A Shimer student in the school’s library
So revolutionary that its impact is felt even today, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales presents a scene of England at an important turning point in literary history.
The Canterbury Tales was set and published in the early 1300s, when class and cultural divides in England ran strong. By devoting stories to a wide range of figures common to his time (from the knight to the miller, the cook, the “Man of Law,” the “Wife of Bath,” the clerk, the squire, the merchant, the monk, and many more), Chaucer painted a detailed portrait of England’s particular customs and contradictions. His diverse fictional characters are presented in critical ways, inviting readers to question and analyze various aspects of English society.
At Shimer, Canterbury Tales kicks off our integrative studies course on the history and philosophy of Western civilization. Because we’re a great books college, our curriculum is based on classic primary texts like this one, allowing our students to perform their own analysis and come to their own conclusions about the material at hand.
Here’s our roundup of how other great thinkers have interpreted and reinterpreted this classic work.
Literary Adaptations of Canterbury Tales for Great Books College Students
Some scholars say the greatest contribution The Canterbury Tales made to English literature was in popularising the use of the English language in literature. In pre-14th century England, stories were written in Latin, Italian, or French—not the vernacular of the British people. Chaucer wrote Canterbury in the common tongue, making it much more widely accessible to average English people and paving the way for English to be used and respected as a literary language.
In this way, one could claim that every great book written in English and studied at great books college has been influenced by Chaucer’s greatest work! But a few specific books owe their inspiration to more general themes and structural elements of The Canterbury Tales.
Shimer students doing what they do best: hitting the books
Building on the pilgrim’s journey in Canterbury, the Dan Simmons novel Hyperion won a number of literary titles including the Hugo Award. Canterbury’s influence is felt in YA fiction, via M. L. Millard’s Anaheim Tales and Angie Abdou’s The Canterbury Trail. Even Richard Dawkins, the celebrated evolutionary biologist, published a book in 2004 called The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, now a best seller.
Canterbury Onstage: Great Books Studies Inspiring Plays (by Shakespeare Himself)
In great books studies at Shimer, students encounter Shakespeare through plays like Hamlet and The Tempest. You may be surprised to learn that this literary icon drew direct inspiration for some of his works from The Canterbury Tales.
Dramatic Arts are a vibrant part of the Shimer community
Two Noble Kinsmen, a play by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher is a dramatic retelling of “The Knight’s Tale” portion of Chaucer’s Canterbury. In it, two knightly cousins fall in love with the same princess. Some scholars say Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written while Two Noble Kinsmen was in production, also borrowed heavily from the tangled love-triangle “The Knight’s Tale” features.
Cinematic Retellings of The Canterbury Tales for Great Books College Students
Also inspired by the knight’s portion of The Canterbury Tales, 2001’s A Knight’s Tale features Heath Ledger in the title role and Paul Bettany as Chaucer himself. The 1995 film Se7en explicitly draws from “The Parson’s Tale” for its killer character’s motivations.
A more direct retelling of The Canterbury Tales can be found in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1972 adaptation of the same name. Notably ending with a graphic depiction of hell encountered in “The Summoner’s Tale,” this film might not be a great movie night choice for the faint of heart.
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