“Stories Old & New”: The Canterbury Tales—
The other day I spotted an interesting-looking book on the shelves of the Princeton Public Library’s ongoing “Friends of the Library” book sale (which prices most books at $1 or $2, just the right price to snare a casual browser!). It was an edition of The Canterbury Tales in a brightly-colored, illustrated paper dust-jacket, published by Blackie & Son of London and Glasgow (©1966), which originally sold for 45 pence as a new book, the equivalent of a little over $1 — or roughly about £9 and $11, respectively, at today’s exchange rate, the British pound having declined in value from about $2.40 to $1.25 between 1966 and 2019. Times change, currency exchange rates change, and literary tastes with them!
Even accounting for changing book-design and cover artwork over the last 50 years, the dust jacket looked a too colorful for an edition of “classic literature,” at least to my eye; the book itself also seemed rather thin to contain all twenty-four of Chaucer’s tales. Looking a little more closely at the book, I saw found the explanation on the inside front dust jacket’s blurb: this edition was part of the publisher’s series of children’s books — “Stories Old & New” — “designed and written to appeal to children over the age of seven.” And the table of contents listed just four tales: The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, The Man of Law’s Tale, and The Franklin’s Tale, preceded by a short Introduction by the credited adapter, Dulan Barker, who purposefully rendered his adaptation in “simple and straightforward” prose,” not verse as Chaucer’s original had been (and in modern English too, not Middle English — young readers rejoice!).
Barker adds that he selected these four tales as ones “most likely to appeal to children.” A quick survey of Cotsen copies of a number of Canterbury Tales adaptations from the 19th and 20th centuries tends to confirm his judgement about popularity, at least insofar as “appeal” is reflected by which tales are included in reprinted editions. And The Knight’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Man of Law’s Tale are confirmed as the “most often retold” of the tales in the Victorian and Edwardian editions for children by Velma Bourgeois Richmond in her scholarly study, Chaucer as Children’s Literature, which includes several checklist tables, tallying exactly which tales are included in prominent editions, as well as how many illustrations each of these various editions contain.[i]
Barker’s short but illuminating Introduction concludes by asserting that he hopes readers will be prompted by his short edition to then turn to the “unique and delightful tales … as Chaucer wrote them.” The goals of adapting literary “classics” for children in language that they can (and will!) read and enjoy, seeking to use these adaptations to cultivate readers’ interest in the canonical originals — and in literature generally — and also using these adaptations as a means of teaching moral lessons are all ones that children’s books publishers pursued from the 18th century on into the 20th century (when explicit moral lessons and heavily didactic “instruction” increasingly took a backseat to “delight,” pleasure, and cultivating imagination). Like most generalizations, the one I just made greatly oversimplifies nuances and individual authorial styles, but overall, I’d say that’s the general trend in children’s books over this time span.
Other “Stories Old & New” series titles listed on the lower inside dust jacket indicate that adaptation included a combination of older literary “classics,” perennial children’s favorites, and collections of tales or stories: The Arabian Nights, The Golden Fleece, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tales from Shakespeare (the Lambs’ prose adaptation of Shakespeare plays, which itself became a children’s classic), Alice in Wonderland, Stories from Grimm, Sleeping Beauty, Lazy Jack & Other Stories.
Following the general practice in adaptations of literary classics for children — and in 19th and 20th century versions in particular — Blackie’s “Stories Old & New” edition of The Canterbury Tales features a number of illustrations: dramatic line-drawings by Geoffrey Fraser. Several highlight the action-and-adventure aspects of the world of medieval knights, era of chivalry, or fabled warriors from mythic epics or romances that publishers thought would appeal to young readers, but particularly to boys, I’d have to say.
Women are depicted in an almost equal number of Fraser’s illustrations, most stressing the pathos of their roles in the tales in which they appear (usually as victims of the ill-will or capriciousness of others, mostly men but sometimes women too). These illustrations have an emotional power and resonance that I think distinguishes them from the illustrations of noble knights or some of the other, more simply pictorial ones.
