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Peter Ackroyd’s The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling

William Sweet

through black sprucePeter Ackroyd
The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling
Penguin Classics, 2009
464 pages
£25
ISBN 978-1846140587

Peter Ackroyd is keen to emphasise that his prose version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a modernisation rather than a translation. Ackroyd must be commended for his efforts to attract a new audience to the medieval poet, and this aim seems to govern his changes to the tone and substance of the text.

Ackroyd has captured the modern idea of Chaucer—the bawdy poet of the Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales—and written it back into the other tales. This accounts for his unapologetic omission of the Tale of Melibee and the Parson’s Tale: Chaucer’s longest, most serious tales are apparently not “boozy” enough (to quote the dust jacket) to make the modern cut. In this, Ackroyd follows Mike Poulton’s 2006 Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of the tales for the theatre; the sermon has apparently had its heyday. A shrewd commercial move, although hardly true to Chaucer’s vision.

Ackroyd’s pilgrims speak with appreciably different voices, and this is to his credit. The Knight punctuates his tale with staccato bursts of single-word sentences, whilst the Wife of Bath combines high and low registers in close appreciation of Chaucer. Ackroyd is at his best when most outrageous; he occasionally inserts allusions with refreshing impunity, sneaking “Of arms, and the men, I sing” into his Knight’s Tale. Ackroyd deals neatly with the unfinished Cook’s Tale, penning an original intermission in which the Host interrupts the Cook, in homage to Lydgate and Caxton, the original medieval continuers of Chaucer’s incomplete poems.

Admittedly, it is a difficult task to fit Chaucer’s economical verse into modern prose, but Ackroyd’s attempts to improve on Chaucer’s language reach too far. Chaucer’s pun on “queynt” is famous, but Ackroyd too frequently reduces Chaucer’s thesaurus of innuendo to a four-letter-worded monotony. His added puns (“She ripped a bear apart with her ‘bear’ hands”) are clumsily un-Chaucerian.

Ackroyd brands this book a “retelling” in seeking an elusive compromise between fidelity to Chaucer and idiomatic modernisation. Chaucer himself, who plundered everybody from Virgil to Petrarch, would doubtless approve. Ultimately, however, there is no substitute for the real thing.

William Sweet is a third-year D.Phil. student at St. John’s College studying Late Medieval English.