Dear Geoffrey Chaucer,

 The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

Who knew you’d be one of the main muses responsible for helping me structure and start my next novel? I haven’t read your Canterbury Tales since 1960, my sophomore year in college. Back then it was on the syllabus of The History of British Lit, a required course for English majors. Students each had to memorize and recite the first eighteen lines of that work’s Prologue in Middle English. While dutifully repeating your alien-sounding introductory words over and over again, I gradually began to decode them. I was amazed. You describe how nature’s spring rebirth moved some medieval Brits to make, not love, but religious pilgrimages. I knew nothing of such pilgrims or pilgrimages. They sounded pretty fishy to me. At 20, I found most poetry remote from mundane matters that concerned me, such as snaring a husband and passing organic chemistry. But I wanted to know what those pious tourists were really up to, so I read on.

            Your wayfarers are a colorful crew with lots to say about finding not just husbands, but lovers too. Among your pilgrims are a butcher, a merchant, a monk, a nun, a knight, an oft-married seamstress,  and a miller to name just a few. To my sophomore’s delight their tales included more descriptions of sex than any other work I’d read, including my well-thumbed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath

And all of these narrators as well as the raconteur of the Prologue, talk of the most mundane matters imaginable: their work, their faith, their clothes, food, and housing, and the rambunctious love lives of their friends and acquaintances. It was a revelation to me to learn that medieval English people even had such familiar, ordinary concerns and the ordinary vocabulary to discuss them. You opened my mind to the possibility that a poet might speak to me and that I might hear and relate to what he was saying. Even in Middle English, your realism was a welcome relief to me.

Assassination of Thomas Becket

Assassination of Thomas Becket

The other thing I appreciated then and hope to imitate now is the way you framed The Canterbury Tales. In a roadside inn en route to Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas Beckett, your travelers agree to entertain one another with stories. Each of them has a distinctive voice and world view. The miller tells a ribald tale about a cuckolded carpenter in commoner’s language appropriate to a dirty joke shared in a bar while the knight offers his story of chivalry and courtly love in genteel phrases fit for kings and queens.

The other day I was listing the various characters in my as yet unwritten mystery/thriller and trying to figure out how to organize their activities and relationships. My story features a disparate group of Jews who come together at a hotel in Eastern Washington to perform a religious ritual. There are other guests as well. I was as frustrated as that proverbial cat herder. Then, while pondering, I flashed on a familiar group of religious folks talking and drinking in a medieval English inn. I could see them clearly.

Story Time at the Inn

Story Time at the Inn

As abruptly as it had surfaced, this image vanished, eclipsed by an idea, a question really. Could I structure my novel as a series of stories told by each character

Writer at Work

Writer at Work

and book-ended by a prologue and an epilogue? With The Canterbury Tales as a model, my book could reveal the comedy of tragic errors that is modern American life! The potential of this idea excited me for a mere moment before a host of doubts dampened my mood. Would your frame work for a novel? Would today’s wired travelers stop texting and tweeting to tell stories let alone listen to those of strangers? Could I write the different voices and points of view convincingly? For a moment these doubts drowned my excitement, but I pushed them aside. This strategy just might work. And even if it doesn’t, I’ll have something to revise, a beginning. Thank you.


Jane Isenberg



Filed under Humorous fiction

7 responses to “Dear Geoffrey Chaucer,

  1. Another great entry, narrating your ongoing pilgrimage to the shrines of your favorite authors. I love when you share your experiences as an early reader because they make me feel young at heart.

    • What a lovely compliment, Joyce. Thanks. What really keeps you young is your own exciting writing and your jazzy singing. Now that you mention it though, I suspect revisiting my misspent youth makes me feel a little younger sometimes too, especially with earthy poets like Chaucer for company.

  2. santosh

    loved reading this one,Jane!i would have loved seeing Chaucer’s expressions!Would he beam in delight?blush at your praise?I beamed in pure delight as all these characters-of yore came rushing forth at me with a new vigour-courtesy your pen!Here is wishing more ink to your pen to shoot forth more such literary epistles !

    • Thanks, Santosh. Glad I could facilitate your reunion with Chaucer’s “characters of yore”! And here’s hoping there’s lots more ink in my pen to use to write to more authors I admire. Try it yourself! It’s great fun.

  3. Susan Jensen

    Yay! A new book in the works. I want back into the writing group. With you and Larry and Joyce. Are you guys still doing that? Can I come home?

  4. Hi Jane, I too have a great love for Chaucer! What a storyteller. It was fun to read about one of your authors whose work has also meant so much to me (I read him in college as well). And I say — don’t let those doubts drown out your creativity! (I know you won’t.) Sounds to me like that flash of inspiration was a great thing.

    • Always good to find another Chaucer enthusiast, Melissa. By the time colleges finish eliminating liberal arts courses there won’t be many of us left. And thanks for reminding me not to pay too much attention to my doubts and get started on my next book. Chaucer was a pretty busy guy and look at all he got done!

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