Comparative analysis of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Attar’s Conference of Birds

Comparative analysis of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Attar’s Conference of Birds

Rather Nasir

Comparative literature is the study of literature of different languages and cultures. I will attempt to portray and analyse the similarities and differences between two great literary works, one in English and the other in Persian: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and The Conference of the Birds by Fariduddin Attar. The two authors had never met or read each other’s works but after close reading of both texts one can find striking similarities in their writing style, mood, characterisation and perspectives.
The story in both The Canterbury tales and The Conference of the Birds is presented through a journey. This literary device allowed both authors to bring together a diverse group of characters, thus presenting a wide spectrum of society. In the twelfth century, the concept of journeying changed from exile to a spiritual quest. In the two texts, the journeymen endure many difficulties in their aim to reach ultimate knowledge, freedom and salvation; and during this time they show their weaknesses and strengths. We can say that Chaucer and Attar both believed in reaching salvation through endurance of hardship.

Chaucer writes:

‘So pricketh them nature in their corages
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeke strange strands,
To ferne hallows couth in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of Engleland, to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful Martyr for to seek,
That them hath holpen when that they were sick.’
(The Canterbury Tales, 11-18)

And Attar:

Consider carefully before you start;
The journey asks of you a lion’s heart.
The road is long, the sea is deep – one flies
First buffeted by joy and then by sighs;
If you desire this quest, give up your soul
And make our sovereign’s court your only goal.
(The Conference of the Birds, 16)

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s characters are a group of pilgrims consisting of both men and women who come from different occupations and social class backgrounds, from the humble Parson to the despicable Pardoner. In contrast, Attar’s characters are birds that represent different types of men. Each of the birds possesses some particular characteristics and social status, which are similar to the humans who lived in Attar’s time. For example, the Nightingale is a symbol of men who are interested in earthly unstable pleasures, the Parrot is a symbol of selfish people, the Hawk is a symbol of courtiers, and the Cock is a symbol of people who claim to be pious. According to Attar, society’s influences cause individuals to develop different characteristics. Based on this view, Attar selects some birds each of which has particular characteristics that make it different from the others. While Chaucer applies characterisation skills to present people from different classes of society, Attar’s characters are designed in a way to indicate personality traits in human beings. Each bird has a special significance and didactic fault in the story. They face many difficulties on the way and, one by one, they drop out of the journey, each offering an excuse and unable to endure the way. The Nightingale, for example, cannot leave his beloved; the Hawk is satisfied with his position at court waiting on earthly kings; the Finch is too afraid to start the journey, and so on.
The Hoopoe answers each of their excuses with anecdotes. Attar uses the collection of sayings and anecdotes related to the lives of saints suggesting a bookish, rather scholarly man interested in the lives of those who had gone before him. Attar’s birds represent devotees who are seeking the almighty’s greatness; therefore, we can consider that Reaching Simorgh means attaining celestial power and knowledge. Attar uses a form of debate and discussion for presenting his story. In The Canterbury Tales also all the events revolve around discussion and communication between pilgrims. However, the birds use the discussion to make excuses for not going on with the journey, while the pilgrims discuss their social, religious and political views by participating in a game of telling tales.
The ideas that the two authors attempts to convey to readers differ greatly in The Canterbury Tales and The Conference of the Birds. Chaucer shows the Roman Catholic influences in England during his lifetime, while Attar’s book is influenced by Islamic and Sufi values and principles of his period. However, both authors were probably using their literary works in order to express their views, either purely religious or somewhat political.
In The Conference of the Birds we can find many allusions to holy tales about prophets’ lives. All thirty birds used in this work have references to one of the prophets or has been mentioned in the religious stories. Unlike Attar, religious ideas are not usually mentioned, except in terms of corruption and oppression, in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, although the presence of Boethius philosophy in his work gives rise to some quite metaphysical debates on freedom and necessity.
We can conclude that Chaucer created realistic and objective events and characters and his purpose was to present political and social disruption of his age; Attar, on the other hand, views social corruption as obstacles that prevent men from growing spiritually. Attar’s main goal was to show the right way for men to reach salvation.
Besides these, there are many similarities and differences that are not possible to include in one article.

I am reminded of Faiz who said:

unhiñ ke faiz se bazar-e-aql raushan hai
jo gaah gaah junuñ ikhtiyar karte rahe

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