I'm posting this to honor the birthday of Theodor Geisel today. Otherwise, the world may never have considered Geoffrey Chaucer and Dr. Seuss in the same thought. But, oh!
Reading Chaucer for the first time could be compared to reading Dr. Suess; everything rhymes and many of the words sound made up. At first hearing, the sing-song iambic lines race by like Sam-I-Am’s famous green-egg treatise. But soon we find ourselves pondering the literary merits of farting and adultery, and we begin to wonder if Horton has heard a Who of another kind. Perhaps Chaucer’s ancient characters are as true to life as any modern creation, and perhaps there is some reason we find them interesting to study.
But is it only literary scholars and English majors who find parallels between the farting scene in Chaucer’s The Millers Tale and the comedy of Eddie Murphy or Jim Carey? Does everyone else view Chaucer as some old fart (forgive the wordplay) trying to sound “hip” by throwing in a few weak attempts at humor?
For some, the prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales might bring back memories of the opening scene to any episode of the 70’s iconic The Love Boat, where each episode’s conflicts-of-the-week are introduced on their way to some-exotic-love-port before the first commercial break. But while an entire generation of baby boomers might face such a prologue with nostalgia and expectation, is it a universal appeal? Can Chaucer’s opening create anticipation in anyone unfamiliar with the faces of society in Medieval England?
The Canterbury Tales are no cruise to a South Seas rendezvous, nor are they a search for some Dr. Seussian Christmas secret. The Canterbury Tales involves a company of pilgrims on their way from Southwark (no, not South Park) to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, a popular travel destination of the time. But where The Love Boat drew caricatures of the 1970’s elite, The Canterbury Tales paints portraits of 14th Century common English life.
Chaucer is thought to have borrowed from The Decameron, a series of allegorical tales by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio well known for their bawdiness. Chaucer's tales are connected by the literary device of a boxed or framed narrative. Like The Book of One Thousand and One Nights or Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a framing story serves as a convenient device to gather several otherwise unrelated tales into one volume. In Chaucer’s hands, the individual tales are usually boxed again within their own individual prologues. It’s the same handy device used by Looney Tunes to paste a bunch of existing cartoons into a full length movie, but has other benefits such as procatalepsis, the chance for characters within the story to comment on and react toward each others' tales.
However, the familiarity of the literary device or the use of bawdy humor does not detract from the value of The Canterbury Tales as a work of fiction. Chaucer may claim to be only a pilgrim himself, and therefore merely reporting what he has seen and heard, but Chaucer-the-pilgrim should not overshadow Chaucer-the-author. If they had been the true compilation of tales told by various travelers, The Canterbury Tales would have given interesting insight to the era; but since they are from the mind of one man, we might be able to assume there is some deeper, hidden commentary on his fellow man.
This talent for both storytelling and human insight is part of what removes Chaucer from merely the author of a group of funny old stories and has caused him to be called the father of English poetry. Theodor Geisel, as well as the rest of us, owe Mr. Chaucer a great debt.