Author logo The Miller's Prologue and Tale - study guide

Introduction
Chaucer's life and work
The Canterbury Tales
Studying the Miller's Prologue and Tale
The Knight's Tale
The Knight and the Miller
Narrative method and comedy
Chaucer's treatment of his source
Humour in the Prologue
Humour in the Tale
The Miller
Nicholas
Alison
Absolon
John
Preparing for exams

Introduction

This study guide is intended for GCE Advanced level students, but is suitable for university students and the general reader who is interested in Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate this page. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this page, please contact me by clicking on this link.

Chaucer's life and work:

Geoffrey Chaucer was born about 1340 (in the reign of Edward III). He died on October 25, 1400, in the year after the accession of Henry IV and the death of Richard II, whose reign, starting in 1377, thus falls entirely in the poet's life. The son of a prosperous wine-merchant, Chaucer entered the household of Prince Lionel (later Duke of Clarence) in 1357, beginning a very successful career as a courtier (a kind of civil servant and diplomat). He was page, among others, to John of Gaunt and briefly saw military service: captured in 1360 on an expedition in the Ardennes, he was promptly ransomed, partly by the king, a measure of Chaucer's value to the state. Chaucer rose to high office, becoming a Justice of the Peace for Kent and, in 1386, a Knight of the Shire. In this year his career was interrupted by John of Gaunt's absence in Spain, but on Gaunt's return in 1389, Chaucer again was promoted to high office. Chaucer lived through the plague known as the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt (1381, a protest against the original Poll Tax) and the deposition of Richard II. In spite of the turbulence of the times, as shown (retrospectively) in Shakespeare's history plays, Chaucer seems to have enjoyed success and favour throughout his career. He was the first poet to be buried in what is now known as Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

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Although much excellent literature was written in English before the Norman Conquest, the form of the language (Old English, sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon) makes it foreign to the modern reader, while the literary forms are similarly remote from us. Chaucer is the first writer of note to produce substantial works in a form of English that is recognisably the same language that we speak and write today. To many readers, Chaucer's English is still difficult to read without help, but under the surface difficulties we find much that is readily accessible to the modern student. In the estimation of most critics, Chaucer is the most important writer in English before Shakespeare, and one of the handful of English-speaking authors whose merits are not in dispute: he is known, for these reasons, as the “Father of English Literature”.

Chaucer was highly educated and read widely, in Latin, French and Italian. His reading influenced both his subjects and his methods as a writer. His work includes a number of long poetic works, starting with The Book of the Duchess and The Romance of the Rose (a part translation of an allegorical French poem). Later works are The Parliament of Fowls, The House of Fame, Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women. As well as many short poems, Chaucer wrote a prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

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The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer's most celebrated work is certainly The Canterbury Tales. Begun by the 1380s, it was never completed, and modern versions of it are productions of scholars, who have attempted to make the least bad arrangement of its various completed parts. Editors know these parts as "Fragments" but they are of considerable length.

Within a very detailed narrative about a visit to Canterbury, Chaucer sets a series of stories. These "tales" are narratives, mostly in verse (Chaucer's own story of Melibee and The Parson's Tale are in prose). While the tales are coherent and skilful examples of the story-teller's art, each in its own right, Chaucer has contrived them in ways which increase our enjoyment: for example, each tale in some way reflects what we learn elsewhere about the character of the teller (in the General Prologue or in the prologues or linking narratives written for the individual tales).

Tales are grouped in ways which constitute debates on topical subjects (such as the nature of marriage) or to achieve effects of contrast: the Knight's Tale (a worthy tale, eloquently told by a speaker of the highest social class) is followed by the much shorter, bawdy Miller's Tale. We are led to think that this "low" narrative is in every way inferior to the Knight's, but the story-telling is masterly in its wit and economy: Chaucer at once shows that there is more than one way to tell your story, and that style should be appropriate to subject. Chaucer himself appears, not only as the recorder of the events on the journey and the stories he heard, but as a character in his own right. He makes judgements, frequently misleading, on the quality of the stories, and (a deft touch) telling his own first attempted tale (Sir Topaz) so boringly that he is stopped and made to try again with his tale of Melibee.

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The General Prologue to the tales, explains how Chaucer found himself, one April day, in the company of a group of pilgrims, riding from London to Canterbury, each one of whom he describes vividly for us. As they set out from their inn (The Tabard in Southwark) their "Host" (Harry Bailly, the innkeeper, acting rather as a courier or tour guide today) proposes that as they ride out and return, each pilgrim should tell two tales (four in all). On their return to London, the teller of the best story (as judged by the Host) will win a meal, paid for by all the rest. The Host invites the Knight, in view of his social standing, to begin the game. As the Knight finishes his (very long and dignified) tale, the Host invites the Monk to follow suit, but is thwarted by the drunken Miller, who insists on speaking next: from this point on any notion of choosing the tellers of the tales by (descending) social standing is forgotten. Unfortunately, though the fragments show how the tales might be grouped in a given part of the work, the overall sequence of the fragments is not known. Moreover, each teller only has a single complete tale (Chaucer has another incomplete tale), and there is nothing at the end to correspond to the General Prologue. In spite of these omissions, the work as it stands is enormously entertaining.

