|Notes on The Miller's Prologue and Tale
20 Feb. 1997
**What follows is not a polished essay but a copy of the notes I have used in the past for class lectures on the tale. I offer them here as a supplement to our class discussion and as a way of organizing the ideas which may come up less systematically in class discussion.
The Miller's Prologue:
How did the Pilgrims like "The Knight's Tale"? The Narrator first suggests that everyone liked it. But this assertion is worded negatively. There was no one who did not say it was a noble story worth remembering, especially the "gentils." Until the Host starts laughing and swearing (3114), the response actually seems rather subdued.
But why does the Host respond the way he does? Does he really like it all that much? Is his vigorous response calculated to compensate for the possibly rather subdued initial response of the other pilgrims? If so, why? Is he sucking up to the Knight because the Knight is the most important pilgrim among them?
Why does the Host next call on the Monk? "Sir Monk," he says. Conventional opinion suggests that the Host calls on the Monk out of deference to his position of social importance next to that of the Knight. Thus we the Host seems deferential to social authority.
Why does the Miller break in? The Narrator emphasizes his drunkenness. He can scarcely sit his horse and he doesn't doff his hat to anyone. Unlike the Host, the Miller appears to reject the authority of the gentils. And the Miller, "in Pilot's voice," blasphemes Christ (3124). [Cycle Plays] The Miller wants to repay the Knight. He wants to take the tale the Knight has just told and stuff it right back down his throat!
The Host tries to control the Miller's outburst but seems deferential as well ("Abyd, Robyn, my leeve brother" (3129), perhaps realizing that he is dealing with a powder keg. But the point is that the Host wishes to defer to authority. We know from the General Prologue that the Miller is "a jangler and a goliardeys." (560) The Miller is also "a stout carl" and well armed. But he also seems like a friendly fellow. He leads the group out of town playing the bagpipe (which might have Dionysian associations, further suggesting his disrespect for established authority while at the same time reinforcing his gregarious sociability).
After the Host gives in to the Miller (who must appear to him an unmovable force), the Miller ducks under the mask of his drunkenness. Chaucer is lurking back there somewhere, too, behind the multiple masks of the Narrator, the Miller and the Miller's drunkenness. Why the multiple masks? Chaucer the Narrator admires fellows such as the Reve and the Manciple, even the Friar, who can fool their "betters." Maybe here Chaucer is fooling his "betters." The conventional and almost universal view of Chaucer the poet is that, ultimately, he supports conventional structures of authority. He is seen as a friendly, deferential entertainer of court audiences. If he tells a bawdy tale, well, his main interest is merely in telling a good joke. It is merely taken as a sign of his healthy vigor. After all, entertainers must be allowed more privilege in matters of language than other folks. Chaucer's poetry has rarely been seen as subversive. There are probably social/political reasons for this. Conventional critics, wanting to preserve Chaucer's institutional status, are quick to assert that the "Miller's Tale" contains no erotic elaboration and no perversion. Well, we'll see about that.
The Miller says that his tale will be "a legende and a lyfe/ both of a carpenter and of his wife/ How that a clerk hath set the wrightes cappe." (3141) [Cycle Plays?] In such an explicit religious context (a legend meant a story about a saint), Chaucer's audience might anticipate a story signifying Mary and Joseph.
The Reve immediately interrupts (3144). Why the Reve? Either because (1) he is a carpenter or (2) he has religious pretensions (Remember the spare ascetic religious manner of the Reve and the way his dress reflects these pretensions. "His top was dokked lyk a preest biforn." "Tukked he was as is a frere aboute."), and thus he objects to what he
assumes is the coming religious blasphemy, or (3) he merely objects to what he presumes will be a bawdy tale. "It is a synne" he cries (3146).
The Miller's response is either sarcastic or sincere (3150). See 3158-61: The Miller refers to the "oxen in [his] plogh." Is this a phallic reference? He seems to be saying (1) that he wouldn't take "more than enough" for his plough. (2) Nor would he assume too far concerning his wife's unfaithfulness. Then he moves into his theme (3164): "A housbonde shall not been inqusityf/ Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf."
