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THE TALES: SUMMARIES/CHARACTERS AND NOTES
The General Prologue
In April the pleasant showers of rain had pierced the drought of March to the very root and bathed every plant with life-giving moisture. The refreshing west wind had quickened the young shoots in every wood and field. The young sun had completed its second half course in the zodiac sign of the Aries, and the small birds encouraged by nature sang melodiously. People longed to go on pilgrimages and seek strange shores in this rejuvenating month. People from every corner of England went to Canterbury to seek the holy blessings at the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.
One spring day at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, while the narrator (Chaucer) was waiting for the next day to go on his pilgrimage to Canterbury, a group of twenty-nine pilgrims arrived at the inn. The narrator was accepted into their company and they decided to rise early next morning and carry on their journey. The narrator describes each of these pilgrims and tells the reader about their ranks and the kind of clothes they wore.
In the opening lines Chaucer rapidly sketches a season -- April, an occasion - pilgrimage to Canterbury, and a location - Tabard Inn. The enchanting picture of the sun-kissed and rain-cleansed April sky and budding forth of new life possesses a special charm. The passing away of the bleak and dark winter inspired people to go on pilgrimages since it was the only form of holiday in medieval England. Chaucer also states his intention to describe the Canterbury pilgrims. But more importantly he declares his intention to state the social estate or rank of all the pilgrims. Thus the Prologue may be seen as a form of estates literature which enables Chaucer to paint a holistic picture of fourteenth century society.
The Knight, an extremely brave and distinguished man, loved chivalry, truth, honor, generosity and courtesy. He had ridden further than any man in Christendom or heathendom and had always been honored for his valor. Although he was brave he was also prudent. He was a true, perfect, gentle knight who never spoke rudely to anybody. His horse was good but he himself wasnít ostentatiously dressed. His chain mail coat bore the scars of his latest expedition.
Some critics hold that Chaucer was correct to begin with the portrait of the Knight since he occupied a high status in society. Thus the Knight is respected by all the pilgrims and also tells the first tale. However one must remember that the General Prologue follows the framework of estates literature. In this light it would have been more correct if Chaucer had started with the ecclesiastical characters since in estates literature the clergy occupy a higher position than the others. Chaucerís description of the chivalrous Knight suggests that this is not an actual portrait but an idealistic representation of his profession. Chaucer endows him with all the qualities and gentlemanly traits that one would expect from a Knight. The list of campaigns undertaken by the Knight indicates the religious role played by him. The references to far-away places also add a dash of romance and glamour.