of this Merle Oberon in a wimple:

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

And you don't need to be a student of 14th-century English language, or history, to get the joke, or to know whether there was a nunnery at Stratford atte Bowe, wherever Stratford atte Bowe is or was. The Prioress persists in talking French to be 'y-tolde of', to show off, only she does so with a marked English accent. Pure Cheltenham Ladies College, you might say.

This is what Coghill makes of it in his tour de force of a translation:

And she spoke daintily in French, extremely, After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe; French in the Paris style she did not know.

The joke has begun to be trodden down. Its neatness has gone; but then Coghill had the exigencies of rhyme to contend with.

Peter Ackroyd is free of such exigencies, as his translation/adaptation is in prose. Yet what follows is what he made of it:

She spoke French elegantly enough, although her accent was closer to Bow than to Paris.

What does it matter if we do not speak the exact language of the French? They are no longer our masters. English is even spoken in the parliament house now.

Yes. And Chaucer may even have heard Henry IV take his Coronation Oath in English, the first Norman king to do so.

It is an interesting historical point that Ackroyd makes, only, in the course of making it, the initial joke has been killed stone dead, and, what is more important, the characterisation interrupted, as a footnote is forked into the text. I don't think Chaucer would have welcomed such an adaptation, and neither will the general reader for whom this book is designed, 'essentially to facilitate the experience of the poem', only of course it is no longer a poem, it has become a prose narrative.

This, to quote Ackroyd again, 'is a daunting concession to the modern world which does not love the long poem'. …

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