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The General Prologue The Canterbury Tales

1451 words - 6 pages

The General Prologue - The Canterbury Tales

The General Prologue

The most popular part of the Canterbury Tales is the General Prologue,
which has long been admired for the lively, individualized portraits
it offers. More recent criticism has reacted against this approach,
claiming that the portraits are indicative of social types, part of a
tradition of social satire, "estates satire", and insisting that they
should not be read as individualized character portraits like those in
a novel. Yet it is sure that Chaucer's capacity of human sympathy,
like Shakespeare's, enabled him to go beyond the conventions of his
time and create images of individualized human subjects that have been
found not merely credible but endearing in every period from his own
until now.

It is the General Prologue that serves to establish firmly the
framework for the entire story-collection: the pilgrimage that risks
being turned into a tale-telling competition. The title "General
Prologue" is a modern invention, although a few manuscripts call it
prologus. There are very few major textual differences between the
various manuscripts. The structure of the General Prologue is a simple
one. After an elaborate introduction in lines 1 - 34, the narrator
begins the series of portraits (lines 35 - 719). These are followed by
a report of the Host's suggestion of a tale-telling contest and its
acceptance (lines 720 - 821). On the following morning the pilgrims
assemble and it is decided that the Knight shall tell the first tale
(lines 822 - 858).

Nothing indicates when Chaucer began to compose the General Prologue
and there are no variations between manuscripts that might suggest
that he revised it after making an initial version. It is sometimes
felt that the last two portraits, of Pardoner and Summoner, may have
been added later but there is no evidence to support this. The
portraits do not follow any particular order after the first few
pilgrims have been introduced; the Knight who comes first is socially
the highest person present (the Host calls him 'my mayster and my
lord' in line 837).

The Knight is the picture of a professional soldier, come straight
from foreign wars with clothes all stained from his armour. His
travels are remarkably vast; he has fought in Prussia, Lithuania,
Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Turkey against pagans, Moors, and
Saracens, killing many. The variety of lords for whom he has fought
suggests that he is some kind of mercenary, but it seems that Chaucer
may have known people at the English court with similar records. The
narrator insists: "He was a verray, parfit, gentil knight," but some
modern readers, ill at ease with idealized warriors, and doubtful
about the value of the narrator's enthusiasms, have questioned this

His son, the Squire, is by contrast an elegant young man about court,
with fashionable clothes and romantic skills of singing and dancing.

Their Yeoman is a...

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