The Canterbury Tales

  • Adapted by Seymour Chwast
  • Bloomsbury
  • 144 pp.

This splendid graphic depiction of the storytelling classic shows that the human condition hasn’t changed much over the ages.

Reviewed by Bill Baker

While the very concept of creating an effective and entertaining graphic novel version of The Canterbury Tales might seem an impossible task, the truth is that the primary limitations are, as always, the artist’s and not the medium’s. For solid proof of that maxim, aficionados of both that beloved text and exceptional graphic novels need look no further than Seymour Chwast’s superb adaptation of Chaucer’s masterpiece.

For those unfamiliar with it, The Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century, presents a rich and varied examination of the human condition in both legendary and contemporary terms, all through the rather sly conceit of having each of the 24 participants embarked on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral tell a story to help pass the time. Many of the storytelling devices and modes that inform so much of modern literature are either fully employed or suggested by Chaucer’s tale. Here, written in the common tongue, eagerly embracing everything from social dramas to slapstick humor, from the heroic adventurers of both sexes to the sexual escapades of an erotic adventuress, Chaucer’s characters revel in their earthy tales as they travel via motorcycle to their holy destination, seeking divine intervention in their lives.

The old master also experimented with a wide variety of storytelling approaches, starting with inserting himself into the action, anticipating meta-textual work as varied as Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Grant Morrison’s run on DC Comics’ Animal Man monthly comic book series in the mid-’80s. In sum, the whole of the Human Comedy is reflected, if not actually embodied, within the pages of The Canterbury Tales. And the many characters that inhabit it, as clichéd as they might appear, are subject to the same forces of fierce grace and awful failure inherent to the human condition that we all address in our daily lives.

The question of how to edit Chaucer’s sprawling epic without crippling or, worse, draining that work’s essential vitality is the first and primary hurdle any adapter must surmount. Take too much out and the bare bones of plot, suddenly revealed, leave nothing for the reader to relish, much less empathize with. Leave too much, and all that excess verbiage can clog up the page and quickly weigh down the proceedings, slowing the visual and narrative pace, simultaneously confounding the eye and imagination as they try to skim across the page and take flight.

Chwast has chosen, exceptionally wisely, to pare the text down to bone, raw muscle and sinew, leaving naught but the leanest, most essential of textual tenterhooks for the reader’s benefit. While this might have been too lean of a script for some creators to work with, Chwast’s substantial experience and extraordinary skill as both illustrator and storyteller combine to effectively and energetically present these tales, negating the need for any extra text.

Chwast has also adopted a style of depiction that’s so stripped down that it’s almost abstraction. His loose, scrawling line work slides and loops playfully across the page, breathing real life into The Wife of Bath, The Knight, the Merchant and all their fellows. Still, even as spare as the art might be, every telling detail is present, providing just enough information to fire the audience’s imagination. And Chwast’s command of the characters’ “acting,” and particularly of their body language and facial expression, is second to none.

The character’s environs are represented with equal economy and effectiveness, and no more effort at realism than seen in the figures. And yet the locales featured are all fully present, if only nominally outlined in ink, the artist’s symbolic representation working on the reader’s imagination in a way akin to the manner that the players and portable stages of a Passion Play evoked space with mere verbal declaration and visual suggestion.

But what is truly striking, and ultimately inspired, about Chwast’s depictions of Chaucer’s world is his decision to adopt the omniscient visual viewpoint so typical of medieval art. That POV — in which all figures and props, buildings and their surroundings are squashed flat and shown as if they were merely two-dimensional in reality as well as in depiction — presents the characters as if their lives, and even their very souls, are being laid bare before the eyes of the reader … and by extension, those of God himself.

By effectively portraying all of the characters and their actions from that age’s preferred visual perspective, Chwast helps highlight their individuality even as he underscores the universality, and universal appeal, of Chaucer’s work. It allows the reader to see that the common concerns and complications faced by individuals today are similar, if not entirely the same, as those faced and conquered throughout the ages by our ancestors.

But that’s not to suggest that this is a perfect effort. Perhaps the greatest problem is found in the lettering. Lettered by the artist, or someone using a font based on his hand-drawn alphabet, this Canterbury Tales is sometimes momentarily hamstrung by bad spacing between words, and the fact that using largely similarly sized type throughout a book can lead to eye fatigue. And there is the occasional wish for a splash of color, or a little more ornamentation. But these are truly niggling points, indicative of just how much Chwast has accomplished with this volume.

Ultimately, Seymour Chwast’s splendid adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a spare and sparsely illustrated masterwork, one that’s as enjoyable, engrossing and richly imagined as the book upon which it is based. This is a volume to relish alone, to share with friends and family, and to celebrate with repeated readings.

A veteran entertainment journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is a columnist for, and his graphic-novel reviews for ForeWord magazine can be found at He is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. Visit his website at

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