Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale
This essay was submitted as part of coursework for American Military University’s English literature course.
Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” contains a series of short stories collected from a group of pilgrims holding a storytelling contest as they stop at an inn on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. I consider many of the stories from the pilgrims to be parables and “The Miller’s Tale” is no different, telling the dangers of getting too clever in mischief, coveting another man’s wife and believing in false prophecy. There is a great lightheartedness in the tale of the Miller, Robin, and despite the baseness of Robin’s humor, I feel that this humor is effective in relaying the moral of the story without being too heavy handed in its delivery.
Overall, Chaucer uses satire within “The Miller’s Tale” in the traditional Middle Age’s manner of vulgarity. Some of the irony seems to best absorbed by the nature of how the story is related- it is collected from people on a Holy Pilgrimage and Robin, the storyteller in this particular tale is anything but what we would perceive as a pious man on his way to find religious enlightenment. He is described as “…very drunk and rather pale, / was straddled on his horse half-on half-off/ And in no mood for manners or to doff.” (14-16)
Robin shares his bawdy tale following the Knight’s tale which was described as “…a noble story/ Worthy to be remembered for its glory,” (3-4) and is such a definitive contrast in the manner of speech that Chaucer felt the need to apologize before fully retelling the story and implores the reader to “Just turn the page and choose another sort” (69) promising “…Many historical, that will profess/ Morality, good breeding, saintliness,” (71-72). But as we all know, human beings are curious creatures that like to hear about the things they are told that they should avoid.
There are many great examples of Robin’s humor but I felt the morale of this tawdry tale of adultery and comeuppance best sums up the nature of the whole tale, “And so the carpenter’s wife was truly poked,/ As if his jealousy to justify,/ And Absalon has kissed her nether eye/ And Nicholas is branded on the bum.” (742-745) The wife though originally faithful lives up to her husband’s jealous nature by having an affair with the student, Nicholas; the foolish suitor and parish clerk, Absalon is humiliated by the lovers; and Nicholas the instigator of the whole affair, will forever bear the scars of his indecency with Alison. The carpenter in the whole scheme of things is punished for his jealously and believing Nicholas’s “prophecy” about a flood by losing his credibility and his wife’s affections.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Neville Coghill. New York: Penguin Classis, 2003. Print.