The Canterbury Tales: Essay Topics & Samples

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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — The Canterbury Tales — Honesty And Humor In The Canterbury Tales

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essay on the canterbury tales full

The Canterbury Tales

By geoffrey chaucer, the canterbury tales study guide.

The Canterbury Tales is at once one of the most famous and most frustrating works of literature ever written. Since its composition in late 1300s, critics have continued to mine new riches from its complex ground, and started new arguments about the text and its interpretation. Chaucer’s richly detailed text, so Dryden said, was “God’s plenty”, and the rich variety of the Tales is partly perhaps the reason for its success. It is both one long narrative (of the pilgrims and their pilgrimage) and an encyclopedia of shorter narratives; it is both one large drama, and a compilation of most literary forms known to medieval literature: romance, fabliau, Breton lay, moral fable, verse romance, beast fable, prayer to the Virgin… and so the list goes on. No single literary genre dominates the Tales. The tales include romantic adventures, fabliaux, saint's biographies, animal fables, religious allegories and even a sermon, and range in tone from pious, moralistic tales to lewd and vulgar sexual farces. More often than not, moreover, the specific tone of the tale is extremely difficult to firmly pin down.

This, indeed, is down to one of the key problems of interpreting the Tales themselves - voice: how do we ever know who is speaking? Because Chaucer, early in the Tales, promises to repeat the exact words and style of each speaker as best he can remember it, there is always a tension between Chaucer and the pilgrim's voice he ventriloquises as he re-tells his tale: even the "Chaucer" who is a character on the pilgrim has a distinct and deliberately unChaucerian voice. Is it the Merchant’s voice – and the Merchant’s opinion – or Chaucer’s? Is it Chaucer the character or Chaucer the writer? If it is Chaucer’s, are we supposed to take it at face value, or view it ironically? It is for this reason that, throughout this ClassicNote, a conscious effort has been made to refer to the speaker of each tale (the Merchant, in the Merchant’s Tale, for example) as the “narrator”, a catch-all term which represents both of, or either one of, Chaucer and the speaker in question.

No-one knows for certain when Chaucer began to write the Tales – the pilgrimage is usually dated 1387, but that date is subject to much scholarly argument – but it is certain that Chaucer wrote some parts of the Tales at different times, and went back and added Tales to the melting pot. The Knight ’s Tale, for example, was almost certainly written earlier than the Canterbury project as a separate work, and then adapted into the voice of the Knight; and the Second Nun’s Tale, as well as probably the Monk’s, probably have a similar compositional history.

Chaucer drew from a rich variety of literary sources to create the Tales, though his principal debt is likely to Boccaccio’s Decameron , in which ten nobles from Florence, to escape the plague, stay in a country villa and amuse each other by each telling tales. Boccaccio likely had a significant influence on Chaucer. The Knight's Tale was an English version of a tale by Boccaccio, while six of Chaucer's tales have possible sources in the Decameron: the Miller's Tale, the Reeve's, the Clerk's, the Merchant's, the Franklin's, and the Shipman's. However, Chaucer's pilgrims to Canterbury form a wider range of society compared to Boccaccio's elite storytellers, allowing for greater differences in tone and substance.

The text of the Tales itself does not survive complete, but in ten fragments (see ‘The texts of the Tales’ for further information and specific orders). Due to the fact that there are no links made between these ten fragments in most cases, it is extremely difficult to ascertain precisely in which order Chaucer wanted the tales to be read. This ClassicNote corresponds to the order followed in Larry D. Benson’s “Riverside Chaucer”, which is undoubtedly the best edition of Chaucer currently available.

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The Canterbury Tales Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for The Canterbury Tales is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

The prologue to centerbury tales

The main theme of the prologue?

The Canterbury tales

The Parliament of Fowls is a dream-vision. We see even at the beginning, the speaker describes how the narrator falls asleep while reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis [ The Dream of Scipio ], and then dreams of the parliament of birds which follows....

What is the subject of all the stories the monk tells?

Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is the last of Geoffrey Chaucer's works, and he only finished 24 of an initially planned 100 tales. The Canterbury Tales study guide contains a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

Essays for The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the greatest works produced in Middle English. The Canterbury Tales essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Lesson Plan for The Canterbury Tales

E-Text of The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales e-text contains the full text of The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Wikipedia Entries for The Canterbury Tales

essay on the canterbury tales full

The Canterbury Tales

Introduction to the canterbury tales.

