Plan of the Canterbury Tales. Opposite old London, at the southern end of London Bridge, once stood the Tabard Inn of Southwark, a quarter made famous not only by the Canterbury Tales, but also by the first playhouses where Shakespeare had his training. This Southwark was the point of departure of all travel to the south of England, especially of those mediæval pilgrimages to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. On a spring evening, at the inspiring time of the year when "longen folk to goon on pilgrimages," Geoffrey Chaucer alights at the Tabard Inn, and finds it occupied by a various company of people bent on a pilgrimage. Chance alone had brought them together; for it was the custom of pilgrims to wait at some friendly inn until a sufficient company were gathered to make the journey pleasant and safe from robbers that might be encountered on the way. Chaucer joins this company, which includes all classes of English society, from the Oxford scholar to the drunken miller, and accepts gladly their invitation to go with them on the morrow.
At supper the jovial host of the Tabard Inn suggests that, to enliven the journey, each of the company shall tell four tales, two going and two coming, on whatever subject shall suit him best. The host will travel with them as master of ceremonies, and whoever tells the best story shall be given a fine supper at the general expense when they all come back again,--a shrewd bit of business and a fine idea, as the pilgrims all agree.
When they draw lots for the first story the chance falls to the Knight, who tells one of the best of the Canterbury Tales, the chivalric story of "Palamon and Arcite." Then the tales follow rapidly, each with its prologue and epilogue, telling how the story came about, and its effects on the merry company. Interruptions are numerous; the narrative is full of life and movement, as when the miller gets drunk and insists on telling his tale out of season, or when they stop at a friendly inn for the night, or when the poet with sly humor starts his story of "Sir Thopas," in dreary imitation of the metrical romances of the day, and is roared at by the host for his "drasty ryming." With Chaucer we laugh at his own expense, and are ready for the next tale.
From the number of persons in the company, thirty-two in all, it is evident that Chaucer meditated an immense work of one hundred and twenty-eight tales, which should cover the whole life of England. Only twenty-four were written; some of these are incomplete, and others are taken from his earlier work to fill out the general plan of the Canterbury Tales. Incomplete as they are, they cover a wide range, including stories of love and chivalry, of saints and legends, travels, adventures, animal fables, allegory, satires, and the coarse humor of the common people. Though all but two are written in verse and abound in exquisite poetical touches, they are stories as well as poems, and Chaucer is to be regarded as our first short-story teller as well as our first modern poet. The work ends with a kindly farewell from the poet to his reader, and so "here taketh the makere of this book his leve."