Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;...
Whether we read in Middle English or Modern English, I'm sure teachers glossed over Chaucer's sly humor and more ribald jokes (mine did). Instead of laughing over bickering tradesmen and hypocritical churchmen, Chaucer came off dry, boring and a little stodgy.
Enter Peter Ackroyd. Known most recently for his geographic biographies, Venice, London, and Thames, as well as The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Ackroyd gives the reader a prose translation of Chaucer's poem. Not a line-by-line translation packed into paragraphs, with annotations and definitions, but a story that emphasizes the human characters that pout and whine, take offense, pontificate, and generally enjoy telling a naughty story or two. Ackroyd's uses modern prose and sentence structure while keeping the original narrative structure, characters and setting of The Canterbury Tales intact. This is a great introduction to Chaucer for those who might be hesitant to tackle the poem, to become familiar with the characters and the enjoy the stories without worrying over rhymes and poetic metaphor; on the other hand, those already familiar with Chaucer will appreciate Ackroyd's interpretation for the warmth and humor of the language without any loss of Chaucer's wit.
Enter also Penguin USA. Penguin has recently launched new paperback "packaging" of many classics and the paperback release of Ackroyd's The Canterbury Tales wasn't left behind (the original hardcover design is at the bottom of this post). Designer Ted Steam created a cartoon cover showcasing all the pilgrims from Chaucer's tales as they pass by the reader on the cover. It's a wrap-around design and worth every chuckle (I particularly like the richness of the Wife of Bath, the silliness of the three monks sharing a horse, and the student doggedly reading while on horseback). It reminds me of old movie posters like that of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Animal House where the actors' characters are charicatured in the drawing. Steam also paneled out "The Man of Law's Tale" and "The Miller's Tale" on the interior flaps. You can see an image of the entire cover at the Superpunch blog (The Canterbury Tales is the third set of images in the post; the whole post is a great overview of some of the new Penguin covers).
Chaucer is a favorite of mine and I own a number of different editions but this one shines a little brighter for the warmth of its story and clever cover art.
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