The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer - - The Miller’s Tale (3rd in a series)
This episode of Chaucer’s trip to Canterbury seemed more difficult to read: more details of this cuckold’s tale, and a lot more idioms to wade through. As a result, and despite the story’s ribald nature, it wasn’t fun to read. Why, you ask, did Chaucer write this one as he did? But first a bit about the story:
There’s a bit of a story-telling competition going on here. The narrator asks the monk to top the knight’s rather sterile tale of romantic love. But Chaucer (read: his narrator) was, as all good writers should be, ever mindful of entertaining his readers. He allows the accompanying miller to interrupt and tell his tale, which is a rather bawdy one. You can certainly see the miller eying the monk as he tells this story for this virginal fellow’s reaction.
in this tale a studious fellow, Nicholas, is taken with the beauty of Alisoun, wife to a carpenter, John. He shares a few romantic moments with Alisoun, but he wants to bed her.
Still, there’s a wrinkle: a clerk named Absolon also has eyes for the beautiful Alisoun.
I don’t want to synopsize the whole story here, but there’s cuckoldry, humor and vulgarity as well.
However, some things about the story don’t square with any century’s reality. John seems all too gullible (you’ll get this picture of him toward the end, where a flood of Biblical proportions is mentioned) to be a stalwart of his carpentry profession. And if he’s so gullible, how did he manage to marry such a comely lass? I suppose the thing here is never to allow such picky concerns to get in the way of a good story.
If the tale had been simply between two men who must trifle with manual labor to make a living it would have made more sense. But the monk still looms, and the supposedly soft-handed clerk as well. The sense of it, I suppose, is meant to be that this is an age of an emerging middle class, and there’s no doubt some friction existed between the mercantilers and the low-level craftsmen.
Chaucer is certainly aware of his pilgrims’ social makeup, and he clearly wanted to depict friction between the classes.
But why details in the extreme, and the idioms?
Most important to remember here is that this is a long trip, long days afoot or in the saddle, and while a quick pun or joke today would suffice, that age begged for a more drawn-out story. And I think Chaucer is being realistic in depicting a laborer such as the miller in a more colorful, less erudite language, to match such a person’s equally colorful humor.
My rating 15 of 20 stars
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