September 2nd, 2014

Review: The Canterbury Tales adapted by Seymour Chwast

The Canterbury Tales
adapted by Seymour Chwast from Geoffrey Chaucer

As a jolly band of pilgrims make their way to Canterbury, they pass the time by telling stories. The stories range from romantic to bawdy to pious, reflecting the equally diverse speakers, which include a scholar, a knight, a merchant, and others from nearly every profession in the medieval world. The tales of Geoffrey Chaucer are adapted into a graphic novel format to help introduce this classic to new readers or provide a new twist for those familiar with one of the first major English works of literature.

The last time I tried to read The Canterbury Tales, it was a real struggle, so I hoped that this format would help bring the different stories to life and make them more accessible. Chwast both succeeds and fails in this attempt.

I had very little trouble following the narrative threads, which had caused me some grief in the past. The comic panels are easy to follow and the action clear, for Chwast uses a very simplified graphic style, crude cartoons with no flourishes or depth. So if you are looking for an easier version of the tales, perhaps to help with a project for school or something like that, this will be useful to you.

Unfortunately, the adaptation is so set on making the material easy to understand that all traces of Chaucer are lost. Characters all sound more or less the same in the narration, and the simple, bland faces make everyone virtually indistinguishable. There’s no sense of place, because there are no backgrounds and no consistency in time – the pilgrims ride motorcycles, but while upon the bikes many of them still dress in medieval clothing. This stripped down version of the tales lacks the vigor and personality that made the original stories so enticing and delightful.

This last thing is very much a personal aesthetic issue, but the ugliness of the drawings did turn me off from the graphic novel. I didn’t care for Chwast’s illustrations, and thought they were a poor match for the richness of Chaucer’s prose. Others who are a fan of his style will no doubt feel quite differently.

2 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Canterbury Tales, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

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2012: Twain’s Feast by Andrew Beahrs
2011: Love*Com Vol. 1 by Aya Nakahara
2010: Dracula in Love by Karen Essex
2009: Giveaway #10: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
2008: Neil Gaiman Giveaway Winners