On the one level the phrase simply means that husbands shouldn't inquire too closely into God's secrets, nor into their wives' secrets. The analogy between the two is blasphemous enough. It resonates against Nicholas' passion for the magic of astrological prediction and against the husband's gullibleness. But there is another level to the word play. Pryvetee refers to privates, genitals. In the middle ages it always carries this resonance. Thus the phrase says literally, we shouldn't inquire too closely into God's genitals. Thus the phrase appears to humble and despiritualize God.
Laura Kendrick in Chaucerian Play (1988) documents that in fourteenth and fifteenth century painting Christ's genitals are consistently depicted or suggested, but for a highly serious symbolic reason. Christ is the Word, the Truth, made flesh. If the Miller's allusion to "Goddes pryvetee" recalls that tradition, then he is turning that serious symbolic reference on its literal head.
Consider as well, the application to Mary and Joseph. Joseph is repeatedly depicted in the Cycle Plays as a jealous husband. Mary is pregnant. She claims the Angel Gabriel came down to her and announced that God has chosen her to bear the Messiah. Joseph, always depicted as an older man, is afraid that maybe God came to his wife "cleverly disguised" as a Roman soldier. Consider the analogy of Mary and Joseph with Alisoun and John.
Having set up some outrageous suggestions, the Narrator Chaucer again ducks behind his mask (3167). He doesn't want to "falsen" anything. This is, after all, an unfortunate aspect of life, and as a writer he seems obligated to show it (for our moral and spiritual edification of course). And he reminds us that there are other, more conventionally acceptable tales, so that he does not want to be blamed if we choose to read it.
He ends by saying, don't make ernest of game. That is, don't take this silly joke too seriously. Don't interpret doctrinal meaning into it (as we are instructed to do by the Nun's Priest at the end of that tale). Laura Kendrick brings up the possibility that perhaps this tale makes "game of ernest."
The Miller's Tale
The tale is a fabliaux, a versified short story designed to make you laugh; concerned usually with sexual or excretory functions. The plot often involves members of the clergy, and is usually in the form of a practical joke carried out for love or revenge. Usually an older (Father) figure is cuckolded by a younger man whom the older man has himself brought into the house. The Miller, the Reve, the Cook, The Friar, the Summoner, The Merchant, and the Shipman all tell fabliaux. It is usually seen as a French genre, and outside of Chaucer, there is only one other English fabliau known.
Fabliaux used to be thought a lower class genre. Now some believe that the fabliaux were as courtly a genre as the romance. In this context they are seen as aristocratic burlesques, contemptuously holding the lower classes and some clergy up to amusement and coarse buffonery. (D.S. Brewer, "The Fabliaux," Companion to Chaucer Studies)
Some conventional suggestions concerning the manner in which the Miller repays the Knight:
Donald R. Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales: For the two nobles we get two clerks (a university student and a minor functionary in the parish church). The lady is a wench, far from distant and idealized. The older man is a "rich gnof," stupid and credulous. We get love among the common people here, and the sympathetic characters (Nicholas and Alisoun) are the ones who behave naturally and practically. Thus the "Miller's Tale" parodies the literary qualities of the "Knight's Tale" and ridicules the circumstances it describes, the resolution it comes to, and the tone in which it is told.
E.T. Donaldson, "Idiom of Popular Poetry in the Miller's Tale," English Institute Essays, 1950: Chaucer sprinkles the conversations of the characters with cliches borrowed from the code of courtly love. The end of courtly love was sexual consumation, but its language helped idealize that concept. The absurdity of that language in the context of the Miller's
tale reflects back upon the previous tale.
