Book Review: The Pardoner’s Tale

By Melissa Fortuin

Author: Geoffrey Chaucer

Year Published: c.1400 (from the larger work The Canterbury Tales, incomplete upon Chaucer’s death)

Genre: Satire

Happy Halloween Odd readers. It’s throwback time.

As a high school student many years ago (in fact so many I will neglect to mention the exact number of years) I remember reclining against my seat, on a sunny afternoon during English class, as my teacher prodded along the intricately complex verses of Macbeth and wondering to myself: Why am I here? Haha, safe to say I am certain a majority of students felt the same way as I did about the unnecessarily complicated texts and verses one had to muscle through to get any idea of what was going on in a sea of ‘thou art’s’ and ‘to be or not to be’s’. What took an instant to comprehend in say, Arthur Miller or Steinbeck, in the case of Shakespeare we would be sent home with a dossier of documents, dedicated to the sole purposes of explaining one stanza or paragraph… as if the poetry of Wordsworth was not enough of a headache and he died like what? Two hundred years ago? And here we are, dealing with a fellow who flowered up every sentence, causing panic and confusion during assessments, because for all I knew even the FULL STOP had some deeper significance at the end of a sentence. At the end of every English exam, I ended up with severe heartburn. When I wrote my last high school paper on Shakespeare, I threw away all my notes with a sigh of relief because what on Earth was this man talking about half the time, and as far as I knew nobody knew the simplest answers to the questions he brought up, like was he writing poetry for a man or woman? This guy had his life behind the best software firewall one could find.

For some reason, the ghost of ancient texts would follow me into my college years, and I wished I had saved so much as a sticky note. If I thought Shakespeare was the bane of my existence, I was no sooner met with an even more intimidating rival… The father of modern English: Geoffrey Chaucer. I cried myself to sleep for a year straight having to deal with English that looked more like a regretful drunken text to your ex on a night out with your best friend. I’m talking Middle English here, and I longed for Shakespeare’s Elizabethan words of wisdom, kind of like when you thought you were stressed when you were 16, and now looking and feeling more stressed as an adult you gaze whimsically at those photos wishing you were the old stress. I muscled once more and along with luck and possibly divine intervention managed to get an A.

My love for Shakespeare and Chaucer would only be reborn years later when I began to read for pleasure and not academic purposes. Long story short, they are the masters of the English language, and the beauty, the EXCEPTIONAL beauty appeared right before my eyes. The sense of morality, wonder and deeper meanings of love and justice are embedded so graciously and, as with satire, you cannot walk away without some ancient universal lessons. So to make life easier, as The Canterbury Tales is the magnum opus of Chaucer, I will be focusing on one of the easier but very dark stories of offer…no not The Wife of Bath, but the Pardoner’s Tale.

Here is a little plot without giving too much away, but just enough to hook you. The Canterbury Tales is 24 stories told during a contest by a group of pilgrims travelling together to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, as the prize is a free meal. One of these is The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale. The tale before being harrowing (involving a father beheading his daughter), the host requires something light-hearted, because seriously, a story like that does not aid in digestion. I must add the hosts exact words were ‘telle us som myrthe or japes right anon’ which in short means tell us some jokes. However, everyone else requests a moral tale.

The Pardoner proclaims his theme is ‘Radix malorum est cupiditas’ – Greed is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). He goes on to explain, armed with bogus church credentials, and a few Latin words, he is the peddler of fake Christian relics that can heal or multiply ones wealth. Through these methods, he has amassed wealth. He preaches to the congregation against sin and avarice, but does not care for their souls or their sins to build his wealth, and is successful as people are uneducated and ignorant. He does not care if he takes money from the poorest widow in the village. Despite his evil ways, he is confident he can still tell a moral tale.

His tale is set in Flanders at an unknown time and opens with three young drinking, gambling and partying it up at a bar and even partaking in blasphemy. Their friend has been killed by a ‘privee theef’ known as Death, who has killed thousands, so the drunken men set forth to find Death and kill him to avenge their friend. An old man they encounter on the way tells them they can find Death at the foot of an oak tree. They set off to find Death, and in the end find more than what they had bargained for.

Chaucer was well known for his stinging remarks against the Church, as well as ignorance of the masses, and greed, and these tales served as a tool for him to paint a critical portrait of English society at the time. We currently live in a time of two extremes, where there are people with incredible amounts of wealth, and people living in extreme poverty. More and more people are moving towards the less is more approach, from zero waste families to modern minimalism, slowly shunning the old life of excess peddled to us through media on the daily. We live in a time whereas young adults, we struggle to afford half the things our grandparents successfully juggled, and yet the greed and swindling of the poor or those less fortunate continues to plague us all.

If you are up for the challenge, and possibly with further aids or guides, dive into ye tales of olde… yes that is not a typo. I’ve always felt the best moral tales are the oldest because as the world turns and turns so does history repeat itself. Money and wealth is not everything, but it gets more difficult for the younger generation to eat and live comfortably, and the lines to balance it all become more and more blurred with time. I think this is a story we can all relate to.

Happy reading everyone.