05 December 2011

Aprill, with His Shoures Soote

The Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer
adapted by Seymour Chwast

Seymour Chwast is a cartoonist who apparently made a splash with a graphic novel version of Dante's Divine Comedy; he's followed it up with this, an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  The whole poem is here: every tale and every prologue, condensed down into 143 pages.  It's a bit of an odd project: not innately so, but I'm not sure what Chwast's mission is in adapting The Canterbury Tales, and as a result, I'm not so sure how I think about his adaptation.

As you can see on the cover, the pilgrims are all on motorcycles.  That's the Wife of Bath there; the back cover and the front/endpapers of the book show the rest of the pilgrims on their own bikes. (On the back, we see the Host driving his cycle, with Chaucer in his sidecar!) It's a delightful bit of imagery, and it's maintained throughout the rest of the book; the pilgrims always scoot around on their motorcycles as they tell their tales.  But other than that, these stories are clearly set during medieval times, as everyone's dress and attitude is medieval.  The tales themselves are told pretty straight visually; there's no attempt to transpose them to time or places other than the ones within which they are set.  Why then the motorcycles?  I don't know, but I like them.

The stories themselves are pretty condensed; they're also transposed into modern English, so you're certainly not reading this book for Chaucer's language.  (Which is disappointing sometimes; "The Franklin's Tale" loses almost all of its punch without Dorigen's beautiful ruminations.)  The condensing makes a lot of funny moments, since neither the narrators nor the characters have time to explain things in detail.  Everything is communicated very matter-of-factly, such as when Lady Constance is delivered to the Syrian sultan in "The Man of Law's Tale":
The Sultan's mother was not happy with this marriage. "When we are Christians we will be slaves of the Church and we will have to renounce the Koran."

The truth was that she was an evil reptile.
I feel like I shouldn't like the condensing, but I don't mind it in general (once you get past the language, most of the tales don't feel like they lose a whole lot), and the matter-of-factness often serves to reveal the inherent absurdity of the situations, as above.  It really doesn't work where the original humor of The Canterbury Tales gets undermined (I didn't laugh at this rendition of "The Miller's Tale," for example), but there were a couple other tales that felt flimsy.

The sense of this work primarily functioning as a commentary on the original is enhanced by Chwast's main innovation (since the stories remain unchanged and the art is played straight): what I came to consider the pop-up Chaucer commentary.  Some of the tales would have Chaucer (or occasionally the Host) appear in borderless panels with comments about what was happening.  Chaucer tells us that "The Knight's Tale" is "complete with swash and buckling" while before the Reeve speaks, he begs, "Gentlemen, I don't want my book banned in Birmingham."  When Constance is about to murdered by another lover's mother, the Host asks, "What about all these terrible mothers?"  These were my favorite moments in the book-- though The Canterbury Tales is a classic of English literature, there's no denying that it's a strange and unusual set of tales, often absurd to a modern audience, and playing this up is fun.

I haven't talked about the art much-- it's good.  Chwast has a simply, sketchy style, which works well for the broad stories being told here.  It emphasizes the coarseness of the sexual happenings, which is appropriate: this is The Canterbury Tales, after all.  The lettering, on the other hand, is just a pain to read.

But like I said, I don't know what it's all for.  I liked the commentary moments best, but there's not a lot of it.  The art doesn't put too much of a spin on the story, and though it does its job, it's not particularly nice to look at.  The motorcycles are nice, but they don't go anywhere.  The condensation means you lose the language of Chaucer.  On the whole, it's nice to read, but I want it to be more for some reason.

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