Ten of Chaucer’s greatest tales
Geoffrey Chaucer left his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, unfinished when he died in 1400, having completed only one-fifth of the projected undertaking. Nevertheless, he left 20-odd tales finished, some of which are somewhat longer than others. What are the ten best Canterbury Tales? Below are what we consider the greatest of the tales told by Chaucer’s pilgrims. If you want to read Chaucer’s vast classic but don’t know the best place to start, these are our recommendations. We’ve been unsure as to whether to link to handy online translations of the Canterbury Tales into modern English, or to link to original Middle English versions. So, we’ve compromised. The interlinear translations offered by Harvard contain a line-by-line translation below the original Middle English.
The Miller’s Tale. Perhaps the most famous – and best-loved – of all of the tales in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is told as a comic corrective following the sonorous seriousness of the Knight’s tale. The tale is an example of the fabliau or comic skit, and concerns a lecherous young student at the University of Oxford, Nicholas, and his adulterous relationship with Alison, the young wife of an old carpenter. Flood warnings, farting, and frantic ark-building all ensue, in one of the great jewels in the comic crown of medieval literature.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Another genre here: this time, the medieval ‘beast fable’, featuring Chaunticleer the rooster, who, having been kidnapped by a fox (modelled on Reynard the Fox from French literature), devises a plan to escape.
The Knight’s Tale. The inspiration for William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s play The Two Noble Kinsmen (and, more recently, for the title of a 2001 film starring Heath Ledger, and featuring Paul Bettany playing Chaucer), this tale kicks off the storytelling competition among the pilgrims. A story of rivalry (between two Athenians, Palamon and Arcite) and love, its pure, straight-faced nature prompts the Miller to tell his tale of bawdy high-jinks that follows.
The Merchant’s Tale. Another comic tale, this – and, like the Miller’s tale, one which features an old man who has married a young, beautiful wife who ends up cheating on her husband. But then in fairness, the husband is called January.
The Reeve’s Tale. The Reeve doesn’t enjoy the Miller’s tale much, not least because the cuckolded husband was a carpenter, and the Reeve himself is a bit of a carpenter himself. In an attempt to get his own back on the Miller, the Reeve tells this comic tale about a Miller who is duped by a couple of men.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Wife of Bath is more famous as a character in The Canterbury Tales than her tale, which is a brutal tale of rape set in Arthurian England. After he rapes a maiden, a young knight is sent away to undergo his penance, tasked with finding out what it is that women want. If he fails, he will be killed. He meets an ugly hag who promises to tell him the answer – but only if he agrees to grant her a favour in exchange. He agrees to her terms, and – well, we won’t give away what the hag’s answer is.
The Friar’s Tale. The Friar’s Tale is about a corrupt and lecherous summoner (see below), who is charged by his archdeacon with extracting money from those who have transgressed. But then one day the summoner meets the Devil in disguise… This is another light tale, though its ending is altogether less comic than one might expect.
The Summoner’s Tale. As with the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale, this is another case of tit-for-tat, with the Summoner responding to the Friar’s story of a lecherous summoner by telling a tale against friars. And, like the Miller’s Tale, this one is a comic fabliau ending with a colossal fart – we’ll say no more than that.
The Tale of Sir Thopas. Another comic piece, and worthy of inclusion here for two reasons: first, it’s one of two tales in The Canterbury Tales which is told by Geoffrey Chaucer (or a fictionalised version) himself, and second, it’s a marvellous parody of bad poetry. The poem concerns a knight, Sir Thopas, who meets a giant while he is searching for his beloved elf queen. The Host, Harry Baillie, gets so annoyed with the awfulness of the poet’s verse that he prevents Chaucer from finishing his tale. Amongst other things, ‘The Tale of Sir Thopas’ is a fine example of a poet being prepared to send himself up.
The General Prologue. Okay, so this isn’t one of the tales, but it is part of The Canterbury Tales and is obviously the best place to start reading, since it opens the work. It also offers a rich and colourful picture of fourteenth-century English life and the various people found in the new society that was being formed in the wake of the Black Death in the 1340s. The descriptions of the pilgrims taking part in the tale-telling contest are brilliantly vivid, illuminating, and entertaining.
If you want to read The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English, it’s essential to have an edition with good annotations. The best collection of Chaucer’s work is The Riverside Chaucer: Reissued with a new foreword by Christopher Cannon, which we recommend. If you’d rather read Chaucer’s masterpiece in modern English, we recommend The Canterbury Tales (Penguin Classics).
If you enjoyed this pick of the greatest bits of The Canterbury Tales, you can continue your medieval literary odyssey with more facts about Geoffrey Chaucer’s life and work, these classic medieval works of literature, and our short introduction to Chaucer’s successor, John Lydgate.