Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
GOODREADS FIRST READS REVIEW
The importance of Geoffrey Chaucer on English literature cannot be measured, but if not for one bad year both Chaucer and the history of English literature could have been remembered completely differently. Paul Strohm writes in his new book, “Chaucer’s Tale”, that if not for the rapidly changing political environment in 1386 Chaucer’s life might have not provided him the opportunity to write “The Canterbury Tales”.
Strohm begins his microbiography of Chaucer by placing the author within English society as first the son of a wine importer then a courtier and finally a bureaucrat. Chaucer’s connects to the growing Lancastrian family through family connections while politically aligned to Richard II are discussed in connection to the position he received in London. Chaucer’s professional career in London, along with his sideline interest in composing words into poems and tales, is discussed before he is transitioned into a Member of Parliament for the fateful 1386 Parliament.
After setting the stage, Strohm shows how Chaucer became adrift in the political storm that was just beginning in 1386 which resulted in him losing his job and home leading to a change of focus. At this point Strohm gives a glimpse into the emerging culture of English letters in the late fourteenth century and how Chaucer approached the concept of fame before and after 1386. Strohm then relates how Chaucer did something completely different in relation to audience and creating the spark of English literature that would continue through Shakespeare through Joyce to today.
The research that Strohm put into this book is excellent, even with the lack of sources because of the seven centuries gap. The detailed descriptions of life in medieval London were fascinating as well as the political drama going into the background that impacted Chaucer for good and ill. However this detail in setting background for 1386 dominates the first half of the book leaving the reader waiting for Strohm to show how 1386 resulted in Chaucer’s masterpiece. The biggest fault of the book is that Strohm continually adds detail after detail along with supporting evidence to facts he has already proven for background while not advancing towards the central thrust of the book.
“Chaucer’s Tale” shows how a minor individual in the political landscape of medieval England became a literary giant that is better remember than the kings, lords, and gentlemen of his time. Paul Strohm shows Chaucer’s radically new idea that spawned “The Canterbury Tales” and jumped started English literature, however he takes his time to get to the point while over describing the background of life and events leading to the fateful Parliament of 1386 and the consequences of it.
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