The standard edition of The Canterbury Tales is that in The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F.N. Robinson (Oxford University Press, 1957). The individual tales are published by Cambridge University Press. Although you should be familiar with the tales as Chaucer wrote them, you may wish to study a modern paraphrase. By far the best of these is Neville Coghill's Canterbury Tales (Penguin, 1951) a modern English verse translation. All of these books contain useful information for further study of the tales.

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Studying The Miller's Prologue and Tale

It is usual for examiners to set a single tale and its prologue, or the General Prologue to the Tales. However, you should be aware of these as parts of a more complex work, the complete Canterbury Tales. You should know and be able to refer (briefly) to the circumstances in which Chaucer represents the tales as being told; of the rôle of Harry Bailly (the Host); some of the tales in outline, and their connection with the teller; of the character, social status and values of the teller of the tale. In their totality, the tales give a full picture of the world Chaucer knew: not just the everyday world of craftsmen and merchants, but the imaginative world, the world of thought, of religious and philosophical ideas. The picture is comprehensive and consistent but not uniform: it is as varied as mankind, of whom Chaucer gives as representative a selection as we could wish for. As in a well-made play, there is a range of viewpoints, and the total work has the quality of good drama.

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The Knight's Tale

The choice, as the first storyteller, of the Knight (by Harry Bailly's drawing of lots, but the result is suspicious!) is an apt one. The Knight is the pilgrim of highest social rank, and is held in awe by some of the others. He is noble in every sense of the word: "a very parfit gentil knight". He has served in tough campaigns and bears the scars of battle; he understands the etiquette of courtly love and the stoic attitudes expressed in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, both of which find admirable expression in his tale. The Knight's Tale is the longest of the verse tales (The Pardoner's Tale, in prose is longer) and is highly-organized and dignified. Conventions of rhetoric are observed, the tale (classical in setting but derived from Boccaccio's Teseide) is marked by symmetry, while the narration often gives way to philosophical comment.

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Though much of the detail is vivid (descriptions of the temples of Venus, Mars and Diana; preparations for the military tournament between the rival suitors), one feels the philosophy is, both to the knight and to Chaucer, of more interest. In outline the story is this: Palamon and Arcite, cousins of the royal house of Thebes, are taken prisoner in battle by Theseus, and imprisoned in a tower. From here they see Hippolyta's sister, Emily, with whom both fall in love. Arcite is ransomed but banished from Athens; nevertheless, he returns in disguise. Palamon escapes but remains in Athens. Theseus discovers them fighting over Emily; he orders them to return in a year to fight properly, in a tournament, each backed by a hundred knights. Arcite prays to Mars for victory, while Palamon prays to Venus for success in love. Arcite wins the tournament, but Venus has called on the aid of Saturn: as he rides in triumph around the arena, Arcite is thrown by his horse. Fatally injured, he survives long enough to be reconciled to Palamon, to whom he freely yields the right to Emily's hand.

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The Knight and the Miller

It is the Host's intention, apparently, that others of the more noble pilgrims shall follow the Knight, but it is not Chaucer's. The Miller is of very different class and character, the tale he tells belongs wholly to another world than the Knight's, and is as far from the Knight's dignity as can be imagined. It is clear that each benefits by the contrast, while there is ostensibly some common ground in that both tales depict conquests of love, and that the etiquette of courtly love appears in serious guise in one and in parodic form in the other. In a way, these two tales are touchstones or points of reference for all that follow, as they occupy these extremes: the noble fantasy of life as it ought to be, in an idealized classical setting; the ignoble farce of life in its everyday guise in a familiar urban setting. In one we see the field where Emily celebrates May Morning, and the temples of Venus, Mars and Diana; in the other we have Nicholas's "bed-sit" (complete with cat's pop-hole) and Gervase's forge. While everyone agrees that the Knight's tale is worthy, the Miller scandalizes some, outrages the Reeve and doubtless entertains most, though they are not easily able to admit to this.

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Chaucer, through the Miller (whom he ironically disapproves in his narrator's voice) challenges the conventions of rhetoric, subject and values, which he has first carefully exhibited in The Knight's Tale. Of its kind, this tale is flawless. But The Miller's Tale is also hard to fault, while its low comedy and narrative brevity make it perhaps better suited to the occasion of oral performance before a company on horseback. Chaucer shows by this contrast that, in a way, the Host's idea of a competition is mistaken, because there is no single "best" kind of story. In what follows, Chaucer represents all the different kinds of story in circulation in oral and written form. Again, as regards the telling, while most tales are in rhyming (pentameter) couplets, as is the General Prologue, other verse forms are used, as well as prose. Chaucer has no real precedent in English to follow, but the contemporary models he knows and uses as sources (in Latin, French, Italian and Provençal) mirror this variety.

