Modern Canterbury Tales

June 7, 2009
By Lucy Msall BRONZE, Oak Park, Illinois
Lucy Msall BRONZE, Oak Park, Illinois
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

When April’s promise of no snow
Seems light and far away
Then people long to go vacationing
And from America,
They go to Florida
Whose sunny shores lack snow in
The darkness of December
And whose ocean’s taunt with
Brighter fish and taller palms
And the same snowy April
My own flight was vastly delayed
Twenty-nine others and I,
Pushed back until five the next morning
We were put up in a nearby hotel
And unable to sleep, gathered in the lobby
As the sun slowly set, I became aquatinted with the group.
Here I will describe them to you, as I preserved and remembered them.
And so, with the first woman, I shall begin.

There was a MOTHER, younger than some
Pretty as could be, with flowing red hair.
But certainly, she looked very haggard, traveling with such children.
A hard-working woman, to be sure.
And well educated! Some of which she certainly imparted on her young,
As she spent the day-to-day with them.
She most certainly raised the children well
For I do declare, I had never seen such behaved children
And they became a credit to her.
Of course, I am certain they credited the husband as well!
For the man constantly gave his sons tokens of affection,
When he might be spared from his important calls.
He was excellent with the toddler, very true
Picking her up and setting her down again.
I never saw such a marvelous family.

An old man and wife.
Their country was not Russia, exactly-
A different country- but near there,
And my memory fails to serve in remembering the name.
They were constantly together,
White haired,
Talking loudly in foreign tongues
They had been wealthy back in the old country
But they embraced their new homeland
For now they had freedom!
A gift-I trust- one cannot price.
Their marriage had lasted 56 years
And watching such a couple
One could not help but hope for
Such a century of domesticity
They had brought five children to this country!
And bore three more in this great land.
The couple brought one DAUGHTER on their trip.
She was a student, a soon-to-be engineer
And could often be seen hunched over large textbooks.
The father yelled at her often, about her studies.
It was rather harsh
The general company did their best not to eavesdrop
For such families, it is well known
Maintain such strict traditions
And our company did our best to embrace such differences.
And that family, they were soon to bed.

A YOUNG MAN with a lap top sat in the corner
He refused to interact with any in the company.
With much prodding, I encouraged him to talk of himself.
He answered sharply, in quick bursts.
A sign of modesty, I found!
Such humble men do not wish to discuss their lives.
He was a business man, out of university.
He earned a living creating websites
Enthralled with his work
Indeed, he eyes rarely strayed from his screen
Throughout our conversation,
The picture of diligence!

An ELDER GENTLEMAN, too, shared our hearth.
He was a distinguished man, a war hero
His numerous battles could not depict his pluck
He was a storyteller
The children gathered round to hear his accounts with minimal fuss
And truly! No one minded should he stray from the plot of his tale.
Such a man this was.
His hair had gone snow-white with wisdom.
And his teeth, too, colored with time.
A red Swiss knife was ready at his fingertips
A man like that needs something to fiddle with.
I never saw him without it; cleaning his fingernails or picking his teeth.
And the knife gladly sprung to cut apples for youngsters
And softly returned to the task at his hands.
A jovial man, benevolent.
All were glad to have him in the company.

A SECOND MOTHER was among our group,
With just one lone daughter.
The girl was dark and pretty,
Looked like her mother
And slept on the couch
As we gathered, talking.
The woman’s posture was upright,
Her lips pursed, eyes down.
Her speech was careful, her words pronounced.
A classroom teacher, she was.
Where her daughter attended.
This woman pulled a glossy magazine in her seldom empty lap.
Shrugging at the company
She professed such things to be a guilty pleasure
Trash, she said, kept her going.
People deserve to be shameless about their enjoyments
Not everyone is destined for Dickens, not all the time.
Charlotte, her name was, and she came from Willowbrook
A good town, she said.
Comfortable, close knit.
Her husband grew soybeans, mainly
And their house had a wrap-about porch.

And so ends my account of the characters I met
I have described them as I remember them, and no different.
The account of our journey follows after
For bound as a group, the company proposed a game of skill
for tonight and tomorrow’s flight
Whomever could tell the best story
Would be bought dinner by our company, free of charge
When the rules had been settled and a judge established
The elderly gentleman leaned forward
And began a tale.

