Book review: 'The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling' by Peter Ackroyd

Sunday, December 20, 2009


By Geoffrey Chaucer.

A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

Viking. 436 pp. $35

Remember struggling over "The Canterbury Tales" in high school? It was a labor of laughs borne only for the puerile joy of reading about farts and arse-kissing. And there was this weird recognition: Could people really have been so much like us 600 years ago? For the pleasure of it all, you had to put up with English that was nothing like the English you knew. As Chaucer wrote of the Wife of Bath:

Housbondes at chirche-dore she hadde fyve,

Withouten other companye in youthe . . .

In felawschip wel coude she laughe and carpe.

Of remedyes of love she knew perchaunce,

For she coude of that art the olde daunce.

Now here comes Peter Ackroyd, novelist, biographer and historian, with "The Canterbury Tales" for a new generation -- it's Chaucer in vivid, expressive English exactly as you speak it. Here in Ackroyd-ese, the same passage quoted above:

"She had been married in church five times but, in her youth, she had enjoyed any number of liaisons. . . . She had performed in that game before. She knew, as they say, the ways of the dance."

Of course, "The Canterbury Tales" is far more than its ribaldry. It gives a rich and complex portrait of the sensibility of the Middle Ages and, in its original, is beautiful poetry. As Ackroyd remarks, "It is one of the greatest poems in all of English literature, one that will last as long as the language itself endures."

-- Steven Levingston

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