Finding this illustrated edition fascinating, if quirky, I realized that I didn’t recall seeing — or cataloging — very many editions of The Canterbury Tales in Cotsen Library’s collection over the years, especially books from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. A quick search of our catalog bore out that impression — there’s weren’t nearly as many as there were of comparable editions of “literary classics” for children, such as adaptations of Shakespeare plays, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, or even Pilgrim’s Progress, the latter once something of a “must read” for children and the object of a number of illustrated or abbreviated versions for children. Virtually all the adaptations for children were from the 19th century — and the latter part at that — with earlier adaptations of Chaucer’s tales or episodes from the tales definitely not kid stuff!Among the adaptations of Chaucer I found in Princeton’s catalog was a 1730 theatrical adaptation of the Wife of Bath’s Tale by John Gay, perhaps best know as the playwright of The Beggar’s Opera (immortalizing the likes of Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum), which had been first produced just two years before. The Wife of Bath’s Tale, with its sexual content and the bawdy language used by the Wife herself, is decidedly not for children. And Gay’s “Comedy” is it is not intended for children either; it features characters with names like Doggrell, Merit, Astrolabe, Grist, Spigot, and Busy, more akin to those of the madcap inhabitants infesting Ben Jonson’s wildly satiric London City Comedies. (Prior owners have made some personal annotations on the title page, including adding Gay’s first name in a print hand, apparently later than the inked script at the head of the page.)
Another 18th century “adaptation” of Chaucer that my catalog search turned up was: John Dryden’s Palamon & Arcite, or, The Knight’s Tale: in Three Books, contained in a 1713 volume of verse entitled, Fables Ancient and Modern…from Homer, Ovid, Boccace (i.e. Boccaccio) and Chaucer. Again, not really children’s reading; I think they’d find three volumes of Dryden’s heroic couplets a bit taxing, and less than fully engaging, as the opening lines might suggest:
In days of old, there liv’d, of mighty fame
A valiant Prince; and Theseus was his name:
A chief, who more in feats of arms excell’d
The rising not setting sun beheld.
Finding my OPAC searches not yielding much in terms of earlier children’s adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, I turned to some standard bibliographies of children’s books: The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books: 1476-1910 (1975) and Laurence Darton’s The Dartons: An Annotated Checklist of Children’s Books… 1787-1876 (2004). Both are magisterial classics. But among Darton publications all I could find was a book, cover-titled Illustrious Characters… Ornamental Penmanship (1823), including an engraved plate statement about William Caxton, the first publisher of The Canterbury Tales. Osborne listed A Treatise on the Astolabe, addressed to his son, Lowys, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1561?) and the 1882 title: Chaucer for Children: A Golden Key by Mrs. H.R. Havens , “a keen student of Chaucer,” also noted that she had previously published a 1880 title: Chaucer for Schools.
I later turned up a number of other versions of Chaucer for children in Cotsen’s collection and elsewhere, most of them from the latter 19th century or the 20th century, when Chaucer adaptations for children really seemed to come into their own, in part due to the romantic allure of medievalism and medieval design. But many items were entered (properly) under their own title, not with “Canterbury Tale,”or “Chaucer” as part of their title, and some were published as part of broader collections of items within a book of a different title (cf. Dryden’s Fables…, which I mentioned above, which fortuitously mentioned Chaucer in its title and also included a cataloger’s note about the contents. Thus, Chanticleer and the Fox (mentioned in the Nun Priest’s Tale), The Story of Patient Griselda (from the Knight’s Tale), or Pilgrim’s Tales from Chaucer, were among the books turning up in a revised search query. So I got a small lesson in catalog searching!But the absence of earlier (17th-18th c.) adaptations was still a puzzle to me. Was Chaucer considered unsuitable fodder for children’s adaptations because of some of the Tales‘ inappropriate sexual, and sometimes reprehensible content, the sometimes-bawdy language used by some characters, or something about the subject matter related (drinking, warfare, quarreling, etc.)? Or did this absence have something to do with religion? The pilgrimage to Canterbury was made by the tale-tellers (like others) to venerate a Catholic saint, Thomas Beckett; pilgrimages and saints also continued to have distinctly Catholic overtones in assertively Anglican England after the Protestant Reformation and perhaps even more so in Puritan England and America. Could this religious context have made the Tales content that a publisher would shy away from issuing for children? Were fabliaux, fairy tales, and fantastical tales considered too racy or too tied to superstition, or wild imaginings and fantasies for some educators and proponents of children’s literature after the Enlightenment? Or some combination of all of these? This seemed possible to me, and Richmond’s introductory chapter — “Contexts and Criticisms” — confirmed this.
But this is a topic that I’d like to explore more — as well as looking more closely at some of the (often lavishly-illustrated) Canterbury Tale adaptations for children from the mid-nineteenth century onward in a future blog posting. And all this because of a $2 book found in a library book sale!
[i] Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. Chaucer as Children’s Literature: Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland & Co., 2004.
According to Richmond, The Knight’s Tale comes in as the #1 tale, included in virtually all collections of Canterbury Tales reprints in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.