The author's comments:
Modern America’s melting pot culture seems inherently resistant to having any kind of representation. By simply including some characters, one feels that it is leaving others out. The wide range of people and ways of being in modern America seem to outweigh the reality Chaucer dealt with. Yet, our society retains its stereotypes, images of how certain people ate. Both the characters of my piece and of Canterbury Tales are based around stereotypes, but grow interesting in the way they break out of (or simply struggle with) such assumptions.

The character I made the strongest attempt to imitate was the narrator. I tried to emulate the narrator’s naiveté. The narrator praises the characters while showing the reader their many flaws. S/he seems to see every character as the shining example of their class. The narrator claims to become one of the group, but then acts as an observer/interviewer, separated from the written characters. The narrator remains oblivious, as the reader watches ever-widening gap between what the characters ought to be, and what they are. The narrator shows us the elderly character as someone to be admired, and zones in on him fiddling with his knife. The narrator praises him for being willing to cut the children’s’ food, but the readers are shown the filth of his using the knife to clean his fingernails at the same.

This elderly character is parallel to Chaucer’s knight, another war hero. However, the elder man is neither worshipped nor respected in the way of Chaucer’s knight. Simply by his old age and ancient characteristics, the gentleman is shown as a little outdated, unattractive and one whose mannerisms are meant to disgust the reader.

Canterbury tales brings us back to a time when people had to travel together, in packs. Modern Travel is fast becoming a personal experience; modern travelers barely interact with their seat-neighbor. Modern travelers’ plans must set aside in order to truly conjugate as a group Rather than Chaucer’s outgoing Host, the modern characters are left with a young business man unwilling to interact with the narrator. However, parallels can be drawn between the young man and the merchant character, the one character Chaucer found very little to praise about. Talking only of money, the merchant refused even to tell the company his name. “He delivered his remarks very solemnly… no one knew he was in debt…. But to tell the truth, I don’t know what his name was” (276- 286). Chaucer’s character was a merchant, in times where Nobility was declining, and the merchant class was fast becoming the most wealthy and powerful. The modern young man is also part of a new growing industry- the internet. However, the merchant boasts about his affairs, while our new young main wishes to be left entirely alone with his computer.

The Pilgrims on the Canterbury trail seem to lack one thing that is able to bind modern groups together - children. There are no actual children characters introduced in the Canterbury Tales’ General Prologue. Though children do not represent any main characters in my modern version, they bind the story together. Both the two mothers and the storyteller gentleman are introduced in the ways they interact with the children in the group. The role of the nuclear family, particularly in the setting of trips and vacations, has gained much significance in this modern transposition.

What Chaucer lacked in Children, he made up for in Catholics. Chaucerian England was entirely Catholic, the idea of a reformation a million miles away. Diversity of race, culture and creed was simply nonexistent. The only hint readers are given of other religions are of the Muslims and Russian Orthodox the knight “fought for our faith”. My prologue used neither race nor religion as a starting point for socioeconomic diversity, though the Russian couple would have been unthinkable in Chaucer’s day. Furthermore, several of the characters are racially ambiguous.

While Chaucerian England was cleanly divided into three estates- Military (including Nobility), Religious and Laymen, modern America’s distinctions are far murkier. As Chaucer did, I attempted to base characters off our modern assumptions. Yet, the Canterbury Tales’ characters are not full stereotypes. Rather, the stereotypical characters seem to be aware that they are stereotypes, and try to resist it- by either being something else, or having justification for their stereotypical actions.
“There was also a nun, a PRIORESS… she sang the divined service well…and took great pains to behave in a well bred fashion.” (118-140)
The Prioress’s holy orders of simplicity contradict her constant efforts at cultivating a Noble Bearing. The English Prioress’ attempt to learn French and act like a lady is comparable to the Second Mother’s small-town teaching background clashing with her love for trashy tabloids. Yet, while Chaucer’s character attempts to better herself, the modern character falls short of her predestined stereotype.

The differences between Chaucerian England and modern America cannot be counted; every aspect of life has changed. Yet, should people gather together once more, to tell stories and form a group; the variety of walks of life will show themselves. Furthermore, there will always be a chance to make fun of someone.

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