Allusion in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the definition and use of allusion in Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of stories and poems about a group of people on a pilgrimage, 'The Canterbury Tales.'

Background and Definition

When someone mentions Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what do you think about? Most people associate Dr. King with the Civil Rights Movement in America. If an author were to mention him in a novel, the reader could make the connection without needing it to be described. When an author makes vague reference to something in history or literature, but does not explain it to the reader, it is called allusion. Allusions are used throughout Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. This story is comprised of a collection of poems and stories that are told by a group of characters that happen upon one another on their way to Canterbury. They tell stories to entertain one another along the way. Let's look at some examples of allusion from The Canterbury Tales.

The Prologue

During the Prologue, the narrator describes each of the characters. During the description of the clerk, he says, 'For he would rather have at his bed's head/Some twenty books, all bound in black and red,/Of Aristotle and his philosophy/Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.' This allusion to Aristotle, a Greek philosopher and scientist, provides insight into this character's desire for knowledge.

Allusion is also used in the description of the physician when the narrator says, 'Well read was he in Esculapius,/And Deiscorides, and in Rufus,/Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen,/Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicen,/Averrhoes, Gilbert, and Constantine,/Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene.' Most of these figures were contributors to early Greek medicine. However, Esculapius is the Greek god of medicine. Some of these authors dabbled in metaphysics, secularism, and experimental medicine, indicating that the physician is well-read but maintains an interest in pseudo-sciences.

The Knight's Tale

In The Knight's Tale, the narrator describes the painting of the Mount of Citheron: 'Nor was forgot the gate--guard Idleness,/Nor fair Narcissus of the years long gone,/Nor yet the folly of King Solomon,/No, nor the giant strength of Hercules,/Nor Circe's and Medea's sorceries,/Nor Turnus with his hardy, fierce courage,/Nor the rich Croesus, captive in his age.'

Narcissus was a hunter from Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. King Solomon was a wise king of Israel. Hercules is a figure from Greek mythology known for his strength. Circe is the Greek Goddess of magic. Medea is a sorceress in Greek mythology. Turnus is the enemy of Venus' son, Aeneas, according to Virgil's epic poem 'Aeneid.' Croesus was a former king of Lydia (Turkey) who became legendary among the Greeks after his death. Incorporating each of these characters into the description of the painting provides the reader with a visual of the scene, which focuses on larger than life characters.

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