C. David Benson, Chaucer's Drama of Style (1986): By its rustic and animalistic imagery and by speech that is colloquial and deceptive rather than formal and philosophical, the second tale [The Miller's Tale] shows how far from the idealism of romance much of actual life is led. In contrast to the honorable love of Palamon and Arcite, who spend untold years in faithful devotion to the chaste Emelye, the rival truth of the Miller's Tale is perhaps best summed up in a characteristically witty and cruel proverb that explains why Nicholas succeeds with Alisoun while Absolon fails: "Alwey the nye slye / Maketh the ferre leeve to be looth." In addition to making us laugh, the fabliau reminds us how stupid and unfeeling human being can be and fully illustrates their capacity for self-deception and self-destruction. The MT offers a pessimistic view of human rationality in contrast to the KT: all of its characters are driven by passion, and the only thinking in the tale that is not merely wishful is deceitful. [Unlike Theseus, who thinks and changes his mind, etc. See P. Elbow. RB] In MT characterization is specific. In KT characterization is vague, its speeches abstract. It's noble poet, like Theseus, wants to bring order to the complexities of life, but his solutions, like the symmetrical stadium, are often too neat and simple to be completely satisfying. If the first tale inspires us by expressing the human capacity for heroism and generosity, the second speaks to our fear that men are nothing more than creatures of duplicity and selfish desire, who, for all their cleverness, are incapable of self-control or self-knowledge. After the fabliau, the faith in human achievement and goodness advocated by the romance seems naive indeed (86-87).
Beryl Rowland, "The Play of the Miller's Tale," Chaucer Review V (1970), 140-146: Focuses on the Cycle Play allusions. She argues for the association of Mary and Joseph with Alisoun and John primarily through the common association of Mary and Joseph with Noah and his wife. She sees this as an aspect of the tale's game, but nowhere does
she suggest anything radically subversive in the tale's intent. Rather she sees the tale's comedy in the tradition of the comic play of the religious Cycle Plays. According to the conventional interpretation of these plays, the comedy is intended as a sort of comic relief, but the plays themselves are seen are in no way subversive. [I think both the Cycle
Plays and "The Miller's Tale" can be shown to contain radically subversive elements in the form of protest against spiritual and secular (social) authority. RB]
Robert M. Jordan, Chaucer and the Shape of Creation, focuses on the narrative technique, seeing how the lines of action, which are independently developed, are guided into convergence. Jordan focuses on the sheer narrative genius of the tale, which, by implication, transcends its common subject matter.
Reading the Tale
We get a brisk, clear intro, followed by a description of the Clerk, Nicholas.
Nicholas described (3187-3220): Astrological interests foregrounded, especially as related to weather forecasting. Then this plant is burried. Note his sautrie, and his song, The Angel to the Virgin, suggesting the Annunciation. The King's Note?
John quickly described 3221-3232.
Why is Alisoun described as she is? (3233-3270) Cf. also money/gold suggestions in 3310, 3380.
Alisoun is owned by her husband. See 3224 (held her narwe in cage). Note also 3254, 3255. From a Marxist perspective, John has bought her, as evidenced by her very expensive clothes. Thus she is a slave (whom he holds narwe in cage) and as a slave she has (from our point of view) a moral right to free herself. The Narrator's (The Miller's) attitude toward her is that she is simply a "wench" (3253-3254). She is really just a prostitute, which the mercantile image following emphasizes. (3255-56. See also 3268-70)
Her husband owns her, but the images through which she is described are natural and suggest (1) that she is amoral or (2) that her natural qualities are in tension with the violation of her marriage.
See the wild animals or nature which are associated with her: wezele (3234), sloo (3246), pear tree (3248), swallow (3258), prim-rose and pig's eye (3268). Domestic animal imagery also stresses a natural wildness: morning milk (3236), sheep's wool (3241), wild calf (3260), meed (3261), apples (3262), joly colt (3263).
The wife's natural, rural, wild (low) associations stand in contrast to her expensive black and white clothing which her husband has bought her.
The Narrator seems to dismiss her as a wench, but the imagery suggests or might elicit a more complex set of responses valuing wildness, freedom, naturalness, spontaneity over the conventional cage of tyranny and slave/master relationships social custom supports.