The Canterbury Tales is known as the foundational English literary book of tales written in verse style by Geoffrey Chaucer . The author is famous as one of the pioneers of English poetry. The book was likely published around 1387 to 1400 when Chaucer joined the royal court. The stories, in verses, though some are in prose , present the social norms, characters, situations, and religious devotion of the pilgrims presented in them. The stories became so much popular and are considered classics across the globe.

Summary of The Canterbury Tales

The book opens with The General Prologue and introduces a gathering of all the characters at the Tabard Inn tavern in London , ready to on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas in the town of Canterbury. The prologue shows a total of 77 persons, including some from the religious order, such as the Friar and the Monk, and social order, such as the Squire and the Knight, with some examples from the lower order. Harry Bailey, the host, throws the suggestion for each guest to narrate a story to pass the time during the long journey. The first tale is told by a knight known as The Knight’s Tale, which is about Theseus, the duke of Athens, who imprisons two Theban knights for violating a local norm.

Arcite, one of them, is freed, but then he returns to win the freedom of Palamon. He seeks refuge from Emelye, the sister of Theseus, with whom both have fallen in love earlier. She also is the reason for their banishment from the land. Meanwhile, Palamon escapes with their help and faces arrest. Theseus, then, forces them into dual for Emelye, in which Arcite wins but dies in the accident, while Emelye marries Palamon.

The second tale by Miller comprises the story of a poor student, Nicholas, who seduces his landlord’s wife, Alisoun, and terrifies him with an impending flood. A young priest is also in love with the same lady and asks her for a kiss, at which Nicholas plays a trick by thrusting out his bottom. Enraged, the young clerk brands his buttock with a hot poker when he does the same second time. Meanwhile, the landlord falls in frustration after he thinks that the flood has arrived and fractures his arm.

The third tale of Reeve contradicts Miller’s story of the stupid carpenter, considering it a criticism of him. He narrates the story of the dishonest miller, saying the miller robs the students by untying their horses, after which they run after them to catch them. Meanwhile, he steals their belongings. When they return, it is night . So, they are forced to stay with the miller, after which one of them seduces his daughter, and the other seduces his wife. When both husband and wife start a brawl in confusion, the students take their goods and run away. Later, the Cook also takes part in it and starts narrating the story of Perkyn Reveler but leaves it unfinished when a lawyer takes the stage.

When the lawyer or the Man of Law takes the stage, he apologizes and starts the story of the Muslim Sultan of Syria, his romance with the Roman girl, Custance, and her escape in the midst of the conflict between Islam and Christianity. Next, the Wife of Bath stands up to narrate her story after quoting from the Bible and stating her submissiveness to the five husbands she has married from time to time. She also berates the Friar for the interruption, after which the Host intervenes and asks her to narrate her tale about the knight of King Arthur, his rape, atonement, and winning of a beautiful as well as faithful wife, after which the Friar starts his tale.

The Friar narrates the story of a lecherous summoner who has his own spying network when working with an archdeacon. Once he calls a yeoman but confronts the devil in disguise, after which the devil drags him to hell, following which the summoner also retaliates with his own tale about a friar after clarification that there is no difference between the two. He states that when an angel was going to hell, he had around 20,000 friars with him. Following this, a little incident happens between a friar and Thomas, after which the friar complains to the squire.

This incident follows the Clerk’s tale, who narrates a beautiful tale of a farmer and his wife in which the farmer tests his wife and promises to live with her forever in case she passes the test. When the Merchant’s turn comes, he starts narrating the story about the evils of marriage, saying that a knight, January , marries May, who cheats on him, at which the Host prays that God must save them from such wives. Then the Squire starts his tale about love, narrating the story of King Cambyuskan that he leaves unfinished, whereas the Franklin starts his tale through a ballad in which he narrates the love story of Dorigen and Arveragus.

The physician also intervenes with his tale and starts narrating the story of Virginia, a tempting woman, who beheads herself at her father’s appeal instead of being handed over to Claudius. The Pardoner, waiting for his story, steps in after him and starts his story about morality. He tells about three young men looking for death. When they reach an old man, he directs them to a tree where they find gold bushels and kill each other for having all of them. The story creates bad blood between the Host and the Pardoner, but the Knight steps in to resolve the brawl, asking the Shipman to narrate his tale to reconcile them and resolve the situation.

