The Transformation of Language and The Pardoner’s Tale
Summary: The Pardoner’s Tale is a moral story of greed and treachery, in which three
young hooligans go on a quest to find Death so they can kill him. Instead of finding
Death, they find a golden treasure, and their scheming over the hoard leads them to
murder each other, so that their original purpose is fulfilled. Although this is a solemn
tale teaching that “greed is the root of all evil,” the Pardoner is a con artist of the highest
degree, a rap artist who preaches morality strictly for his own profit, merchandising and
scamming his way to a fortune at the expense of his poor fans.
Baba Brinkman’s solo performance, “The Rap Canterbury Tales,” first appeared at the
Edinburgh Festival in 2004. It is a re-creation of Chaucer’s fourteenth century poem, in
which a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury enter into a tale-telling
contest. Every element of the performance closely parallels Chaucer’s original text, but
in a contemporary setting. Baba Brinkman plays Chaucer, who is both the narrator and a
participant in the pilgrimage. In this case, he is a hip-hop fan who goes to a rap concert
and manages to stow away on the tour bus after the show. The rappers, to his surprise,
decide to stage a storytelling battle to help pass time on the road between gigs, and each
of the Tales is an exact retelling of one of the pilgrim stories. As the narrator,
Brinkman/Chaucer attempts to recount the exact experience of the journey word for
word, transforming into the various characters to tell their tales.
This table shows a passage from the original Middle English version of "The Pardoner's
Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer, contrasted with the rap that was adapted from it. The two
columns cover the same movements of the narrative, beginning with the three friends'
departure from the bar ("up they start, all drunk" vs. "the three friends hit the streets") and
ending with the worst of the rioters speaking the first words after the discovery of the
gold. The polysyllabic rhymes have been colorized in the rap version to show the
overlapping pattern of end-rhyme and internal rhyme used throughout.
What do you notice about the rhyme
scheme in these two pieces? Vocabulary?
Chaucer's Version The Rap Version
And up they stirte, al dronken in this rage,
And forth they goon towardes that village
...When he'd said his piece
Of which the taverner hadde spoke biforn.
The rest agreed, and the three friends hit the streets
And many a grisly ooth thanne han they sworn,
And went to seek their destiny and provoke a confrontation,
And cristes blessed body al torente --
Deeth shal be deed, if that they may hym hente!
In a drunken rage hoping Death would come and face them.
Whan they han goon nat fully half a mile, Their intoxication made them sure of their purpose
Right as they wolde han troden over a stile, And fed the infernal furnace of their courage,
An oold man and a povre with hem mette.
A kernel nourished by these three murderous wretches in denial.
This olde man ful mekely hem grette,
Less than a mile into their quest to put Death on trial
And seyde thus, now, lordes, God yow see!
They met this guy all wrapped in bandages:
The proudeste of thise riotoures three
Answerde agayn, what, carl, with sory grace! An old handicapped man with disadvantages,
Why artow al forwrapped save thy face? And the three friends examined his bleeding flesh
Why lyvestow so longe in so greet age?
And demanded he tell them how he was cheating death.
This olde man gan looke in his visage,
Seeming perplexed the old man responded with soft words
And seyde thus -- for I ne kan nat fynde
And said, "I walk the earth like a creature God has cursed.
A man, though that I walked into ynde,