cover image Bad Chaucer: The Great Poet’s Greatest Mistakes in the ‘Canterbury Tales’

Bad Chaucer: The Great Poet’s Greatest Mistakes in the ‘Canterbury Tales’

Tison Pugh. Univ. of Michigan, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-472-13344-4

This animated study from Pugh (Harry Potter and Beyond), an English professor at the University of Central Florida, examines the “blunders, muddles, and shortcomings” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Picking apart the artistic failures of each tale, Pugh suggests that the “Tale of Melibee” is “mind-numbingly boring,” consisting largely of didactic moralizing from a wife convincing her husband not to take revenge on his enemies. According to Pugh, several of the tales suffer from inelegant genre hybridizations, such as the “Knight’s Tale,” which he faults for saddling a chivalric romance with unsuccessful attempts to incorporate the conventions of epic poetry, including a “tedious” list of 21 tree species intended to mimic epics’ use of “catalogs as a mnemonic device.” Other tales bungle their message, Pugh posits, writing that the “proto-feminist” sentiments found in the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” which mocks the “cultural presumption that men’s phallic authority is tied to their penises,” are undermined by the Wife of Bath’s tale itself, in which a knight who rapes a young woman largely escapes punishment. Pugh’s willingness to kick Chaucer off his pedestal is a refreshing departure from staid scholarship on the poet, but it’s clear that Pugh’s criticisms stem from a deep love for his subject, warts and all. The result is an unusually lively take on the medieval classic. (Jan.)