Starting his tale with the monk’s degenerate nature, the Shipman tells his sexual advances toward the wife of a merchant, who realizes her mistake and asks her husband to forgive the debt. When the Prioress hears this tale, she starts her own story of the issue between a Jew who kills a devout Christian boy but then starts singing the song of Gracious Mother the boy was singing earlier when he got killed.

Following this, the Host asks Chaucer to narrate some tale at which he starts the story of Sir Thopas and his bawdy exploits. However, the Host gets irked and stops him, after which he starts the story of Melibee whose wife forgives all the attackers. When Chaucer finishes it, the Monk starts stories of Sampson, Hercules, Pedro, and Lucifer to come to a common point of the tragic fall, which the Nun comes forward and starts her tale of a rooster and a fox, followed by another Nun who narrates her story about Saint Cecilia after which the Yeoman starts making claims about the exploits he has performed with the help of Canon , who is with him.

When he finishes, the Manciple takes the stage and narrates his tale after lashing out at the cook for missing his turn to narrate the story. Then he narrates the story of a white crow and asks the Host to invite the Parson for his tale, who delivers a lecture on the deadly sins, after which Chaucer takes the stage to seek apology from readers in case the book proves lacking in anything.

Major Themes in The Canterbury Tales

Major Characters of The Canterbury Tales

Writing Style of The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is written in the heroic couplet . It shows not only the poetic skills of Chaucer but also his descriptive and narrative skills respectively through character descriptions and narrations of each character. Chaucer’s use of diction corresponds with his satire and irony , while for figurative devices, he turns to personifications and similes.

Analysis of the Literary Devices in The Canterbury Tales

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Illustrtaion of two rabbits in human clothes.

Beatrix Potter’s famous tales are rooted in stories told by enslaved Africans – but she was very quiet about their origins

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Reader in Postcolonial Literature, Leeds Beckett University

Disclosure statement

Emily Zobel Marshall does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Leeds Beckett University provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.

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Peter Rabbit, the cute and wily bunny who wears a bright blue jacket, is the best-selling creation of English author Beatrix Potter. Originally published in 1902, the Tale of Peter Rabbit – the first of 23 tales in the series – has since been translated into more than 45 languages and sold over 45 million copies.

Peter’s home is the Lake District in north-west England, among ancient stone walls and picturesque rolling hedgerows that crisscross emerald fields. Heralded as Britain’s best-loved children’s author , Potter received much praise for her originality as well as her artistic and literary skills during her lifetime, and these “thoroughly English” tales continue to captivate young readers all over the world. The author was a frontrunner to appear on the UK’s latest £20 note , but was beaten by the painter J.M.W. Turner.

It is popularly held that Potter conceived of her tales in 1893, while writing to the sickly son of her friend and former governess, Annie Moore. In these letters she wrote and illustrated stories featuring her pet rabbit, Peter Piper.

As a scholar of folktales and postcolonial literature, however, I spend a lot of time tracing the roots of stories and examining the impact of colonial legacies on them. While rereading another collection of children’s stories featuring the “trickster hero” Brer Rabbit – for my own book on how these folktales were introduced to North America by enslaved Africans – it became clear to me that the similarities between Beatrix Potter’s tales and the Brer Rabbit stories demand further consideration.

essay on the canterbury tales full

This article is part of Conversation Insights The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.

The tales of Brer Rabbit can be traced back to pre-colonial Africa, from where they were transported to the plantations of America by enslaved people . The stories were first adapted for a white audience in the late 19th century by the American journalist and folklorist Joel Chandler Harris .

Harris created a fictional African American narrator for his stories, Uncle Remus , whose name became the popular title for his collections. Brer Rabbit is a cunning trickster who lives in a briar (bramble) patch and outwits larger animals using his brains rather than his brawn.

In her 2008 biography of Potter, A Life in Nature , Linda Lear notes that while the author’s “first audience was British”, her work was strongly influenced by Harris – “whose Brer Rabbit stories she had loved as a child”. Lear also writes that Potter’s tales “were favourably compared to Uncle Remus in early reviews of her work”.

And yet, I was amazed to realise how little comment there has been over the years about the many similarities between Potter’s tales and the Africa-originated Brer Rabbit folktales. Indeed, one of the most striking references, cited in Lear’s biography, is found in a letter that Potter herself wrote to her publisher, Harold Warne, on November 18 1911 . The letter is about her new Peter Rabbit story The Tale of Mr Tod, and directly refers to her use of the Uncle Remus folktales in this work:

I think the story is amusing; its principal defect is its imitation of ‘Uncle Remus’. It is no drawback for children, because they cannot read the Negro vernacular. I hardly think the publishers could object to it? I wrote it some time ago. I have copied it out lately.

