Canterbury Tales: Stories for the Pilgrim Way

Medieval folks always did love a good pilgrimage. Grueling journeys had a way of proving the mettle of heroes, and far-flung reliquaries held forth a treasury of grace to any long-suffering commoner willing to tread the pilgrim way.

The road to Jerusalem provided Richard I the way to earning his moniker Cœur de Lion–the Lionheart. And who can forget Henry IV’s treacherous journey through the Alpine winter to kneel before Pope Gregory VII in the snow? Moreover, medieval literature is filled with heroes like Roland, Sir Gawain, and Danté whose virtues were tested along a treacherous quest.

Pilgrimage is the unifying motif of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales–a curated collection of 14th century virtue parables, bawdy pub yarns, and good-natured lampoons. The story goes that thirty pilgrims set off together from London on a journey to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Along the way, the party agrees to pass the time in a storytelling contest. Tales filled with farcical antics, fart jokes, saucy bits, and an occasional moral ensue, laced together with rhyming couplets and ample British humor.

A virtuous knight kicks off the contest as the party leaves London. “The Knight’s Tale” recounts two cousins Arcita and Palamon who turn from dear friends to bitter rivals when they both fall in love with the same lady. Sweet Emily lives completely oblivious to the brotherly strife her beauty has caused. In her defense, the two knights had never actually met Emily–they merely saw her from the window of a prison turret where the two were serving life sentences. After the knights both manage to escape, Emily stumbles upon them in the woods fighting to the death for her hand, and she prays rather that the gods would let her die a virgin. Alas.

The two cousins discover the foolishness of their rivalry too late, and only as Arcita bleeds out on the battlefield does he exchange forgiveness with his beloved Palamon for the jealousy that turned their swords against one another.

As the story concludes, Chaucer hangs a bit of wisdom over the wistful scene:

“This world is but a thoroughfare of woe / And we are pilgrims passing to and fro.”

The line is apt for “The Knight’s Tale,” for Canterbury Tales as a whole, and for us as mankind plodding through our fallen world.

The Scriptures themselves are a tale of pilgrims on a journey. They begin with Adam and Eve driven by their own vice into the wilderness of toil and strife. The Bible is the story of mankind’s quest to return to the presence of God and the Tree of Life–and how God himself had to come down as the virtuous Son of Man to gather us pilgrims up and lead the way back to the Father.

And yet, this world is but a thoroughfare of woe. We travel along a highway strew with sin, injustice, death, hate, violence, jealousy, misery, thorns, and thistles. We know that the path we now trod leads to eternal life, but in the meantime, what is to be done for us pilgrims passing to and fro? How are we to lighten our loads? How are we to brighten our path? What are we to do while we wait for our journey’s end?

Tell tales.

This is the point of Canterbury Tales. As pilgrims passing to and fro, we turn this thoroughfare of woe called “life” into a path of mirth and laughter through storytelling. And the Scriptures only further confirm Chaucer’s instinct. The heroes and villains embossed on its pages, the virtues and vices praised and decried in its verses, the crimson yarn spun through salvation history are not dry facts to be enumerated, categorized, and enshrined. They are stories to be told–tales to be sung, lived, and breathed. They are the Bread of Life for hungry pilgrims.

We are pilgrims in our homes, our churches, our workplaces, our towns. We are all traveling a dusty thoroughfare of woe. How are you enlivening the weary, bringing joy to the torn, and overcoming wickedness with laughter? We triumph through stories. We have victory through our Great Hero Christ.

At the dinner table, let us revel in tales. At the holidays, let us relive the old familiar stories. At church, let us delight in God our Scrivener. He has provided us stories for the pilgrim way. More than that–Praise God! He has become our fellow Pilgrim.

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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