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Elements in The Miller's Tale which remind us of The Knight's Tale are these.

  • First, we should note a comic distortion of courtly love, the conventions of which, observed by Palamon, Arcite and Emily, seem not at all ridiculous. The Knight is a good advocate for these values: he is manly and courageous, so assured of his status and confident that others recognize it, that the descent into extreme courtesy (to a worthy lady, of course) loses him no dignity. Absolon, on the other hand, is already so ridiculous to the Miller's audience that the various representations of him in the guise of lover have the humour of incongruity, as does the object of his attentions who is indifferent to the "meenes and brocage" Absolon employs in his suit.
  • Second, the device of rival suitors and their conquest of the lady is repeated by the Miller; but in this case the lady is no Lady, and the rivals are ill-matched: apart from his natural advantages, Nicholas, having wooed Alison first, stands in Absolon's "light".
  • Third, the downfall of the conquering hero in his moment of triumph (a fatal downfall presented as tragedy for Arcite) is comically repeated in Nicholas's branding with the coulter. Finally, the Knight's tendency to move from narration into moralizing and comment is briefly copied by the Miller at lines 273 ff. and 503 to 505 (and ironically at lines 320 and 342).

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Narrative method and comedy

Chaucer's treatment of his source

The Miller's Tale is a version of a well-known comic story of which various forms are known, and which probably existed in the oral tradition of Chaucer's time. While the more scholarly pilgrims adapt serious and literary traditions, it is fitting that the Miller should choose this tale. Chaucer's originality is shown in the changes he makes and in the incidental narrative touches he supplies. (See James Winny's comments; Cambridge edition pp. 8-12). Since some of these details may have been in contemporary oral versions not extant today, we cannot certainly attribute all to Chaucer's authorship; but there is no reason to suppose, equally, that they are not his; at the least, we are sure that this is the version he has chosen to tell. In other versions there is less complexity in the narrative, less development of character and situation, and, thus, more preoccupation with the bawdy and absurd elements.

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The tale as we have it is akin to a shaggy-dog story, a somewhat improbable story with a highly improbable ending. The Miller/Chaucer retains this element, by reserving much of the farcical detail for the conclusion. In this section, the comedy is heightened by a series of causes and effects, as well as by the partial knowledge of the characters, as opposed to the audience's fuller understanding: Absolon has no idea that the victim of his revenge will be Nicholas, not Alison, nor what will be the offensive riposte to his "Spek, sweete brid"; Nicholas does not know the degree of Absolon's shame, nor that he carries the heated coulter. Nicholas has told John of the imagined flood, but has not foreseen having to pretend that it has really come (by this time, he will have achieved his night of bliss with Alison).

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When he cries "Water" Nicholas is thinking only of soothing his pain, not of the flood nor of John's response to the cry. But the Miller's audience sees, even as it is narrated, what John's reaction must be. In making John, for a moment, believe the flood has arrived, Nicholas surpasses his own careful intention.

Chaucer's chief development of the tale, however, comes before this. His elaboration of his source is found in part in his satirizing of the follies of John and Absolon; in irony both from the Miller and from characters in the tale, as well as irony of situations, as when Gervase rightly (but for wrong reasons) suggests that "some gay gerl" has brought Absolon "upon the viritoot"; in bawdy and indecent elements, a staple of low comedy but here carried off with panache; in absurdity, and in such incidental touches as Nicholas's cry: "A berd! A berd!" or the list of cleaning agents vainly employed by Absolon in his effort to remove the defilement of the kiss, many of them (dust, sand, wood-shavings) hardly cleaner than what they are meant to remove.

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Humour in the Prologue

Here we are at once amused by the Miller's antics, as he shouts down the Host and insists on telling his tale before the Monk. The nature of this outburst is suggested by details of his drunkenness: the pallor of his features, his unsteadiness on his horse, and his frequent blasphemous oaths. We are further amused when, on receiving Harry Bailly's grudging permission to speak ("Tel on, a devel way!") the Miller apologizes in advance for any mispronunciation, paying tribute the while to the intoxicating properties of Southwark's ale. (Harry Bailly is landlord of the Tabard in Southwark.)

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Having placated the Host, the Miller now picks a quarrel with the Reeve, in promising a tale of the cuckolding of a carpenter. (T.W. Craik suggests that the Miller offends the Reeve unwittingly, but this is by no means obvious; The Comic Tales of Chaucer, pp. 1-2.) In the exchange of repartee which follows, the Miller comes off the better, but the Reeve will pay him back when he tells his tale. The ridiculing of Symkyn, the miller of Trumpington (near Cambridge) in The Reeve's Tale is far more closely directed to his craft than is the Miller's ridiculing of John: that John is a carpenter is convenient in that it allows him to be away from home (or thought to be) when he visits the Oseney Abbey estates and that he is able to make practical preparation for the predicted flood without outside help. But the Miller ridicules John for his unwise marriage and the jealousy which compounds his error.

