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Monday, July 14, 2014


Father of English literature, originator of English vernacular tradition, the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, this was Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400); author, philosopher, alchemist, astronomer, civil servant, courtier, diplomat, bureaucrat, leaving his trace in each of these domains. To say of him that he was a man of many talents (which he was, indeed), would be a misnomer: because he was larger than life.

One of my childhood memories is of two books staying together on the shelf in an uncle's house: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales near Boccacio's Decameron. Understanding the importance of one of them nurtures your understanding of the importance of the other; and it nurtures further your understanding of their crucial moment in the European culture: they opened the gates of the vernacular; they liberated the flow of the modern age. We belong to their mentality, they belong to ours. Basically we are on the same page.

I was visiting the other day the English Bookshop in Bucharest, and that childhood memory came to my mind, as I noticed a splendid copy of The Canterbury Tales, a Wordsworth edition from 2002. And I considered the pros and the cons of buying it. As vernacular as it is its language, it is still very different from what is in use nowadays. Maybe it's better to find a good translation (as it was the book in my uncle's bookshelf).  Otherwise the risk is to try one page, to get lost after a few lines, to put the book some place among other books ejusdem farinae and to forget about it.

All this was true (and well experienced), while not buying the book would have meant losing great indulgements; taking it from the bookshelf every now and then, opening it each time at another page (that being the case with any book of sand, according to Borges - and this was definitely a book of sand) reading some lines, getting lost in its riches of language, enjoying the moment. I opened the book and looked at a few pages. Each tale was preceded by an explanatory text, a plot summary was provided, as well as scholarly bibliography. Many lines in the tales were having annotations to help understanding the old wording.

Look here, just a couple of lines at random:

Whilom, as olde stories tell us (once upon a time)
Ther was a Duk that highte Theseus (was called)
[The Knight's Tale, page 39]

He conquered al the regne of Femynynye (kingdom; Amazonia)
That wilom was y cleped Cithea (formerly; called)
[The Knight's Tale, page 39]

In old days of the kyng Arthur,
Of which that Britouns spekeen gret honour
Al was this lond fulfilled of fayrie (fairies)
The elf queen with hir joly compagne
Daunced fuloft in many a grene mede (meadow)

I decided to buy the book.

(A Life in Books)



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