Seen from this perspective, Emelye and Alisoun are true sisters. Why does Emelye want to remain free? Could one do a Marxist/feminist reading of the "Knight's Tale"? As long as Emelye remains aloof, she is free. She does not want a master. But she really is owned by Theseus (who also owns her sister, Hippolita, by virtue of his victory over her in
battle, thus making her a slave). In the end Emelye too loses when Theseus gives her to Palamoun in marriage (though this is not what the Knight claims. ) As long as a love relationship remains secret as courtly love, then the woman is in power. The moment she awards her love, she loses. [Consider the origins of the tradition in the "love courts" of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie of Champagne.]
The Miller is probably not an intentional feminist, but perhaps he is an unwitting feminist in his instinctual, deep antipathy to conventional values (symbolized in the GP perhaps with the bagpipes).
Alisoun "gives in" to Nicholas. But she retains real control, and she chooses not to submit to Absalon. How does Absalon's wooing contrast with Nicholas'?
There is a suggestion of bondage in Alisoun's relationship to Nicholas (3276-3282) which resonates (given a feminist perspective) with her bondage to her husband. But this bondage Alisoun takes as play and thus submits to. She uses it to escape her real bondage. Note especially the "wooing scene" involving Nicholas.
[In some ways the theme of bondage can be taken as central to the tale. The young folks slip the bondage of the old Father figure (the values of the polite courtly society, including the values of language and "gentle" behavior supported by religion). If "Goddes privetee" is taken to signify God's Privates, then it could suggest the Fall of one God (the
Father) and the setting up of a younger god (Nicholas). [The old god/authority figure, John, shouldn't inquire to closely into the privates of the new god, Nicholas.] Here too, the tale can be seen as a repayment to the Knight's Tale. The Knight's Tale (from one perspective) emphasized the working out of God's (The Firste Moevere's) Providential Order. Theseus (substitute father/God figure) gives a long speech (2986-3046, N.B. last lines) stressing the uselessness of any individual's assertion against this order. From a Boethian perspective, acceptance of the First Moevere's Order brings the only true freedom. But from the Miller's "Marxist" perspective, acceptance of such order implies the acceptance of the whole fabric of political/social/religious order which to him is bondage. That is why he is so angry! Nicholas asserts himself against that Order, and in doing so he creates his own order.
See A. Booker Thro, "Chaucer's Creative Comedy: A Study of the Miller's Tale and the Shipman's Tale," Chaucer Review V (1970), 97-111. "Chaucer's men of wit concoct schemes or build illusions which are both brilliantly artful and astonishingly elaborate. Because such constructs are sometimes more complex than the situations in which they
appear require, they call attention to themselves and emphasize the creative cleverness of their makers. . . . Nicholas unfolds his design without introductory explanations and in a step-by-step manner which conveys the impression of gradual and involved construction. We witness the growing structure of apparently irrelevant materials, irrevelant because we cannot yet imagine the final edifice. [From this"earthly" perspective it all appears as chance, as chaos.] What is the purpose of the feigned illness, the flood illusion, the request for "knedyng tubbbes" and "vitaille" sufficient for a day?" When we finally see the purpose (the order) of Nicholas' creation, our bewilderment is transformed to awed appreciation.
Thro concludes: "Is it not possible that Chaucer wishes us to be genuinely impressed, even a little awed by Nicholas's acccomplishment, that he wishes us to perceive the sense in which the clerk, as inspired creative man, is tryly related to divinity? After all, the act of imaginative creativity attests man's divine likeness and defines his special place in the
hierarchy of being (my emphasis). Perhaps by expressing Nicholas's creative accomplishment in terms of biblical regeneration, Chaucer intends to call attention to man's natural distinctiveness, and to the unique and exalting character of his creative powers." (105)
Thro stresses Chaucer's obedience to the established order even as he points out the God-like nature of Nicholas. But as a Creator, Nicholas rivals God. [The metaphor could be extended to Chaucer as author/creator as well. This brings up the issue of pride, etc. Consider in light of Chaucer's "Retraction."] My point is that Nicholas subverts established order through his creation.