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In ironically suggesting that most women are faithful, the Miller is able to cast doubt on the Reeve's marriage while giving no explicit cause for offence. By suggesting that he would not dream of making rash claims for his own wife's fidelity, he calls in doubt the Reeve's objections to his proposed tale, implying a slander, while affecting sweet reasonableness. Having presented all this neutrally , Chaucer now introduces his own comment, or affects to do so. In the guise of the pilgrim-as-reporter, he apologizes for the tale which he must tell, he asserts, out of journalistic completeness. This is, of course, ironic: Chaucer has written the tale and clearly delights in its humour. But there is also a sense in which the comment is not ironic: the decision to give a complete range of tales (in terms of subject and style) does require the retailing of elements which though bawdy are truthful reflections of the interests and conduct of real people. To omit these would be a distortion of the world the author must faithfully depict.

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Humour in the tale

Satire | The absurd | Extended satire | Irony | Farce | Bawdy | Humorous details | The Miller's audience

Satire

In the tale we find satire directed against John and Absolon. The ridiculing of John is found in the account of his deception by Nicholas, as well as in the Miller's presentation of his folly in marrying so young a wife, and, worse, by his jealousy provoking the very cuckolding he has been so desperate to prevent. The apparently snobbish observation that John whose "wit was rude" was ignorant of Cato, may conceal the fact that common sense would tell him that "youthe and eld is often at debaat". John is equally the butt of satire in the very lengthy account of Nicholas's prediction of the flood and John's reaction to it. John prides himself on the practical common-sense of men that "swinke", praises the "lewed man" who "noght but oonly his bileve kan" and relates the story of the foolish clerk who falls in the marl pit, while gazing at the stars.

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Yet his saying these things is a response to Nicholas's setting in motion the trap into which he is to fall. Having heard Nicholas's prediction, he is terrified by the fantasies of his own fear:

Him thinketh verraily that he may see
Nooes flood come walwinge as the see
To drenchen Alison, his hony deere.
He weepeth, weileth, maketh sory cheere;
He siketh with ful many a sory swogh.
The absurd

In most of the narrative in which John features the satire is mixed with absurd humour, occasioned by the preposterousness of Nicholas's prediction and of John's preparations for surviving the flood. On their own, such actions (hanging tubs from the rafters, filling them with provisions and lying in them) would be highly comic. They are made more so by our knowledge of the ulterior purpose these actions serve: John's cuckolding, which excites further ridicule for the unfortunate carpenter. Even without Nicholas's prompting, John's conduct is often ridiculous, as when he utters the "night-spel" and other mumbo-jumbo to ward off evil spirits. To fool John, Nicholas and Alison may behave equally absurdly, as in the wonderful scene where each says "clom" before lying down in the tub or kneading-trough.

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Extended satirical description

In the long description of Absolon, the satire is more developed. We might at first take much of this description for enthusiastic approval of Absolon but there are enough clues to show that this apparent approval is ironically meant. The total picture is too silly to be taken seriously, while the patronising identification of Absolon as a "mirie child" also gives the game away. If we are not persuaded by the account of Absolon's dancing - he knows twenty dances of the "scole of Oxenford", and we are told how he can "casten to and fro" with his legs - nor by the description of his fashionable shoes embellished with "Poules window", we will be convinced by the bathos of the concluding disclosure, that he is "squaymous/Of farting".

Irony

Irony abounds in the tale: characters may intend irony (as when Nicholas persuades John of the value of secrecy) or may be unintentionally ironic (as when Gervase teases Absolon about the "gay gerl"). There is irony from the Miller in the observation (discussed above) about "Catoun".

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Farce

Farce is found in the confusion of the tale's dénouement. What happens seems utterly improbable but has been made possible by earlier improbable circumstances. Thus, Absolon is humiliated by kissing Alison's "naked ers"; Nicholas, hoping to repeat the humiliation, is branded, and, as a result of this, John wakes and tries to launch his tub. None of these events has been foreseen in Nicholas's plan.

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Bawdy

The humour of the farcical passages is exaggerated by another device - the use of bawdy detail. Thus we learn of Absolon's kissing Alison's "naked ers", that she puts her "hole" out at the window, and that Absolon thinks her pubic hair to be a "berd". Nicholas's comment repeats this joke. The Miller's audience would probably not notice that Absolon has thought of this but not said it, and that Nicholas is echoing his thought! We learn of Nicholas's being "scalded in the towte" and of his letting "flee a fart" as loud as a "thonder-dent". This kind of graphic detail is anticipated early in the tale where, before he speaks "so faire" and proffers himself "so faste", Nicholas attempts a less subtle courtship:

And privelye he caughte her by the queynte...
And heeld hire harde by the haunchebones

This bawdy is rendered more forceful by the poetic form: time and again the indecent word comes at the end of a couplet, which makes it more emphatic, as in the examples above.

