By John M. Bowers
Rewriting Chaucer : culture, authority and the idea of the authentic text, 1400-1602, edited by Thomas A. Prendergast and Barbara Kline (Ohio State University, 1999)
Introduction: Most literary studies examine what an author wrote. This essay examines what Geoffrey Chaucer did not write.
Though Chaucer left his Canterbury Tales in a state far from finished, modern critics have almost unanimously embraced the idea of the work as “unfinished but complete”. The assumption of completion has been necessary to enable any discussion of the organic unity of the work and the fulfillment of an authorial design. Yet the fact remains that the work, as it survives, falls drastically short of the 120 tales projected in the General Prologue. Although Chaucer may ambitiously have in tended to surpass the hundred tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron, he completed only twenty-four tales, including the Cook’s Tale as a fragment perhaps intended for cancellation, and three other narratives unfinished because of interruptions from other pilgrims: the Monk’s Tale, Chaucer the pilgrim’s Tale of Sir Thopas, and quite possibly the Squire’s Tale. Of the thirty pil grims introduced in the General Prologue, seven are never given any tales at all, fragmentary or otherwise—the Plowman, the Knight’s Yeoman, and the Five Guildsmen.
Since Chaucer introduced the Canon’s Yeoman as a tale-teller not num bered among the original company of pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn, it seems clear that constraints of time and the grim exigencies of mortality cannot fully explain the poet’s failure to assign tales to seven of the original pilgrims, the truncation of the Cook’s Tale, or, for that matter, the failure of the pilgrims to reach their destination at the shrine of St. Thomas in Canterbury. The insertion of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale renders the absences of these other sections, promised but not delivered, matters of willful neglect, making them subject to interpretation as issues of authorial intention. The disruption caused by the unexpected entry of a new tale-teller casts Chaucer’s decision to omit others into sharp relief. It renders them silent, allows them to slip into partial invisibility, and thereby makes them available for later appropriation or continued neglect.