My dad is my version of a 21st Century Man. He labours for a living, he left school at 16 and is interested in sports. What I wanted to do with him this week was introduce him to Chaucer and the works in the Canterbury Tales. The reason behind this is that I want to prove how Chaucer is entirely accessible and why, and not only accessible but enjoyable. I began with the typical questions:
Me: ‘Did you learn Chaucer at any point in your education?’ Dad: ‘No.’
Me: ‘What do you think when I say ‘Chaucer?’ Dad: ‘Too difficult.’
Later in the week, without him knowing, I asked him to listen to a story I’d heard and proceeded to tell the Knight’s Tale in modern, colloquial English. Another day I told him the Miller’s Tale in the same fashion. Now, without studying at a university level and doing secondary research, Dad was able to do something which I believe we all can do with Chaucer – respond emotionally. He was laughing at the Miller’s Tale, found the Knight’s Tale poignant and took the moral message. The following day, I asked him whether he remembered the stories and he not only remembered them but recalled them to me.
I told Dad that they were tales from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and he simply did not believe he’d just understood and appreciated medieval stories.
What I learnt from this is that Chaucer’s work can still engage people from the modern world. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Comedies: Origins and Originality, Peter. G. Beidler suggests that Chaucer ‘wanted to make his story more realistic than its source,’ and that ‘Chaucer wanted his audience to be able to imagine the actions of the story.’ (p38) When thinking of this, it is not then surprising that my Dad can understand this because it seems to be based on real human interaction. When Beidler says that it’s ‘believable,’ I think is why Dad enjoyed it so much, the tales encompass seemingly authentic stories. Chaucer knowingly invented characters which are timeless because he captured the one thing all humans can understand, feelings.
To then focus on the humour in particular, it is interesting to look at Peter McGraw’s Benign Violation Theory, which implies that humour is created with a balance of something that is safe, but a violation in the same sense.
With the Miller’s Tale in particular, there is a balance between safe and violation because the affair is the violation, but the reader is safe because they are not in any way involved with the relationship of the characters. This is then perhaps why the humour does not succeed with the Reeve because, as a Carpenter, he feels somewhat offended, thus it sways further into the violation section. It seems Chaucer was aware that humour needs to be a balance between these two factors, and shows the reader what happens if the ‘humour balance’ is ruined in the example of the Reeve. This theory is why I believe my Dad found the Miller’s Tale funny. It was clearly highlighting the issue of cuckolding, yet it is far away enough from his reality that he was able to spectate, and find the situation funny.
By identifying the believability of Chaucer’s characters and his elixir for comedy, it is no surprise that my Dad was able to find Chaucer relatable and emotional. His obstacle was the stigma of difficulty and language. Once removed, he found the tales incredibly approachable. The Canterbury Tales is timeless and ready to make the 21st Century Man laugh, question and sigh.
Below is a link to a YouTube video I made in my second year of university to help students and newbies studying Chaucer :