(detail from mural by Ezra Winter, 1939. Library of Congress Washington, D.C.)
Derek Pearsall’s The Canterbury Tales (1985) is a rare resource of particular use for readers new to Chaucer. Pearsall was an equally prominent Chaucerian of the 20th century, and this book distills decades of thought into a neatly modular literary analysis of Chaucer’s most ambitious work. Its first two chapters provide a very readable account of issues that Chaucer scholars usually talk about only among themselves (in what form and how did Chaucer’s great poem survive, and what does this physical evidence tell us about Chaucer’s intentions). In the accounts of individual tales, Pearsall’s wit distills key principles of each of the Tales into memorable observations. A literary critic above all things, Pearsall does not let Chaucer off easily when he seems to nod yet also teases out just what makes the best of his writing so very good.
The first two chapters of The Canterbury Tales provide an account of the forms and means by which Chaucer’s great poem survives, asking, in particular: what does the physical evidence of the medieval manuscripts in which Chaucer’s poetry survives tell us about his intentions?
The remaining chapters cover key principles of each of the Tales.