We don’t know how Warne responded to this letter. However, having analysed the plotting, language and characters in Potter’s tales, it’s clear that she was more than just inspired by these folktales. Her tales owe a debt to the Brer Rabbit stories told by enslaved Africans working on American plantations that needs to be fully acknowledged.

Early encounters with Brer Rabbit

Potter knew Harris’s Brer Rabbit folktales as a child, having first encountered them in her father Rupert Potter’s library in their grand London home. Copies of the collections Songs and Sayings and its sequel Night with Uncle Remus were found at her farmhouse home in Sawrey in the Lake District after she died in 1943. Each bore her father’s bookplate.

These stories had not been published in the UK when Beatrix Potter was a child. It is therefore likely that her early contact with the Brer Rabbit tales (in comparison with the rest of the British public) was a result of her family roots in the cotton industry.

Her grandfather, Edmund Potter (1802–1883), was a Manchester cotton mill owner and industrialist. He became wealthy in the calico printing business, a cotton cloth originating from India.

Under the British East India Company (1600-1874), the cotton industry was an exploitative one. Cotton was grown by “peasant cultivators” in India who were heavily taxed. At the same time, the growth of demand in Britain and the development of British weaving techniques destroyed the traditional Indian cotton manufacturing industry .

A black and white photo of three people in front of a house.

In Manchester, Edmund Potter introduced precision machinery to his calico printing process. By 1883, his mill employed 350 workers – many of them children , according to Lear’s biography – and was the world’s largest calico printing factory.

A great portion of Edmund Potter’s wealth was passed on to Beatrix’s father, Rupert, a lawyer and photographer. He married a wealthy heiress, Helen Leech, whose family had also made a fortune in Manchester’s cotton industry by owning several cotton-spinning mills. By the early 19th century, the raw cotton used in these mills was sourced from the Americas, including from the Sea Islands region and Charleston in South Carolina .

This was the time of Manchester’s emergence as the world’s “ cotton capital ”. The city’s economic success was deeply connected to the enslavement of African people. Its industry predominantly involved the production of cloth made from raw cotton that had been picked by enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean and US.

Many of the dyes such as logwood used in the printing of cotton were also imported from places such as Belize (known then as British Honduras) in the British Caribbean, and would have been harvested by enslaved people .

So, was it the Potter family’s connections with the cotton industry, the US, and the slave trade that brought a plantation Brer Rabbit into the Potter household?

How Potter fell in love with the Uncle Remus stories

As noted in my book, American Trickster: Trauma, Tradition, and Brer Rabbit , there are only two detailed pieces of research connecting Potter’s tales with Harris’s earlier folktales.

The first is children’s author John Goldthwaite’s 1996 book, The Natural History of Make-Believe . This was used as a key source in the other important contribution, literary critic Peter Hollindale’s (unpublished) lecture Uncle Remus and Peter Rabbit, delivered in 2003 at the Beatrix Potter Society’s annual general meeting.

I found the title of Hollindale’s lecture on the society’s website and wrote to ask if he would share its contents. His wife typed up the lecture from his handwritten notes, and I am grateful for their assistance with my research.

From her earliest creative forays, the influence of Brer Rabbit on Potter was evident in her work. In 1893, when establishing herself as an illustrator for her writing, she did the first of eight Uncle Remus drawings – presumably having been inspired by A.B. Frost’s illustrations in Harris’s books. More followed in 1895 and 1896 .

An illustration of a rabbit in human clothes.

Potter illustrated Harris’s tales for fun, it seems, and to stretch her artistic talent. She was not commissioned to do so, and there’s no indication that Harris was aware of her drawings or ever saw them.

There are, however, clear resemblances between Potter’s Uncle Remus illustrations and those in her tales of Peter Rabbit. For example, her illustration of Brer pretending to be Mr Billy Malone in the Remus tale In Some Lady’s Garden is very similar to her drawing of Peter and Benjamin in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, with both rabbits wearing fitted jackets and hats in an English country garden.

There are also similarities in her illustration of the Remus tale Brother Rescues Brother Terrapin with those she did of the fox character, Mr Tod, and the interior of his home for The Tale of Mr Tod.

