Telling Tales by Patience Agbabi

This is a 21st century retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, over 500 years after the latter’s first publication by William Caxton (some time after Chaucer’s death). Set in places along the original route undertaken by the pilgrims from the Tabard Inn in London Bridge to the shrine of Thomas Becket (poor bloke, done in by his best mate Henry II, what a liberty) it retells each of the original stories through a contemporary character. I particularly enjoyed the re-imagination of the Wife of Bath as a Nigerian housewife and the Prioress’s Tale reinvented as a rap.

My first contact with Chaucer came when I was 13 or 14 during English class with Mrs Turner (no relation) who once threatened me with detention for laughing too loudly, which was quite an overreaction given I was the most earnest child in all of Christendom rather than a threat to classroom order. Anyway, leaving that bitterness aside, I am very grateful that she played us a Middle English reading of The Prologue. I remember thinking ‘this is like time travel mate!!’ but then again I was easily pleased.

There was one ‘tale’ (100 Chars, aka The Monks Tale), which even I with my Edmonton street cred found difficult to penetrate, but overall this was a wonderful way to revisit the original  (one of the greatest revelations for me being the level of farting in the Middle Ages) and access a  poet as vibrant as Patience Agbabi.

As Chaucer is best enjoyed out loud, here are two videos – one of the poet performing the original Prologue, and one of the poet performing her own version.







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