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Humorous details

Many humorous details, not strictly necessary but illuminating, are spread liberally throughout the tale: Gervase's comments to Absolon, the invitation to "spek, sweete brid" which precedes Nicholas's passing wind. The list introduced in lines 273 to 274 would make good sense in a heroic setting: here they are incongruous. Nicholas's ironical reference to being "entred into shippes bord" gives an ironical dignity to the un-nautical tubs, while his insistence that there be "no sinne" between Alison and John is a daring stroke of improvisation. We can see, therefore, in the detail as much as in the total narrative content, that the tale exhibits humour.

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The Miller's audience

It is perfectly possible that the company of pilgrims - an audience more used to the spoken than to the written word - could follow, and enjoy, a formally eloquent tale such as the Knight's. But The Miller's Tale makes more obvious concessions to the hearer, and Chaucer writes with a sense of the audience the Miller addresses. Thus, the pronoun "this" is repeatedly used to recapitulate detail. Formulae such as "as I have told bifoorn" are used to excuse necessary repetition, while the Miller often addresses his audience specifically: "Now, sire, and eft, sire..." We are inclined to favour Nicholas thanks to the epithet "hende Nicholas", while "this sely carpenter" excites ridicule of John. At one point the Miller even cries encouragement to his hero: "Now ber thee wel, thou hende Nicholas"!

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The Miller

The Miller is not in the tale, of course, but is as vivid a creation of Chaucer as characters who are. The Knight presents us with an ideal to which he probably aspires; the Miller presents us with the real everyday world. While the Knight stresses the sublime nature of romantic love, the Miller considers love in sexual terms. Neither view alone is wholly true; each is a corrective to the other: love embraces both of these elements.

Like the Wife of Bath, the Miller is a character of commanding physical presence: he is a massive man who excels in such displays of strength as wrestling matches, and breaking doors "at a renning with his heed". He has a huge beard, wide nostrils, a vast mouth and a conspicuous wart, crowned by a tuft of hairs likened in colour to the bristles of a sow's ears. By stressing the Miller's physical attributes, Chaucer suggests to the reader the idea of a down-to-earth man who takes pleasure in satisfying basic appetites. Such a cliché would only supply half the picture; though the Miller is a man of down-to-earth outlook and physical pleasure, he is a very intelligent man. His narrative style, if less complex and conventionally sophisticated than the Knight's, is masterly in its realism, economy and control, especially of the humorous elements. (We learn, for instance, at line 192, that Nicholas plans to "bigile" John, but we do not know what his plan is until the point in the tale where he must carry it out.)

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The Miller is an educated man, able to censure John for his ignorance of Dionysius Cato, and to describe the paraphernalia of Nicholas's astrological activities. This rather unexpected subtlety is indicated in the final lines of the description in the General Prologue. These are introduced by "And yet..." showing Chaucer's awareness of our possible surprise here. Though acquainted with the usual tricks of his trade, the Miller has "a thombe of gold", and is an able bagpipe-player, whose piping accompanies the pilgrims' departure from London. An interest in music appears at many points in his tale, where music seems to have sexual connotations, as in the comparison between the young men's instruments, in Nicholas's singing the Angelus ad virginem, but chiefly in the coincidence of his and Alison's love-making with the singing by the "freres" of the divine office.

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The Miller appears to be a lover of drink, paying tribute to the "ale of Southwerk". He is so drunk he can barely sit on his horse, though he may be exaggerating the effect of the drink for comic reasons. The drunkenness may also account for his rude intervention ahead of the Monk, and also may excuse the tale he tells; on the other hand, he tells his tale remarkably fluently. Either he is less drunk than he would have us believe, or his tongue is less affected than his sense of balance!

The Miller is as headstrong metaphorically as he is literally: he will not doff his hat to his supposed betters, nor defer to any man, nor yet comply with the Host's wishes. He is forceful in argument, appearing here to get the better of the Reeve. He is given to the use of blasphemous oaths, as are his characters (l. 635, 659). He is capable of irony, as when he pretends to placate "leve brother Osewold", urging him not to mistrust his wife, as virtuous women greatly outnumber bad ones. Unlike the foolish carpenter of his tale, he will not enquire too deeply into his wife's fidelity: he will believe himself not to be a cuckold, but will not demand evidence. A husband who finds "Goddes foison" need "nat enquire" about "the remenant"; this bespeaks common sense.

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In telling his tale, the Miller makes us laugh variously at John, at Absolon, and, briefly, at Nicholas, but also makes comments about different kinds of folly. He clearly takes sides, to gain his audience's sympathy for Alison and her lover, and against John and Absolon. In this, he departs from conventional morality but the mediŠval (and the modern) reader is likely to agree, to prefer, say, the coarse but natural Alison to her jealous, pompous and self-righteous husband, and the foppishness of the would-be courtly-lover, Absolon. The Miller (though no respecter of persons) is not of course attacking the ideals to which the Knight has paid homage, but the folly of a superficial following of some of the outward conventions of behaviour attached to those ideals. Absolon is ridiculous because he tries to strike a pose, in affecting the gallantry of the lover, and in the courtship of a woman who neither cares for nor understands the courtly-love etiquette, often in the most inappropriate circumstances, as in the serenade which prompts John's redundant question at line 258.