Potter never publicly admitted the source of any inspiration for her drawings, plotlines or protagonists. But in his lecture, Hollindale argued that she “misunderstood her own talent and, to the end of her life, was afraid of being caught out as a cheat”.

Indeed, in a diary entry in 1883, Potter wrote as if plagiarism were a viral illness

It’s a risky thing to copy. Shall I catch it?

The African roots of the Peter Rabbit tales

The Brer Rabbit folklore character originated from the hare trickster figure of the Bantu-speaking peoples of south, central and east Africa. We know the origins of the tales through careful comparisons of plot, structure, language and characters in the stories. Brer was brought to the Americas by enslaved people and became a well-known folk figure across the French-speaking Caribbean and US.

In the Francophone Caribbean and American states, in particular Louisiana, the African hare was called Compère Lapin (Brother Rabbit), while in the English-speaking US he was known as Brer Rabbit .

This cunning trickster was known for outwitting his often more powerful animal adversaries using brains rather than brawn. The tales came to embody the tactics of resistance that enslaved people implemented to survive the brutality of plantation life. Harris adapted them while living on the Turnwold cotton plantation in the southern US state of Georgia in the late 19th century. He would spend his evenings in the quarters of the enslaved workers, listening to them share these stories .

Harris’s fictional narrator, Uncle Remus, was a formerly enslaved old man who was content with plantation life and for whom everything was “satisfactory”. Remus was based on, and propagated, a racist, minstrel-style stereotype that was deeply embedded into white American culture and consciousness.

Harris’s versions of the Brer Rabbit tales were sanitised to entertain white readers. The violence and injustice at the heart of both plantation life and the traditional folktales were tempered. Instead, Harris’s stories offered a more benign view of slavery.

Following on from the US’s emancipation proclamation of 1863, Harris’s portrayal of Uncle Remus, the “happy slave”, fed a white American nostalgia for its plantation past as a time when everybody knew their place. In this fantasy, unruly or child-like enslaved people were guided and cared for by benevolent white masters.

In an angry 1981 essay, Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine , the African American author Alice Walker accused Harris of stealing part of her heritage and making her “feel ashamed of it”. Walker described feeling “separated from [her] own culture by an invention”, adding:

Even our folklore has been ridiculed and tampered with. And this is very serious, because folklore is at the heart of self-expression, and therefore at the heart of self-acceptance.

Poaching plantation stories

One of the key elements that Harris preserved in his retellings of the oral plantation folktales was the African American vernacular. And some of these turns of phrases and ways of speaking found their way directly into Potter’s stories.

Terms like “rabbit tobacco”, “puddle-duck”, “lickety-split” and “cottontail” are not English at all, but have been lifted from the African American vernacular she learned and enjoyed in the Remus tales.

And when writing about the success ) of her tales, Potter referenced a “mischievous” enslaved character, Topsy, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s plantation novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

I have never quite understood the secret of Peter’s perennial charm. Perhaps it is because he and his friends keep on their way, busily absorbed with their own doings. They were always independent. Like Topsy, they just “grow’d”.

An illustration of a rabbit in a blue coat.

There are also numerous similarities in the plots of Harris’s and Potter’s tales. In Some Lady’s Garden (1883), for example, Brer Rabbit tricks Miss Janey into letting him into her father’s vegetable garden to steal English peas, sparrow grass (asparagus) and goobers’(peanuts) by pretending to be a friend of her father, Mr Man, from the big white (master’s) house.

This plot is the main storyline in most of Potter’s tales and is directly linked to the need for enslaved people to steal food from their masters to survive . In the most famous of Potter’s tales, Peter Rabbit repeatedly tries to steal vegetables from Mr McGregor’s garden.

But her Tale of Mr Tod is the one most clearly based on Harris’s narratives. Its plot centres on overcoming neighbourhood bullies, the badger Tommy Brock and the fox Mr Tod. In her biography of Potter, Lear explains that she copied the tale out from Uncle Remus, then changed the setting to the Lake District’s Sawrey countryside.

In his book, Goldthwaite traces the close connections between this tale and Harris’s Brother Rabbit Rescues Brother Terrapin (1883), which features a kidnapping, rescue and fight. Mr Tod follows a very similar narrative arc and, in some sections, exactly the same action plays out – for instance, a fight in the kitchen featuring crashing furniture.

