The General Prologue

Introducing the fictional story-tellers

The Canterbury Tales starts with a general introduction, called The General Prologue, in which most of the characters are briefly described. These are the varied fictional story-tellers of Chaucer's collection of tales. The series of portraits is also a picture of the range of types and occupations of people in Chaucer's England. The focus on people of different jobs, status and wealth, indicates how much the scope of Chaucer's poem will be concerned with this world and human society, even though the reason for the people to be assembled as a group is for a pilgrimage

The portraits of the various pilgrims also show them varying greatly in morality. Chaucer's picture of his society is not an overtly religious one. However, by creating a religious focus for his narrators (going to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury), Chaucer encourages his audience to think about the relationships there might be between society and God and between Christian and worldly values. 

For information on medieval pilgrimage and Thomas Becket, see Religious / philosophical context > Pilgrims and pilgrimage

The tellers of The Pardoner's Tale

The General Prologue includes a portrait of the Pardoner and a description of the Host. Interestingly, there is no description of the first-person narrator of the whole The Canterbury Tales, a figure never named and never given an occupation, who is sometimes labelled for convenience by critics ‘Chaucer the Pilgrim'.

The idea of a series of tales

The General Prologue introduces the idea of a series of tales, told by the different pilgrims as they ride. The plan is put into the Host's mouth and he offers to go with the company and judge at the end of the pilgrimage who has told the best tale. In creating this structure, Chaucer is using a narrative device already well known in the works of the Italian, Boccaccio and the classical poet, Ovid.

More on Boccaccio and Ovid?

In The General Prologue, the Host declares that the stories will be mixed: some serious and some entertaining. That idea of a mixture of serious and amusing is a significant aspect of The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale.

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