“The Journey” in The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales

The concept of the journey is a central thematic element in both The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales. The overall narrative arc of both texts are bound together by journeys, but with quite different effects. In the case of The Odyssey, the plot is preoccupied with the epic struggles of Odysseus in attempting to return home following the Trojan war, and is also concerned with the journey of Telemachus to find his father and reach maturity. The Canterbury Tales consists of a series of seemingly unrelated stories, but these are tied together with a unifying narrative that brings each of the narrators together in their common journey of pilgrimage.

The journeys in The Odyssey contribute to both the plot, character development and the literary suspense experienced by the reader. The journeys of both Odysseus and Telemachus correspond with growth and changes in their character. During his journey, Odysseus acts in a bold and arrogant manner, which interferes with his homecoming. This is particularly exemplified in the encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops, in which Odysseus leads his men to stay in the cavern, “laying hands on some of the cheeses” (Book IX, 215-282, p. 104), when they would have preferred to act cautiously and escape before Polyphemus’ return. Odysseus’ growth is illustrated by contrasting his earlier impulsiveness with the cautious and humble manner in which he returns home disguised as a beggar, bullied by the suitors, standing “firm as a rock” (Book XVII, 423-504, p. 213), but not retaliating until the time is right.

Odysseus’ journey home is also a source of pleasurable literary suspense, which is enhanced by the temporal structure of the poem, use of analepsis and multiple narrators. The books opens fairly close to Odysseus’ homecoming, with Telemachus at home sitting “despondently with the suitors” and with his mind “full of his noble father” (Book I, 109-96, p. 4), but also shifts around in time so that Odysseus is able to be the first-person narrator of a large chunk of his adventures, helping the reader to identify more closely with him. Odysseus’ homecoming is of course left until the end, maximising both the suspense throughout the story and the satisfaction of its outcome.

Unlike The Odyssey, the major journey in The Canterbury Tales is used primarily as a literary device that brings together a disparate group of travellers with a common purpose, allowing Chaucer to engage in a broad social commentary. The General Prologue introduces the book as a whole, in addition to the array of diverse characters who narrate the subsequent tales, “some nine and twenty in a company / Of sundry folk happening then to fall / In fellowship” (3). These characters are representative of the three estates: military, clergy and peasantry and The General Prologue is an Estates Satire that is able to criticise the abuses that occur within these estates (particularly the clergy, with a large representative including the Prioress, Monk, Friar, Parson and Pardoner). The pilgrimage undertaken by these characters is not particularly significant to the book’s plot, but it is a useful technique for setting up the Estates Satire of the General Prologue and for binding together each of the varied stories that make up The Canterbury Tales.

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