For the average British reader, the vernacular in Harris’s tales would have been challenging to understand, and perhaps Potter’s knack for translation helped her cover her tracks. Take that kitchen fight. Harris’s story reads:

Dey year de cheers a-fallin’, en de table turnin’ over, en de crock’ry breakin’, en den de do’ flew’d open, en out come Brer Fox, a-squallin’ lak de Ole Boy wuz atter ‘im. [They hear the chairs falling, and the tables turning over, and the crockery breaking, and then the door flew open, and out comes Brer Fox, squalling like the Old Boy was after him.]

Compare this with Potter’s tale:

There was a terrific battle all over the kitchen […] Everything was upset except the kitchen table. […] The crockery was smashed to atoms. […] The chairs were broken. […]

The environment Potter creates in her tales shares similarities to that of a plantation – a dangerous world where the fight for food and survival is paramount. Despite the backdrop of gentle Lake District landscapes and an English cottage garden, her tales are set in a context of merciless repercussions for those who don’t have the wits to avoid capture – including Peter Rabbit’s father, who we discover has been baked in a pie.

In a 2006 article entitled The Ugly Truth of Peter Rabbit , journalist Stuart Jeffries asked: “Should we be celebrating this creator of a dark, sadistic, bloodthirsty world?” He argued that Potter’s stories are a bad influence on children, but did not mention that the stories are drawn straight out of an American slave plantation environment.

‘Pretence of absolute originality’

Potter’s use of the Brer Rabbit stories as the basis of her tales is not the main issue here. This is the traditional way that folktales travel across cultures and geographies. As Goldthwaite puts it, Harris’s series was the “base camp” from which Potter could work.

An illustration of a fox in human clothing.

However, the steps Potter took to steer readers away from her sources are problematic. She appears to have been keen to claim the stories as her own, while ensuring that readers didn’t make the connection between Peter Rabbit and the stories narrated by Uncle Remus. Potter used the introductions to some of her tales to emphasise her authorship, using phrases such as “I remember” and “I can tell you” as if taking the place of Harris’s fictional narrator.

In the introduction to The Tale of Mr Tod, the darker sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Potter writes:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I’m going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr Tod.

In his book, Goldthwaite writes of Potter’s “deception”, suggesting that those of Potter’s tales that were the most heavily indebted to Harris’s stories open with “pretence of absolute originality”:

Once satisfied that her translation from Uncle Remus has “grow’d” sufficiently, Potter stamps it officially as hers in the first person singular … What these introductions imply is that fresh work is being undertaken here, and that is the deception.

Goldthwaite adds that Potter’s “fear of being exposed as copyist would lead to a lifelong silence about Uncle Remus”.

It seems that the only references Potter herself made to her stories being drawn from Harris’s Brer Rabbit tales were in that single journal entry and letter. In his lecture to the Beatrix Potter Society, Hollindale commented on the oddity of this omission:

Strange, isn’t it, when you think that Black Rabbit, as in Mr Tod, is a glance at Brer Rabbit, and Cottontail is an Uncle Remus name, and an animal running “lippity lippity” first does so in Uncle Remus, and rabbit tobacco […] comes from there, not to mention some important elements of plotting? But [Potter] didn’t say much [about this].

At the same time, however, she did embed little clues regarding her Uncle Remus sources, making reference to “a fox coming up the plantation” in The Tale of Mr Tod, for example. In Goldthwaite’s view, these hints could be interpreted as a “careless shoplifter who secretly wants to get caught”.

I suspect Potter struggled to steer her work away from Harris’s tales. They absorbed her, they were central to her work in every way, and she enjoyed them. Rather than “clues”, these may be slippages – moments when Potter forgot to recast the story in her Lake District setting and slipped back into the world of Brer Rabbit.

At the same time, Potter expressed some strong ideas about other copycats – once accusing the children’s writer and illustrator Ernest Aris of plagiarism . At first she was, according to Lear’s biography, “strangely” defensive of Aris and his portrayal of a rabbit who happened to be named Peter. But later, Potter had a change of heart and wrote to him claiming his work had “no originality” and that “coincidence has a long arm, but there are limits to coincidences”.

This seems an ironic statement in light of Potter’s own silence around Brer Rabbit and the Uncle Remus tales.

Another famous Brer Rabbit fan

By their nature, stories constantly change to suit the needs of their audiences, and this is particularly the case with oral storytelling. Prior to Harris’s adaptations, the Brer Rabbit tales had already been remoulded to an American plantation environment by enslaved people from Africa. As such, there are no “authentic” versions of these folktales, which will continue to be told and adapted to new environments, moulded by the needs of the people that tell the tales.

