16th March 2001 at 00:00



THE CANTERBURY TALES. Naxos, abridged selectionSix narrators 3hrs 20mins CD pound;13.99 cassette. pound;9.99.

THE CANTERBURY TALES. Penguin, unabridged selection Nine narrators 9hrs Cassette pound;21.

BOCCACCIO SELECTIONS FROM THE DECAMERON. Naxos, abridged selectionNine narrators 4hrs 40mins CD pound;16.99 cassette pound;11.99.

THE MERCHANT'S PROLOGUE AND TALE, THE MILLER'S PROLOGUE AND TALE, THE WIFE OF BATH'S PROLOGUE AND TALE. Unabridged, read in Middle English by A C Spearing and Elizabeth Salter. CUP, CD 65mins; 40mins; 60mins pound;10.25+VAT each.

THE CANTERBURY TALES. Extracts read in Middle English by Trevor Eaton. Pearl, CD 3hrs 20mins pound;12.95.

THE COMPLETE PROLOGUES AND TALES. Unabridged, read in Middle English by Trevor Eaton. Pearl, cassette 13 titles pound;5.50.

THE KNIGHT AND THE PARSON'S TALE double cassette pound;11. CUP 01223 325588

Naxos 01737 760020. Penguin 020 8757 4400. Pearl 0189 278 3591

The more the world moves forward, the more it seems we tend to avoid study of Chaucer, assuming students of the 21st century will find him alien and inaccessible. In fact, having found their way in, students are staggered to find stories written more than 600 years ago are still relevant and fresh. The dialogue is racy, and issues such as relationships and hypocrisy are as provocative now as they were then.

The humour, particularly the bawdy and irreverent, has tremendous appeal; and who can forget those physical details, the "knobbes sittinge" on the Summoner's "chekes", or the Monk's "eyen stepe and rollinge in his heed"? So here indeed is "God's plenty", but how can it be brought to life?

A user-friendly text is essential. The new editions from Cambridge University Press are gradually replacing those edited by A C Spearing and others in the Sixties. Each double page provides large-print text on the right beneath a brief resume, and full glossaries, detailed explanations and questions to encourage close reading on the left . The illustrated introductions each cover a common core of topics including language, and others appropriate to each tale.

Students with scant background and narrow vocabularies often fall at the first hurdle - the language, even in modern Eglish translations. Those who merely toil over the page will probably never enjoy the stories. They were told to an audience - and to be enjoyed, they must be heard.

An excellent introduction is an abridged version. What makes the five tales on Naxos's The Canterbury Tales such a delight is the accompanying dance music from Boccaccio's time, jaunty for the Merchant, sedate for the Knight. The readers combine vivacity with elegance, and the abridgement gives students The Pardoner's Tale in 16 minutes, The Franklin's Tale in 35.

Penguin's The Canterbury Tales is 10 tales in a box with a useful 72-page booklet on themes and characters by Brian Stone. Prunella Scales's don't-mess-with-me Wife of Bath, who "fisted such a buffet" in the face of the husband immersed in the book of women's evil, is particularly successful.

Added enjoyment and interest can be given to students with Boccaccio Selections from The Decameron, abridged stories enhanced by troubadour music and Gregorian chants. Here in the 10th story is the source of The Clerk's Tale: the cruel testing of patient Griselda by her husband (always one to stir indignant outrage in students) and the fourth story, an irreverent swipe at monks who are as lascivious as their abbots, which makes an interesting parallel to The Summoner's Tale.

Students can graduate to the most authentic presentation of Chaucer in the original Middle English, such as the Tales of The Merchant, The Miller and The Wife of Bath. The presentations are scholarly and help students follow the text of the section they are to study in detail.

But Trevor Eaton is a performer of Chaucer "for the maistrye". The Canterbury Tales is a hugely spirited introduction of extracts from the Prologue and the Tales, while on 17 cassettes is seven years' work: the whole of the Tales unabridged in Middle English. Eaton doesn't read, he doesn't even perform. Perhaps because he knows most of the tales by heart, he leaps right into the pilgrims' skins and tells them with all the gusto, duplicity, "gentilesse", jollity and slyness appropriate to the Teller, combining scholarship with his own obvious enthusiasm and pleasure in the zest and sounds of Chaucer's language.

As "the Chaucer Man", Eaton has clocked up 900 performances in schools, colleges and universities.

Rachel Redford is a principal examiner for GCSE English and advisermoderator ASA2 English.Trevor Eaton, tel: 01303 260380. Fax 01303 237942

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