The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (aka General Prologue)


The General Prologue serves as an introduction to the overarching frame story. One spring day, the narrator of The Canterbury Tales rents a room at the Tabard Inn before he recommences his journey to Canterbury. That evening, a group of people arrive at the inn, all of whom are going to Canterbury to receive the blessings of the holy blissful martyr, Saint Thomas à Beckett. These pilgrims accept the narrator into their company. The narrator describes his newfound traveling companions.

The host at the inn, Harry Bailey, suggests that, to make the trip to Canterbury pass more pleasantly, each member of the party tells two tales on the journey to Canterbury and two more tales on the journey back. The person who tells the best stories will be rewarded with a dinner paid for by the other members of the party. The host decides to accompany the pilgrims to Canterbury and serve as the judge of the tales.

The opening lines present the physical setting for the Canterbury pilgrimage. Chaucer’s original plan, however, was never completed; we have tales only for the journey to Canterbury. In The Prologue, portraits of all levels of English life are depicted. And their order of presentation gives a clue as to the social standing of the different occupations. The pilgrims presented first represent the highest social rank, with social rank descending with each new pilgrim introduced.

Chaucer: A Painter of Medieval society 

Here is God’s plenty.’

Dryden remarks about the Canterbury Tales as whole, but holds valid even if considered for “The General Prologue” alone. It is obvious that the observation made by Dryden, refers to the abundance of characters in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is the first great painter of characters in English literature and stands next to Shakespeare. His ‘Prologue’ delineates various characters belonging to different sections of the society and serves as a picture gallery which gives a vivid and colourful glimpse of the contemporary England.

Other collection of tales also existed before Chaucer’s, the most famous being Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which three young lords and seven young ladies agree to tell tales while they stay in a country villa to avoid the plague that is ravaging the cities. Since, all of Boccaccio’s narrators belong to the same ‘social class’, the Decameron tales are similar in their sophistication.

Chaucer, however, came up with the ingenuous (innocent, unsuspecting) literary device of having a pilgrimage, a technique that allowed him to bring together a diverse group of people. Thus, Chaucer’s narrators represent a wide spectrum of society with various ranks and occupations, including the noble Knight, the Squire, the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Clerk, the Franklin, Wife of Bath, to the low and vulgar Miller and Carpenter and the corrupt Pardoner. The poet provide adequate information regarding physical presence, costumes, area of interest, moods, likes and dislikes, behaviour, practices, perceptions, impression, mind-set, minute and detailed psychological analysis about the characters. For this Chaucer is also praised by several critics as Coghill comments:

Chaucer has painted the real picture of England of the fourteenth century.”

Rickets also appreciates Chaucer in glaring terms:

Like Shakespeare, Chaucer makes it his business to paint life as he sees it and paves others to say the morals.”

During Chaucer’s time, regardless of how brilliant and talented one might be, a commoner could never move from his class to aristocracy. However, Chaucer made that leap as well as anyone could. As a commoner, he was familiar with and accepted by both the lower and higher classes. Throughout his life, he was able to observe both the highest and lowest classes, and with his gifted genius, he made the most out of these opportunities.

It is Chaucer’s genius at understanding basic human nature that made him the great poet he was. He knew the world from many aspects, and he loved most of his characters. Chaucer presents the world as he sees it, and he shares one quality with all great writers: He is a delight to read.

The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales as a Picture Gallery 

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is not only an epitome of literary work of high standard, but it also stands out as a historical and sociological introduction to the Life and times of the late Middle Ages. It is said that Chaucer was the true representative of not only of his age but also of situation. The Prologue begins with description of nature where Chaucer provides sufficient platform to understand the climatic situation, natural beauty and other conditions. After reading this, the readers are completely nostalgic in mood to relish his versification. To quote the very first two lines—

When that Aprill with his showers soote

The droghte of March hath pierced to the roots”

The Knight is the first one with whom Chaucer starts this monumental work. In appreciation of the Knight, he nicely writes:

A Knight ther was that a worthy man.”

He further explains the nature, reputation and behaviour of the Knight in following lines;

Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie…….

…..No cristen man so ofte of his degree.”

In his characterization of the Knight, we readers are fully satisfied with the information provided by the creator. Our thirst is completely satisfied by the poet. Who was the Knight, how was he, what were his businesses etc.—nothing is left either to guess or to imagine. Such a wonderful explanation of characters established Chaucer among superb creators of characters of English literature.We find Chaucerian characters are sparkling round, expressive and powerful.

The Squire, the poet continues his lofty sublime and minute ways; as he writes,

…..a yong squier,

A lovyere and a lusty bacheler,

With lokkes crulle as they were leyd in presse.”

He seems to present the live descriptions of his characters without adding anything else. His true and candid presentation peeps through following lines;

Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.

Of his stature he was of evene lengthe,

In his picture gallery, even minor characters have been taken seriously. As he continues and introduces his third character—the Yeoman, a servant. The poet describes the Yeoman with all requisite information—his costumes, duties, gesture and posture etc. as he writes;

And he was clad in cote and hood of grene….

….And in his hand he baar a myghty bowe”

In this series, we have other characters also such as Nun, Monk, Friar etc. So if The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is a picture gallery, it is neither an exaggeration nor any false representation. As a beginner, he has taken his characters/representatives from the higher group and the middle-class society, and his representation is somehow complete. In his minute representation of a Prioress (nun), he writes;

That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy;

It seems that the poet takes extra care of the smile and beauty of the Prioress. In his explanation of the Monk, Chaucer presents pictures of rituals, religious practices and some signs of theological connections. Monk’s portrayal represents the corruption present in the Medieval society as he is more interested in worldly pursuits, like hunting and luxury, rather than adhering strictly to the principles of his religious order. To quote the poet himself;

This ilke monk leet olde thynges pace,

And heeld after the newe world the space.”

Further, the poet adds another flower, in his bouquet with the character of the Friar. The friar’s behavior, such as arranging marriages for young women and accepting bribes for absolution, indicates a level of corruption within the church hierarchy. This reflects societal concerns about the moral integrity of religious figures.

To sum up, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer is out and out a picture gallery of highest form and standard. He represents the Medieval British culture and society through his life size characters and lively presentations.






You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You can change the language to 'Hindi' by clicking on the 'British Flag' icon at the bottom-right corner of the page.

error: Content is protected !!