Chaucer's dismissal of the Miller, in apologising for his lewdness, as "a cherl", is ironic, as is "ye knowe wel this". Chaucer has taken pains to ensure that we "knowe wel" that the Miller is a more complex and sympathetic character than Chaucer here misleadingly suggests.

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Nicholas

Nicholas with his mixture of esoteric learning, outrageous sense of humour and eager pursuit of love is a type still recognizable today, and not unlike the modern Oxford student. He is introduced as "hende Nicholas". His conduct does not at all answer to the usual sense of the adjective which implies great courtesy, but its suggestion of approval is repeatedly invoked as the Miller refers to his hero by this formula. We learn at once that he is knowledgeable ("hadde lerned art") and of his interest in astrology. This is seen as a respectable branch of learning, but Nicholas is aware of its power to impress others, while he is able to supplement his income by weather-forecasting. He is also helped financially by friends. Lodging in a private house would be usual. John seems to have no need of the income (he is a "riche gnof", he keeps servants, he spends lavishly on Alison's wardrobe) but probably sees such a lodger as a source of prestige; the close ties between the university and the church may also make it politic for him to keep "gestes" (John receives a lot of work from Oseney Abbey).

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The very precise description of Nicholas's room gives an insight into other interests. As well as the equipment used for divination (very exactly described; Chaucer is expert on the subject and requires us to believe the Miller to be well-informed), the room contains a book-case and a "gay sautrie", on which Nicholas accompanies himself as he sings of an evening, as a modern student might strum a guitar. His slightly feminine grace ("lyk a maiden meke for to see") and his enigmatic secretive disposition give him a fascination in the eyes of Alison. We are told that he knows "of deerne love", so his approach to Alison may seem crudely direct. But Nicholas has not misjudged her. He has to speak fair but she readily accepts his attentions. No doubt he has observed how things stand between her and John. That Alison does not cry out, as she threatens to do, reassures Nicholas of her favour.

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The imaginary flood of which Nicholas tells John shows us his cunning, his inventiveness, his contempt for the stupid tradesman (l. 191-192) and his confidence. His reputation (earned by genuine astrology in the past) is the linch-pin of his scheme to cuckold John. The prediction of the flood is so improbable that John does not consider the possibility that it is an invention. In carrying out his plot, however, Nicholas must act convincingly the part of one struck briefly dumb by what he has foreseen. Though he later will laugh at John's credulity, before he has had his night of bliss with Alison, he resists the temptation to betray himself by laughter or facial expression. Though John's comments about the clerk who fell into the marl-pit ("he saugh nat that") reflect chiefly on his own lack of foresight, they may apply to Nicholas as, in his over-confidence, he receives the punishment Absolon has devised for Alison. Nicholas's capacity as an astrologer is not compromised by this, however, as he acts on impulse (having "risen for to pisse") rather than after consulting his "astrelabie" or his "augrim stones".

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Though Nicholas takes astrology fairly seriously, he is otherwise cynical, unscrupulous and blasphemous. He has no honourable intentions towards Alison (to be fair, she is not misled by him; his attitude is frankly shown in his direct approach; line 168). As a scholar of the university he is in minor orders, and required to be celibate. Though John is fond of him, albeit patronisingly, he regards his host as a fool whom he has no qualms about cuckolding. He is foul-mouthed and uses blasphemous oaths. A far greater blasphemy lies in his claim of divine authority for his "discovery" of the imminent flood, to say nothing of the use this blasphemy serves.

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In spite of this, the Miller contrives that we shall like Nicholas. He does this by making John seem deserving of punishment for his unwise marriage and subsequent jealousy. Nicholas's youth and attractiveness may make us less critical of his impropriety, and the comic manner of the tale's telling makes his conduct seem less worthy of censure than would be the case with real people. Nicholas seems a more appropriate partner for Alison than does John, and the Miller's repetition of the formula "hende Nicholas" encourages us to be more sympathetic. Finally, we should note that Nicholas does not escape scot-free. His over-confidence and lack of prudence earn him a punishment appropriate to his offence, and in keeping with the farcical spirit of the tale's dénouement as he is "scalded in the towte" by his rival, who mistakes him for Alison.

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Alison

One of the most obvious points of contrast between the first two tales is their heroines. Emilye's beauty is such that the imprisoned Palamon and Arcite both fall in love with her instantly. She is distant, aloof, almost unattainable, though after many years of tribulation, Palamon marries her. Emilye is of royal lineage (sister to the Amazon queen) and conventionally virtuous. The Knight shows his reverence for women of this kind, as he courteously refuses to divulge the secrets of Emilye's devotions in Diana's temple. For all this, Emilye is a rather two-dimensional character, whom the reader never comes to know. And there is no hint of sexual interest in the cousins' long courtship of her.

