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Who is the Narrator of The Canterbury Tales? - Portrayal & Description

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

'The Canterbury Tales' is a collection of twenty-four stories, about 17,000 lines, written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1387 and 1400. Chaucer casts himself as the narrator, including himself as one of the story-telling characters.

Background of the Tales

The twenty-four stories collected in The Canterbury Tales are built around a frame narrative, quite common among English writers of the time. A frame narrative is one in which fictional characters each contribute their own part of the story in the context of a situation created by the author. The frame holds the widely varying tales together as a unit. In Chaucer's case, these tales are understood to be told by various travelers in the context of a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket.

The Pilgrims Journey to Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral

Before the individual tales begin, the Prologue introduces and describes each of the pilgrims, including Chaucer's fictional characterization of himself, who narrates the material between stories. The travelers represent a fascinating cross-section of medieval society, including representatives of the rising middle class in England. In between the tales, we learn more about the characters as they comment on each other's contributions to the game.

The Characters

Gathered for the pilgrimage to Canterbury are a wide selection of medieval characters, including members of the clergy, a knight, tradesmen, a widow, and the host Harry Bailey. Each of these is described briefly in the Prologue, which is narrated by the author and places him in the narrative as one of the pilgrims.

At the suggestion of their host, the travelers are invited to take part in a storytelling contest on the road. Chaucer, as a participant narrator, comments throughout the text, keeping the reader abreast of who is speaking at any given time. The reader can actually learn a good deal about the narrator by noticing how he describes the various pilgrims during the Prologue.

Chaucer as a Participant Narrator: An illustration showing the author as a pilgrim
Chaucer as a Pilgrim

For example, here is the beginning of the narrator's description of the Knight:

A knight there was, and he a worthy man,

Who, from the moment that he first began

To ride about the world, loved chivalry,

Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy.

The reader is led to believe that this character is a noble man, and thus his tale should be seriously considered. On the other hand, the Summoner obviously does not make a positive impression on the narrator, which reveals in turn what Chaucer might think about a character like this:

A summoner was with us in that place,

Who had a fiery-red, cherubic face,

For eczema he had; his eyes were narrow

As hot he was, and lecherous, as a sparrow;

With black and scabby brows and scanty beard;

He had a face that little children feared.

When, later in the collection, the Summoner tells a rather disgusting tale about the nature of friars, the reader is not surprised to have this character live up to the negative impression given earlier by the narrator.

After describing all of the pilgrims, the narrator asks that his readers pardon him if he gives offense, as he plans to report on all of the tales as they are told, even if they are rude. He then describes the evening at Harry Bailey's inn, where the pilgrims eat and spend the night before setting out on the road.

The Narrator's Tales

You may be wondering, since the narrator is also a participant in the journey, if he also is called upon to tell a tale. The answer is yes - in fact, he begins one tale, ''Sir Thopas,'' which is abruptly interrupted before it even gets going. Before this tale begins, the Host pokes fun at Chaucer's character for being plump and doll-like, and points out how little he interacts with the other pilgrims. Harry Bailey asks Chaucer to tell a merry tale, to which Chaucer's character replies that all he knows is a rhyme he learned long ago.

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