The Pedigree of a Cliche: By Tolkien, out of Chaucer

One of the ways I extend my writing and thinking time is by listening to audio books as I commute.  Sometimes, I’m able to pick up Great Courses or similar lectures about the history or social structure of the places and times I’m writing about which is awesome–I’m always making connections between this audio research and my work. More recently, I was in a hurry at the library and I snagged The Canterbury Tales, in a version with updated pronunciation, but (theoretically) all the same words.

It hit me during the introduction that Geoffrey Chaucer is responsible for one of the great clichés of fantasy literature:  the group of strangers who meet at an inn before they go a-questing.  We’ve been trying to blame this one on D&D for ages. It’s a convenient way for a group of adventurers to meet for the first time.  But before there was Dungeons and Dragons, there was J. R. R. Tolkien, with his Green Dragon Inn, and Butterbur’s inn at Bree, where the hobbits are to meet up with Gandalf, but find Strider instead.

Tolkien claims that he was simply writing the scene when he discovered this mysterious stranger sitting in the corner, and even the author didn’t know who he was and what he was doing there.  Given the amount of background that Tolkien had already developed for his world, I’m not sure I believe this particular fairy tale.

But about 600 years before there was Butterbur’s, Chaucer had the Tabard, an inn in Southwark where his travellers met, for to go on pilgrimage.  They represent a motley bunch, just as any group of adventurers will include its clerics, its fighters and its thieves, Chaucer had priests and nuns, knights and clerks, the pardoner, the miller, and all the rest.  No magic-users or half-elves, of course, but it’s a proto-party if I ever saw one.

We blame Shakespeare for so many of the clichés we encounter, but even some of his were drawn from Chaucer or other sources.  This cliché of a group of strangers meeting up for adventure is a hot button with a lot of editors, many of whom will flat-out reject such a tale on principle.  I wonder what they would do if the tale included a Goodwife of Bath and a dozen ribald tales of cuckoldry.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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4 Responses to The Pedigree of a Cliche: By Tolkien, out of Chaucer

  1. Boccaccio’s Decameron also comes to mind as an early example. The story-tellers don’t meet at an inn but at an empty villa where they have gone to escape the Plague in Florence; and they aren’t meeting for adventure, but the concept is similar.

  2. Sara Kirchheimer says:

    But don’t you think it’s possible that Tolkien’s Strider is a nod to the strolling player that Mr. Pickwick meets at an inn as he begins his excursions in Pickwick Papers?

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