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What Alison shares with Emilye is beauty and the ability to arouse strong passion. Where Emilye's beauty is depicted conventionally (she is likened to the lily and to the rose, and she is first shown in the idealized setting of a beautiful garden on a sunny May morning), Alison's attractions are suggested by animal similes. Emilye's beauty has a static quality, but Alison's cannot be separated from her animation and vitality. This, with a hint of naivety, is suggested by the comparisons to "kide or calf" and (twice) to a colt. Alison is soft as a wether's wool and her voice is like the swallow's. A supple, sinuous quality of her figure is suggested in the simile of the weasel, which is clearly chosen to stress her sexual attractiveness.

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The appropriate attitude for a man to take to such a woman (the Miller thinks) is shown by such terms as "popelote", "primerole" and "piggesnie", for which we can readily find modern equivalents. Alison is suitable as a mistress for "any lord"; as a wife, she can expect at best to marry a yeoman. Among the many other physical details packed into the Miller's set-piece description we learn that Alison has delicately-plucked sloe-black eyebrows; that she is tall and erect, that her breath is sweet. Much of the account is taken up with an inventory of her clothes. These seem fairly expensive, but John evidently wishes her to spend on her wardrobe. The clothes are tasteful and exaggerate her attractive features. We learn that many garments are of silk, that smock and collar are embroidered, that her apron is shaped with "many a goore", and that her purse is decorated with silk and "perled with latoun". The discerning eye can see the expense in this display, but it is not (as is the Wife of Bath's, say) ostentatious.

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Alison's only objections to Nicholas's overtures are of a prudential kind: she has no qualms about cuckolding John, but Nicholas is to be "privee". (We do not, of course, know what is the sequel to the tale, save that Alison supports Nicholas's version of events. We do not know for certain whether John even discovers what Alison has been up to while he has slept.) As with Nicholas, so with Alison, the Miller does not invite censure from his audience. The engaging description of Alison, the way John keeps her "narwe in cage", the more natural relationship of young lovers, and the way in which we are swept along by the tale's comic momentum - all these seem to mitigate Alison's offence. If her conduct is treacherous, John is so far from being an ideal husband that we feel little sympathy for him.

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Alison has neither refinement nor delicacy. She has enough sense of her own merit to refuse Nicholas until he has wooed her, but the wooing is perfunctory, passed over in two lines: the "courtship" seems to take minutes (compare the many years required by Emilye). Alison's robust earthiness (beneath the elegant dress and youthful beauty she is a peasant) is best conveyed in her speech. She is always direct and can be insulting and sarcastic. She is cutting to Absolon (l. 600-604) and sarcastic to John when he asks whether she hears Absolon's serenade: "Yis, God woot, John, I heere it every deel". The almost bored rejoinder suggests that it should be obvious to John that she has no time for Absolon.

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Though she has little to do in the execution of Nicholas's plan, Alison plays her part well, pretending concern at the appropriate moments. But she has a capacity for inventiveness as we see in her encounter with Absolon. As with Nicholas and the "flood", we have no advance warning of what she is to do. Her humiliation of Absolon shows a remorseless streak already hinted at, but also shows her frank view of sexuality: she wishes to shame Absolon, but has little embarrassment, it seems, at thrusting her bare haunches out of the window. Social convention (then as now) requires a degree of restraint in women's outward conduct, but Alison is naturally promiscuous. When Nicholas seizes her "by the queynte", she does not cry out, but ensures that her love-making with Nicholas should take place in convenient and discreet circumstances.

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To conclude, she is not a particularly pleasant woman, but her treachery is mitigated partly by her circumstances, partly in the manner of the tale's telling. She is ill-matched in marriage, but we do not know how much choice she has had in the matter. In any case, marrying a wealthy older man may be her only way of improving her material status. She lacks sensitivity and any kind of moral sense (qualities conspicuous in the Knight, and celebrated in his tale) but in this may not differ markedly from many people of her social class; she has not had the benefit of education. She is outwardly respectable (Absolon sees her in church) but will not pass up the chance of what she doubtless sees as harmless pleasure with Nicholas.

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Absolon

Like Alison, Absolon is introduced in a lengthy set-piece description. Superficially, he may resemble Nicholas: he is a handsome young man with musical and other talents. To some he might be attractive, but to Alison, as to the Miller's audience, he is ridiculous. In his general attire, as in his preparations for his nocturnal visit to Alison (we know she is with Nicholas, but Absolon is in the dark) there is fastidious attention to detail: the red hose, the white surplice, the "pointes" and the fashionable shoes; the arraying at "point-devis", the chewing of grain and liquorice, the placing of the "trewe-love" under the tongue. Absolon has a variety of interests, from blood-letting to conveyancing, but is not master of any trade. He takes his "smal rubible" around the inns of Oxford, but his voice is high-pitched, and, when he serenades Alison, quavering as a nightingale's song: excellent in the bird, but affected in a man (Nicholas sings sweetly, we learn). Even when carrying out his clerical duties, Absolon poses: he is excessively vigorous in "sensing the wives", he eyes them up, and refuses their alms, as if these were due to him, not to the work of the church.

