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Introduction to the Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is an unfinished work. The story has a beginning and an end, but chunks of the middle are missing, much like the image of an unfinished cathedral that takes generations to complete. Chaucer did this deliberately. Chaucer set for himself an enormous task to tell the tales of all 29 pilgrims in the story. They were to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back then vote on the best tale. But the pilgrimage is a one-way pilgrimage. There is no return trip. To understand these tales, think of the pilgrimage to the cathedral of St. Thomas a Becket as an image of the final destination of all pilgrims; our pilgrimage to eternity. Chaucer included all walks of life among his pilgrims, from the lowest to the highest, including himself. The poet is also a pilgrim. There are two types of pilgrims on this trip: the true pilgrim who wishes to make the spiritual journey to the great shrine, and the palmer who rides along simply for the adventure. The first two tales tell of these two ways: The Knight’s Tale tells of God’ order, The Miller’s Tale tells the worldly way.

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