Another British children’s author, Enid Blyton, also wrote versions of the Brer Rabbit stories , many of which were first published in magazines from the late 1930s onwards. Like Potter, Blyton understood the attractiveness of these folklore-based tales to British children – their delight in scams and tricking grown ups. However, Blyton acknowledged her sources.

Blyton began creating her Brer Rabbit stories in 1934 when she lived in Buckinghamshire. A big fan of Harris’s versions, she adapted them to a middle-class English country setting, further tempering the violence and adding some new characters, including her own beloved dogs and even unicorns. In all, Blyton wrote 338 Brer Rabbit tales as well as a play in 1939 and a cartoon strip.

Book cover featuring rabbits in clothing.

In the introduction to her collection Heyo, Brer Rabbit: Tales of Brer Rabbit and His Friends Retold From the Original (1938), Blyton describes the spread of the trickster rabbit figure around the world under different names, but insists the most delightful is his incarnation as Brer Rabbit – folktales she attributes to “the American Negro’s Friend and Brother Creature”.

Blyton explains that Harris’s stories were told in “difficult negro vernacular”, so she set about the “delightful” task of retelling the stories in her own way while retaining the “raciness” of the original stories, claiming that “Brer Rabbit has always been my favourite character”.

Like Potter, Blyton includes many phrases from Harris’s African American vernacular in her stories, such as “bless gracious”, “lay low”, “lippity, clippity” and “a-going”. Blyton’s collection The Wonder Book for Children (1948) includes three stories entitled Brer Rabbit Tales by Enid Blyton After J.C. Harris. They are illustrated by the artist behind Harris’s later editions, Harry Rountree , with Brer Rabbit smoking a pipe or cigar.

Ending the silence and changing the narrative

Both Potter and Blyton, constrained by patriarchal power and middle-class social etiquette, may have revelled in fantasies of breaking through the social boundaries and rules that constrained most women to roles as wives and mothers during their lifetimes. Perhaps they found a sense of freedom in the Brer Rabbit stories and the trickster’s anarchic antics.

Goldthwaite argues that Potter was drawn to these folktales as they enabled her to resist and subvert her “domestic plight” as a young woman living with her father and having to adhere to strict Victorian patriarchal codes of conduct. In Brer Rabbit, he suggests that Potter found what she loved:

The sheer joy of wiliness, the world of the trickster and subversive mischief-maker.

Literary critics have argued that Potter’s tales are anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist , highlighting the problems of private property and the struggles of the dispossessed. It has also been said that Potter created a sexist world in which only men have adventures and can misbehave.

But above all, Peter Rabbit and the rest of Potter’s tales are viewed as quintessentially English stories about characters conjured from Potter’s brilliant mind and inspired by her life in rural England. Yet her tales are, at heart, folktales that originated in Africa before being adapted to expose and reflect the violence, resistance and survival tactics of the plantation life of enslaved people in the Americas.

While Potter, according to the letter and diary entry mentioned earlier, was, at least initially, anxious about imitating Harris, both Hollindale and Goldthwaite ultimately concluded that she felt needlessly guilty about her “borrowing” and “deception” tactics, obvious as they felt these were.

A black and white photo of a woman sitting with a dog outside a house.

Both academics are clearly great admirers of Potter, who is considered a national treasure – not only for her tales but for her conservation work and the bequeathing of her extensive land and property to the National Trust . She has very few critics.

However, in my view, Hollindale and Goldthwaite miss the point in their conclusions. Potter’s actions in shielding the reading public from her sources have fed into a damaging and reoccurring appropriation of black cultural forms that continues today.

The Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit brands are highly lucrative. Yet I have found no references to the black American sources of these tales in any of the Beatrix Potter museums and experiences in the UK and US, which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly. There is similarly no mention of these sources in any of the films of her tales, nor in the 2006 Hollywood biopic Miss Potter .

While Harris moved the stories out of the reach of many African Americans and created a damaging minstrel stereotype in Uncle Remus, he did at least credit enslaved black Americans as the storytellers – while describing himself as a “ humble compiler and transcriber ”).

In contrast, through Potter’s silence concerning her sources, the African American tales that helped create her stories are passed over without acknowledgement or celebration. Brer Rabbit must be firmly reasserted into our understanding and appreciation of Beatrix Potter’s tales. For far too long, they have been stealing from his briar patch.

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