After my recent stint of short, light books, I decided to tackle something a little more demanding. I glanced at my shelves, and pondered Gravity's Rainbow.
Well, maybe not something that demanding, I decided.
I ended up grabbing Chaucer's Canterbury Tales on the twin bases of: 1) It's meritorious and not totally fluffy, but 2) it's also pretty short.
The edition I have (a Bantam Classics one) has Middle English (ME) on the left pages, and Modern English (ModE) on the facing pages. The ModE translation is of the literal, rather than poetic, variety; it makes no attempt at all to capture the rhythm or cadence of Chaucer's writing, and even (somewhat bizarrely) ignores his word choices for more obvious words. That's fine when they're changing "ycleped" to "called", but rather irritating when they change a perfectly understandable word to a completely different and only marginally more understandable word.
Of course, in theory, I shouldn't give a damn about the translation, because I'd've read the ME straight. Well, that's theory. Reality is: yeah, I could read the ME, but there were enough unintelligible words that I had to keep making frequent glances at the ModE translation, and (more importantly) a number of words that looked like they meant one thing, but really meant something else. Reading the ME was possible, but it was frustratingly slow, and about halfway through the Prologue, I realized that I was spending so much effort trying to decipher the text that I was barely comprehending it on a narrative level.
So, screw that. For the rest of the book, I read the ModE straight, with only occasional glances at the ME. This means that I can't much comment on Chaucer's style, and I've already criticized the translators' style. So, what about the stories? In a word: Ick.
Chaucer's historically important, and I can respect that; but in terms of actual quality, well, the state of writing has long ago passed him by. His plots are simplistic, his characters caricatures, and his politics positively (if expectedly) medieval. Most of the stories in my edition focus on sexual politics -- lots of talk about adultery and marriage and gender roles; after reading this, I've now read the word "cuckold" about twice as much as I had previously. These are timeless themes, of course, but... well, Chaucer was writing some centuries before the advent of feminism, and most of his sexual politics are pretty damn antiquated to a modern eye.
And when Chaucer's talking about other topics, he's even more grating. The Pardoner's Tale, which is intended as a social satire on the selling of indulgences, is done with sledgehammer subtlety -- the pardoner mostly sits around bragging about how greedy and venal he is, and the reader just rolls his eyes. And then there are the exceedingly nasty pieces of anti-Semitism; relics of the time, of course, but deeply cringeworthy all the same.
The question that comes up with any piece of classic literature is whether the work is only important for its historical significance, or whether it's still enjoyable as a piece of literature to a modern audience. Alas, in Chaucer's case, my answer is that reading The Canterbury Tales for pleasure is a fruitless and futile exercise. I'm glad that I can say I've read it, but I didn't enjoy reading it.