Chaucer and
The Parson's Tale

RE: Canterbury Tales

Dear Sir or Madam:

I've nearly finished 500 odd pages of The Canterbury Tales and have problems.

The book was pretty funny, wry, witty, subversive, iconoclastic and to my taste ... Good. And the characters --- who resemble us and our interpersonal, societal, organization and authority problems etc. --- are fascinating in their tales and interactions. I recognized a few of them.


At the beginning we are told the best traveler's tale will be decided at the end of the journey and the best rewarded. Presumably to receive a prize? (I gather the pilgrims were escaping Black Death and trying for plague-less Canterbury that had good water ... Was that the prize?)

I enjoyed my way through the book ... except for a few losers like the Knight and Melissa or somebody ... and still no prize. I admit skipping to the end and skimming the Parson's endless lecture about the various sins illustrated in the tales.

"The Parson's Tale" wasn't written in verse and didn't rhyme. Did the editor tire? As I did and just quit toward the end, around page 475? At least he didn't leave Parson in a lengthy Middle English rant which must have been tempting.

"The Parson's Tale" was anti-verse and didn't rhyme ... just unreadable blogs of solid print like the NYC Annual Print, Typographer's, Artist's and Design Award give awards to artists for. Kind of a big black blotch of bloggy print of Sunday sermonlike parsing and logic chopping. For around 40 pages; of sins.

So. What have I missed? Who won? Who got the prize. What does it all mean? Eagerly.

--- Paul Nickel

§     §     §

Dear Sir or Madam:

"The Parson's Tale" was the last of the Canterbury Tales. It was set in prose, because, as the Parson relates, "I am a Southren man" --- in other words, a hick from the likes of Birmingham, Alabama --- "And, God knows, rhyme I hold but little better"

    But if you wish the truth made plain and straight,/ A pleasant tale in prose I will relate / To weave our feast together at the end.

So he sets out, in, some might say, tedious prose, "to show you, as we journey this last stage, / The way of that most perfect pilgrimage / To heavenly Jerusalem on high. "

It is thought by some critics that it is no accident that "The Parson's Tale" is linked to the final section of the Tales, the Retraction, where Chaucer personally asks forgiveness for any offense he may have caused by writing works of worldly "vanitee:"

    Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy
    Of God, that ye preye for me that crist have
    Mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes;
    Namely of my translacions and enditynges of
    Worldly vanitees.

"Thus I ask you, with all appropriate meekness, that you pray for, and that Christ have mercy and forgive me for my guilt: Namely of my translations and editings of worldly vanity."

Such retractions were not uncommon in the literature of the time ... indeed, in our own world (see Bob Dylan, Snoop Doggy Dogg, et al.) It is possible that Chaucer may have been buying some last-minute insurance, doing what many of us may do just before we inherit our final plot ... the militant atheist who, on his death-bed, will ask for the priest, and for complete absolution.

--- L. Lark
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