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In the Knight's Tale, the etiquette of courtly love is seriously presented as a code of conduct to be followed by the noble cousins. Absolon has a superficial notion of love which issues in a parody of the courtly code, made all the more ridiculous by the everyday setting of the tale. We see this in the long description starting at line 263. Absolon serenades Alison, sends her a variety of gifts and swears to be her page. He even serenades her, we are told earlier, in the presence of her husband. When Absolon plans to visit Alison in John's absence, the reader is struck by what Absolon hopes for ("kissing atte leeste") and what we know Nicholas and Alison are already doing. Absolon's reading of the "omens" - his dream and his itching mouth - shows his naivety where women are concerned.

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Absolon's foppishness of dress is matched by a distaste for bodily function. We are alerted at once to his squeamishness "of farting". This is partly a clue (as is "a mirie child") as to how we are to think of him. But it tells us more: for this to be a known quality of Absolon, he must be very "squaymous", and have let this be known. This distaste gives Alison's practical joke its point, and makes it a just punishment of Absolon. He has sought an illusory tryst with Alison; she tricks him into kissing her "nether eye". Absolon is not merely heartbroken that his beloved has turned out to be a base peasant, nor even only angry at the humiliation. He is horrified by the contact, and desperately tries to remove the kiss, rubbing his lips with dust, sand, straw, cloth and wood-shavings. His love is a "maladie" of which he is now "heeled". He has lost face and is prepared to harm the once-beloved Alison in retribution.

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The Miller sees great irony in Gervase's remarks. Having for so long struck the pose of the rejected lover, Absolon is now told that "some gay gerl" is doubtless to blame for his discomfiture. He knows how Gervase's words are apt in a sense not intended by the speaker, but cannot explain this now, and keeps his own council. One wonders how fully Absolon will, as he promises, explain to Gervase "to-morwe day" what has happened. Absolon is a poseur, whether at work, in the tavern or in his self-appointed rôle of lover, playing "Herodes upon a scaffold hye". He likes the idea of love, but seems unprepared for the physical reality of sex. There is justice in his being tricked into confronting this, and his response confirms our suspicions of him.

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John

Although the Miller promises a tale in which a carpenter is ridiculed, John is criticized more as a foolish and uneducated old man, than as a representative of his craft. He needs to be a carpenter to explain his occasional absence overseeing timber-felling "at the grange", and in order to make the preparations detailed by Nicholas for the coming flood. (Doubtless the story could be told, as it was in other versions, about some other kind of man.)

John is rebuked by the Miller for his ignorance (both of Cato and of common sense) and, worse, for his pride in being ignorant: "blessed be alwey a lewed man". The Miller sees no need for a tradesman to be ignorant. John's smugness is beautifully exemplified as John explains (to Alison, presumably) how Nicholas's astrology has driven him mad and tells the story of the clerk who went star-gazing and fell in a marl pit ("He saugh nat that"). The Miller's audience knows well, as does Alison, that the very conduct which has occasioned this patronizing concern for Nicholas is the pit into which John is about to fall.

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After praising the "lewed man" who only knows his creed, the fearful John resorts to superstitious nonsense to ward off evil spirits. And when he is told of the flood his self-importance is flattered by his being Nicholas's only confidant. He is horrified by the danger to his beloved Alison, imagining the flood come "walwinge...to drenchen...his hony deere". We are surprised by John's readiness to believe Nicholas's "prediction" but must attribute this as much to Nicholas's skill as to John's gullibility. John's folly is a general smugness, in spite of poor acts of judgement, that he is right. His marriage to Alison is unwise in its disregard of common wisdom. His efforts to prevent her straying, arising from his fear that he will be "lik a cokewold", have no deterrent effect on Alison, save to make her more cautious in betraying him. John is harshly treated for his folly, but it is hard not to laugh at him as he lies "aswowne...pale and wan".

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Preparing for exams

The set text for exams often includes the portrait from the General Prologue as well as both Prologue and Tale. You should expect questions which cover all three.

Questions about content may well focus on the values and attitudes of the tale.

Expect questions about narrative method or the humour in the tale. These may appear as questions about the Miller, as teller. They may also be linked to short extracts from the text. Ensure you can show what is of note (briefly) in the extract, and that you can connect it to other material in the text.

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However, the most likely question is always that which connects the teller with the tale: how the character and values of the narrator (as shown in the General Prologue and his own prologue) are developed or reflected in the tale. The standard question in this case is whether or not the Miller is a "cherl", whether the tale has any moral viewpoint. In his comments as narrator, Chaucer pretends to a disapproval which enables him to clear himself of blame for the tale. The judgement here expressed is far too dismissive, and neither the "real" Chaucer, the poet, who has contrived the whole work of The Canterbury Tales, nor his reader can share this view. We see that the tale has its own logic and morality, which if not especially elevated has a clear sense of retributive justice for the foolish.

The comments and explanations on this page can be used in answering any kind of question on the tale: the important thing is to remember to direct your answer to the question set.

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© Andrew Moore, 2002, 2004; Contact me

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