Cover Absolon: 3339ff.
3397 Nicholas's plan takes shape. It is a complicated creation, and I stress the word creation.
John goes to Osenay on Saturday. Nicholas takes some food and goes up to his room on that same Saturday, and he stays there until Sunday evening.
When John returns and learns that Nicholas hasn't been seen he is afraid and suspicious, and so he sends his knave up to check. The knave peeks through a cat hole and sees Nicholas staring up at the ceiling as though in a trance. When John hears this he suspects scholar's black magic. Read 3451-3461: These lines reveal John's anti-intellectual bias. He's just like the working man today who suspects that intellectuals lack common sense.
John has Robin, his knave, heave off the door, and Nicholas just sits there "still as stoon." John shakes him to bring him out of his trance and speaks in vigorous, colloquial language: 3476-3478. He says a spell to protect himself from whatever influence has overcome Nicholas.
Nicholas begins to sigh, and says, "Allas,/ Shall al the world be lost eftsoones now?"
John tells him to think on God as the working man does! Nicholas asks for a drink first. Says that after he gets a drink he will tell John a secret. N.B. 3493: "privetee." John runs to get him a quart of ale. Then the Miller makes him swear he won't reveal this secret. 3509-3512 Note the slow-witted tone of John's response.
Nicholas tells him there is a great flood coming. John's first thought is for his wife. (3521-3522 N.B. the rhyme.) Nicholas reminds John of the trouble Noah had with his wife and suggests that Noah would have been better off if his wife had had her own boat. Tells John:
1. Go get each of us a big tub and food enough for a day.
2. Don't tell anyone, not even Robin or Gill (the maid). 3558: Can't tell God's "privetee."
3. Hang these three tubs high in the roof where no one will see.
4. Be sure to have an ax handy, so that when the water comes they will be able to release themselves.
5. None of them must speak, except to pray. This is God's command. (Nicholas is like Gabriel!)
6. 3589ff: You and your wife must be far apart (flatters him) so that there won't be any sin between you.
3575 Note the absurd dialogue. Comes to emphasize again that they will be like Noah and his wife.
Read 3601ff. Lots of word play. Cf. 3623 "privetee"
John carries out Nicholas' instructions exactly. Sends Robin and Gill away. This too undercuts our sympathy for him. On Monday evening they climb up into the tubs. Read 3637-3638: chime effect? Then John falls immediately to sleep.
Read 3643-3656: Nicholas and Alisoun climb down to John's bed and celebrate their passion for each other while Alisoun's husband snores up in the tub. We leave John up in the roof, and turn to Absalon. But first, what of the "gigantically grotesque sign" (Kendrick) that hangs suspended over the rest of the action until John's fall? "Two round
containers and an oblong one, each big enough to hold a person: the "knedying trogh," "tub," and Kymelyn" (3620-21)? "If the oblong trough were hung parallel to the ground, which it would have to be to serve as a boat, what would this trinity of containers look like from underneath? Might the carpenter's installation not look like the crude figure of huge
male genitals in erection, a burlesque, carnivalesque version of "Goddes pryvetee." (Kendrick, p. 6)
Absalon represents the complicating action, which Hende Nicholas (as God, yet) has not foreseen. It is this complication which is responsible for the wonderfully spontaneous, free behavior of the younger characters, undercutting somewhat the metaphor of Nicholas as God, but suggesting also that our lives are not completely in bondage to any foreordained plan.
3657ff. Absalon hasn't seen John about for a couple of days so he figures his chance has come. Nicholas has not factored this complication into his extremely complicated equation.
3675-3677: Absalon sets the window back in our mind again. What follows (3678-3684) is a wonderfully ironic set up.
Read and comment from text until 3759, where he goes to daun Gerveys. The pacing of the previous scene has been fairly fast except in a couple of places where we see Absalon being set up for the kiss. When he goes to the smith's the pace slows: See 3764-3787. This slower pace is needed to set up the building action of the next scene.
3788 finds Absalon back at Alisoun's window, etc. Work from notes in text.