Canterbury Ghosts: Discussing Adaptation with Shing Yin Khor
In her book A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon writes that “adaptation is an act of appropriating or salvaging, and this is always a double process of interpreting and then creating something new” (20). This aspect of a double process – interpretation and then creation – is one aspect I am particularly interested in exploring in my own work, both academic and creative. When it rolled around to my turn to write a blog post, I wanted to use the opportunity to learn a bit about one of the more unexpected adaptations I have come across so far: “The Canterbury Ghosts” – a deck of Oracle Cards inspired by The Canterbury Tales and created by cartoonist and installation artist Shing Yin Khor.
I was fortunate enough to be able to conduct an e-mail interview with Shing about this project to discuss how it came about and some of the challenges and rewards of working with Chaucer’s text in this unique mode. You can read my questions and Shing’s answers below.
KHC: Sometime last year, you and I did an art trade: I sent you my “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” minicomic adaptation and you sent me an absolutely gorgeous set of Canterbury Tales-themed oracle cards you drew and printed. I believe you started this project for Inktober (a month long daily ink drawing challenge) in 2018, is that right? What gave you the idea of drawing this project?
SYK: The Canterbury Ghosts project falls into my interests in divination and ritual and ghosts, but also medieval literature, which used to be a much larger part of my life than it is now.
I wanted to challenge myself a bit for Inktober – I am really good at starting projects, and really bad at finishing them, so I wanted to make a series of illustrations. A tarot deck is too many drawings for one month, but mostly, tarot has a symbology all of its own, and I wanted to make an oracle deck with space to play. The Canterbury Tales was the first Middle English text I read (which is probably true for most people); for a while when I was younger, I was interested in pursuing a degree in medieval literature, and I did take quite a few classes in the area, although I ended up focusing more on modern American literature. It has always remained with me – I love ensemble casts, pilgrimages, and storytelling, and when I began thinking about making a series of illustrations, it was what my mind went to immediately. It wasn’t always an oracle deck, but it was pretty clear from the first few illustrations that it could be!
KHC: Your deck includes 21 cards – all the pilgrims who tell stories, I believe? Do you have a favorite character? Did that turn into your favorite card?
SYK: The Wife of Bath is my favourite character, and I love her card. I referenced her sewing talents with the needle, but also her dominance over her previous husbands with the strange beast she sits on. I don’t know if I have a favourite card! I love little elements that made it in – the summoner’s little fart, the clerk’s little dog! I’m looking at the deck again now and I don’t remember why I made all the choices I made, but I am still delighted at some of them, like the Shipman’s paper boat.
KHC: One thing our team project is looking at is how several centuries of adapters have dealt with the more obscene or challenging parts of Chaucer’s text. In your twitter thread sharing the cards, you commented that “I might have forgotten a little bit how the later stories get a lot more fucked up. Here is the shipman and the prioress.” How did the challenges of some of the stories (obscenity, sexual violence, antisemitism) impact how you felt about the cards, both in the act of drawing them and as finished products? Did you feel differently about any of the tales/characters after having drawn them?
SYK: I first read The Canterbury Tales when I was a high school student, but I think I actually encountered it earlier in abridged versions when I was a kid. I definitely had a children’s book with the Chanticleer story in it. I used to love it with a sort of child-like glee about stories, and now I love it as an adult with years of literary analysis and actual adult experiences behind me. Revisiting it as an adult, with my own experiences of trauma and a lot more understanding about the world – yeah, it hits different. I actually first revisited my interest in The Canterbury Tales as an adult because some of my work about sexual trauma (published anonymously, although I claimed it later) was cited in a paper about Chaucer’s “raptus” case.
I was certainly mulling over all these themes as I drew the cards. And I definitely had forgotten some of them. For instance, in the story the Prioress tells, which is the most shockingly antisemitic of the lot, Jews murder a young Christian boy, who is martyred. In my interpretation, the Prioress sits on a large boy’s head, but she looks away from his melody, possibly ashamed for the story she tells about him. That said, none of the cards are really commentary, just a reflection of my instincts and feelings as I drew them. I absolutely intend these to affect the readings though – I never meant to provide written interpretations for each card, but the Prioress card is still tied up with meanings of horror, death, and complicity for me.
To be honest though, most of my work now is about the working class (specifically marginalized groups) in early Western American history, and most of my research is wrapped up in stories of trauma and segregation and racial violence. I wouldn’t say that I’ve become numb to it by any means, it still affects me a lot, but comparatively speaking, The Canterbury Tales has many more centuries between it and now, and that helps pad my brain quite a lot. I don’t feel differently about The Canterbury Tales, I think – but I recognise it as a very long and complicated text much more than the more simplistic understanding I had when I first read it.
KHC: Do you feel like the slow and focused process of adapting a story changes your understanding of it? If so, in what way? Is the text different for you after you’ve worked with it than before?
SYK: I think that drawing these cards made me pay even more attention to the text than when I first read it! If only I knew that clever trick when I had to actually write papers on it. I feel more attuned to the personalities of the characters, since I was drawing them as ghosts and only referencing symbols from their stories. I don’t think I paid that much attention to the storytellers themselves when I first read The Canterbury Tales, honestly! I think it has renewed my interest in the text, and I was very glad to have an excuse to read it again.
KHC: What gave you the idea to use Chaucer’s pilgrims as an oracle? Have you used them yourself? How do you envision them being used?
SYK: Most of the divination devices I make are meant to be read intuitively, where your own experiences and background help to shape the card’s readings. In this particular case, and because it was a “fun” project and not a commercial one, I wanted to make a deck specifically for people already familiar with The Canterbury Tales and capable of lending their own experiences with the text to the readings. I do feel it functions well as an oracle deck – the characters and stories are all different enough that each card might have a different meaning, and the relationships between the characters can interplay with each other, even if you were simply imagining how different characters might get along.
I used the deck quite a lot right after I made it, but frankly, it is a difficult deck to use if your familiarity with the story and character fades, which it has over the last couple years. Answering these questions makes me want to refamiliarize myself again though!
KHC: Do you see more Chaucer-related work in your future? Are there other texts you think you would particularly enjoy adapting?
SYK: I have no idea! I really liked doing this project, and now that I am writing and making story-building card games, I keep on thinking about making one about The Canterbury Tales. It is a compelling set of stories and characters that I think might make a great prompt deck for inspiring TTRPG [tabletop role-playing game] stories and NPCs [non-player character], too. But I don’t have any definite plans. I’m honestly not that familiar with other Chaucer texts, but I am drawn to texts with large ensemble casts a lot. I’ve been thinking of the Spoon River Anthology (Edgar Lee Masters) a lot lately, and maybe there is a project for me there.
Thanks so much to Shing for this thoughtful look behind the act of adapting The Canterbury Tales in such an unexpected way. You can see more of their art, including game design, comics, and illustration at https://shingkhor.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @sawdustbear.