Byron Rogers

Instead of the poem

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, retold by Peter Ackroyd

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The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer, retold by Peter Ackroyd

Penguin Classics, pp. 437, £

On this book’s title page its publishers enlarge on Peter Ackroyd’s ‘retelling’: his book, they declare, is at once a translation and — wait for it — an ‘adaptation’ of Chaucer, and from the beginning, you are made aware of what form this adaptation will take.

This is how Chaucer introduces his Prioress in the General Prologue, and it is a moment of quiet, if sly, humour as he sketches the prissy little ladylike ways of this Merle Oberon in a wimple:

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

And you don’t need to be a student of 14th-century English language, or history, to get the joke, or to know whether there was a nunnery at Stratford atte Bowe, wherever Stratford atte Bowe is or was. The Prioress persists in talking French to be ‘y-tolde of’, to show off, only she does so with a marked English accent. Pure Cheltenham Ladies College, you might say.

This is what Coghill makes of it in his tour de force of a translation:

And she spoke daintily in French, extremely,
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe;
French in the Paris style she did not know.

The joke has begun to be trodden down. Its neatness has gone; but then Coghill had the exigencies of rhyme to contend with.

Peter Ackroyd is free of such exigencies, as his translation/adaptation is in prose. Yet what follows is what he made of it:

She spoke French elegantly enough, although her accent was closer to Bow than to Paris. What does it matter if we do not speak the exact language of the French? They are no longer our masters. English is even spoken in the parliament house now.

Yes. And Chaucer may even have heard Henry IV take his Coronation Oath in English, the first Norman king to do so. It is an interesting historical point that Ackroyd makes, only, in the course of making it, the initial joke has been killed stone dead, and, what is more important, the characterisation interrupted, as a footnote is forked into the text. I don’t think Chaucer would have welcomed such an adaptation, and neither will the general reader for whom this book is designed, ‘essentially to facilitate the experience of the poem’, only of course it is no longer a poem, it has become a prose narrative. This, to quote Ackroyd again, ‘is a daunting concession to the modern world which does not love the long poem’.

Yes, but Chaucer wrote it as a poem and gets much of his effect from verse. There is a lyricism to

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote [sweet]
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

that you don’t get in ‘When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things’. But when it comes to the naughty stuff not only does Ackroyd get himself a megaphone; he seems to be under the impression that he is addressing a rugby club at around 11 o’clock at night. In The Reeve’s Tale Chaucer has the drunken undergraduate, who has seduced the miller’s daughter, stumbling afterwards into the wrong bed. In Coghill this becomes:

‘By God,’ he thought, ‘I nearly went astray!

My head is tottering with my work to-neet.’
In Ackroyd this is: ‘I must still be arseholed. Or my head is still spinning with all that shaggin’. . .’ And so on, through ‘You fuck-face’ to ‘She was beggin’ for it’ etc. Everything has been relentlessly underlined, not a four-letter word neglected.

Again, the most famous scene in Chaucer, when, in The Miller’s Tale, the woman puts her bottom out of the window to a would-be lover:

And back he started. Something was amiss;

He knew quite well a woman has no beard,
Yet something rough and hairy had
‘What have I done ?’ he said. ‘Can that be
‘Teehee !’ she cried and clapped the window to.
This is Coghill, and it is very close to Chaucer’s original. The demands of verse impose a certain decorum.

But in Ackroyd this has become:

Absolon could see nothing at all, of course, and so he put out his tongue and gave her a French kiss. He was eagerly slurping her bum. But then he knew something was wrong. He had never known a woman with a beard before. But he knew this much — he had licked on something rough and hairy. ‘Fuck me,’ he said. ‘This isn’t right.’ Alison laughed out loud, and shut the window.

The mischievousness of the verse has gone, and the humour. In his preface, Ackroyd writes that Chaucer’s salacious energy can be maintained just by transcribing his words accurately. So why the ‘adaptation’, all that underlining, those constant ‘Geddits?’ ? This drawn-out version sounds like a new curate trying out profanities to ingratiate himself with the local low-life. The mystery of this book is why an accomplished writer like Peter Ackroyd should have attempted such an approach in the first place.