Chaucer Art of Narration with reference to ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Chaucer is the greatest English story-teller in verse, ‘one of the world’s three or four story-tellers’ Lowes. Other writers have greater moments, but none has Chaucer’s excellence on narration in verse. In the Middle Ages the poet was considered to be essentially the story-teller, the trouvere, and his stories were expected to possess certain qualities. In the first place, every tale was regarded as a historic example of truth. Secondly, since the object of trouvere has been mainly to gratify the taste of the reader, he was required to provide the latter with large collection of tales full of action and variety. In the third place, the reputation of the trouvere for poetical skill depended on the beauty and propriety of the form in which he contrived to give unity to his collection of miscellaneous material. Looking at him in these various aspects Chaucer’s status as the greatest and the first of the trouvere remains incontestable.

Comparison with Decameron: The design of The Canterbury Tales is excellent. It is similar to that of Boccaccio’s Decameron. But Chaucer’s scheme possesses two distinct advantages over him, first, as regards the conduct of the action, secondly, as regards the arrangement of the material. The action of the Decameron lacks movement and variety. When the novelist has once set his ladies and gentlemen in the midst of their garden, and has settled that ten stories shall be told on each day, and that on each day a king or queen shall be appointed to regulate the proceedings, the machinery of the action is entirely automatic One day resembles the next in containing the same amount of singing and story-telling. The merit of the performance lies entirely in the manner in which the stories are told: all that relates to the story-tellers themselves is mechanical and monotonous.

Dramatic Ups and Downs: In The Canterbury Tales, on the contrary, this picturesque symmetry is entirely lacking. The vicissitudes of the pilgrimage largely determine the character of the stories, and the action of the poem is varied by the passion of the company. Though the host is appointed to act with all the absolute power of a master of the ceremonies, he is not always able to control the course of events. The narration does not go on like a smooth cart. There are dramatic ups and downs. When the Knight has hardly finished his tale that order and decency are rudely disturbed by the intervention of the drunken Miller. When the wife of Bath’s views on marriage provoke a quarrel between the Friar and the Summoner, there is an intermission in the narration. Hence the interest of the poem lies not merely in the narration of the tales but also in the life, humour and vivacity of the pilgrims who tell them.

Chaucer takes from Many Sources: Chaucer can tell a realistic as well as a romantic tale with the equal skill and success. He takes his raw material from various sources – Latin, French, Italian and the native. But like Shakespeare he makes dry bones live, transforms dull chronicles into speaking pictures, changes legends and stupid tales into literary gems, sparkling with animation and realism, and invested with the deepest human interest. The material he borrows is completely transformed. He can do something more than giving his tale a new life: he has the novelist’s gift of revealing the human heart and unravelling the complexities of sentiment. His Troilus and Cresseyde is a great novel in verse. “If Chaucer is the father of English poetry, he is the grandfather of the English novel.”

Chaucer tends to reduce descriptive passages pure and simple to a minimum, and so far to condense the actual narrative that it moves quickly and straightforwardly. while at the same time he expands any situation which affords opportunity for the display of character, adds dialogue and intensifies emotion and also shows a disposition to commenting what he is describing. There is nothing more striking in his narration than the air of homeliness and naturalness with which he contrives to invest the most amazing incidents.

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Directness and Simplicity: “He is the poet of gratitude” says Chesterton, “he comes not to bury Caesar, but to praise him.” His narrative method is characterized by straightforward directness and simplicity. His stories have a single plot, one main thread of interest which is taken up at the beginning and followed without interruption to the end. The openings and endings of the tales are singularly effective. Most assuredly can he tell a story with admirable point and precision. The economy of word and the propriety of meaning are remarkably superb. The element of suspense is maintained; curiosity hardly if ever flags. The vividness and variety of Chaucer’s pictures are unsurpassed, What is The Knight’s Tale if not a splendid picture tapestry, full of colour and motion? There is the quality of suggestiveness in Chaucer’s descriptions. E. g. at the beginning of The Clerk’s Tale :

There is, at the west syde of ytaile.

Doun at the roote of Vesuis the clode,

A lust playne, habundant of Vitaille.

Where many a tour and toun thou mayst biholde.

That founded were in tyme fadres olde.

And many another delitable sighte.

And saluces this hoble con tree highte.

Emotions interest Him : It is emotion, not action, which interests him most. Human emotion is preferred by him to pomp and pageantry. He makes his narration a thing of beauty by switching over from human beings to natural descriptions of Sun-rise or landscape. The Prologue opens with such a natural exordium:

When that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of Marche hath pereced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

or which vertue engendered is the flour:

When Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

Inspired bath in every holt and hetth.

At another place in The Knight’s Tale he writes:

The bisy larke, messanger of day,

Salueth in hir song the morwe gray,

And firy Phebus riseth up so bright

That at the orient langeth of the lighte

And with hise stremes dnyeth in the greves.

The silver dropes hangynge on the leves.

Moral Element: Moral element is another feature of Chaucer’s narrative skill. While narrating the tale he can become philosophical and didactic to please with delightful teaching. The tales often end on a didactic note. In The Knight’s Tale he comments on human frailty leading to ruin. He guards his readers against moral pitfalls by his add comments.

A Dramatic Narration: During his narration he breaks away from the hold of Personification and allegory, and becomes a dramatist introducing vigour in life. He gives new life to an old story and unravel, the complexities of sentiment by his hints as a dramatic narrator the tales are not isolated entities; they stand in intimate relation to all that Chaucer has revealed about them in the Prologue and from an organic whole which is essentially dramatic. Dialogue, action, gesture, costume. Scenery, all are there in his tales “Long before Balzac, Chaucer conceived and exhibited the Human Comedy.” (Lowes) The psychological development of a personality, the influence of circumstances and of other minds upon character, the sudden revelations of an inward world’, the over-powering sense of the tragic in life, the facing of fundamentals’ life are the dramatic elements which have been given a place In Character’s narration. With masterly characterization, skilled dialogues, delightful action, effective situations, the Prologue is the first act in the drama and gives us the dramatic personages of that “comedy not intended or the stage.”



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