Having learned my lesson from the Ondaatje experience, I did my research before attending this session. I read the SparkNotes about this "framed story" where the 29 participants of a pilgrammage to Canterbury are requested by their host to tell several tales, with the best one winning a free meal from the other travelers.
He gave a detailed biography on Chaucer, much of which was inferred since little was written down in those days. Chaucer was probably educated in the prestigous St. Paul's Cathedral School (based on his excellent linguistic skills and knowledge of classic literature), served as a footman to royalty and proceeded to have a close relationship to the British monarchy throughout his life. He worked officially in many roles as an administrator (tax collector, manager of royal estates), but also translated literary works into English. At one point, he may have been the official poet laureate to the crown.
In the introduction, Chaucer the narrator describes the "palmers", who come from various occupations and economic classes (including a knight, a miller, a cook, and multiple religious characters such as nuns, a monk, a friar). Through these character portraits, and through the stories that each person tells, Chaucer the poet provides biting, critical commentary on the English society of the 14th century, especially directing his disdain towards the Church. In many cases the personality of the storyteller is cleverly reflected as well in his tale. A monk who is described as a bore tells such a monotonous story that he is urged to stop.
In discussing Canterbury Tales and profiling a couple of the pilgrims, Professor Klausner read passages from it, in a lilting English accent, forcing us to listen carefully to try to pick up the obscure Medieval terminology.
Professor Klausner spoke for almost 2 hours non-stop but the animated, interesting way in which he approached his topics kept us fascinated for the entire period. In lesser hands, this could have been a very long and tedious talk. Instead I learned so much about Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, 14th Century England and the literature of that time.
Upcoming talks that I've registered for include discussions on Shakespeare's Henry V and Macbeth, in context of their stagings at the Stratford festival. There will also be a talk by this year's Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan on her book Half-Blood Blues.
These library events are a great way to gain interesting insight into literature. It's too bad I've come to appreciate them just as Mayor Ford is trying to cut the library budget. Hopefully he has been thwarted by the Margaret Atwood debacle and we will be able to continue to benefit from future programs.