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Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture by Kathleen Forni (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 117-118 | 10.1353/art.2013.0049

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Kathleen Forni’s earlier work turned the lens of reception theory on the formation of Chaucer’s canon, especially in the decades immediately following his death. Her new book, Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture, traces Chaucer’s popular reception during a similarly focused period of time: the last two decades. Building on the work of Steve Ellis and Candace Barrington, among others, who have studied the popular Chaucer of the twentieth century, Forni follows Chaucer’s spirit in the decades ‘clustered around the millennium’ (3) to see where it has found new life in novels, music, films, blogs, and marketplaces—both virtual and on-site in contemporary Canterbury. Her book on the popular Chaucer is intended to be of use to the professional Chaucerian and will be.

For Forni, the vibrancy of Chaucer’s afterlife in the world of recreational medievalism attests to, reinforces, and perhaps even protects the ‘functioning canonicity’ (3) of the Father of English Poetry. Mindful that medieval studies faces marginalization in many humanities departments, Forni challenges her fellow medievalists to engage with Chaucer’s popular reproductions to enliven their teaching and scholarship.

In the Introduction, Forni defines the ‘popular’ and the ‘professional’ and surveys the landscape of contemporary cultural criticism. In Chapter One, ‘Modes of Intertextual Engagement,’ she classifies the ways in which ‘non-professional producers’ (23) interface with Chaucer: adaptation, appropriation, invocation, and citation. In this long chapter, Forni ranges back into the latter half of the twentieth century, beyond the temporal limits imposed on the rest of her study, for examples that define each species of intertextual engagement. Forni’s taxonomy of intertextual relationships is provocative—suggesting ways to think about Chaucer’s own textual borrowings. But more importantly, this chapter functions as an informative survey of the uses of Chaucer over the last half century—in film and television adaptations, in the graphic novel and hip hop, in the imagination of artists as varied as Ted Hughes and Sting. Those willing to follow Forni’s advice and add some examples of Chaucer’s popular afterlife to their syllabi will find here a useful guide to many intriguing possibilities. And the division of Forni’s bibliography into primary and secondary works creates a convenient handlist of those contemporary primary sources.

In the four main chapters of the book, Forni turns to case studies of particular adaptations of Chaucer that illumine some of the patterns she discerns in the popular use of the Canterbury Tales. (And as Forni notes, contemporary reproductions of Chaucer are almost exclusively engagements with his best-known work; there is little recent imaginative response to, for instance, Troilus and Criseyde.) Chapter Two, ‘Chaucer the Detective,’ describes robust trends in contemporary medieval mystery fiction that set murder on the road to Canterbury or employ Chaucer himself as a crime solver. Forni suggests that the writers of these mystery series are drawn to the framework of the Canterbury pilgrimage for the interstices of class, gender, and personality it opens. (As indeed, was Chaucer.) Other writers expand on Chaucer’s own biography, re-imagining him as a detective ‘happily in the middle, existing in his own bubble of meritocracy and social prestige, with easy intercourse (sometimes literally) between high and low’ (82).

Chapter Three looks at two recent adaptations of The Canterbury Tales for the small screen, finding in these very different productions some of the same preoccupations: Chaucer’s social realism, his perceived disdain for social pretension, and the possibilities for individual determination and agency within the liminal space of communal pilgrimage.

Chapter Four, ‘The Canterbury Pilgrimage and African Diaspora,’ examines three novelistic appropriations of Chaucer’s text that convert the motifs of Christian spiritual journeying into ‘very different kinds of modern pilgrimage—spiritual, political, psychological’ and the framework of tale-telling into a space where diverse voices can engage in ‘a social dialogue essential for the formation of collective identity’ (107). Forni’s close readings of works by Naylor, King-Aribisala, and Nelson are astute and model the cross-disciplinary dialogue she encourages her colleagues to pursue.

Finally Chapter Five, ‘Chaucer the Brand,’ plumbs the material, rather than textual, uses of Chaucer, who, Forni asserts, can function as a...

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