The Canterbury Tales ~ The Miller’s Prologue and Tale

After the tale of courtly love by the Knight, the Host requests the Monk to recite his tale, however the churlish and boorish Robin the Miller interrupts, insisting on having his tale told first.  While he claims his tale is noble, he absolves himself of all responsibility for it, claiming drunkenness as his excuse.  Given his character and situation, one wonders what will proceed from his mouth.  In fact, Oswald, the Reeve, protests that the Miller’s tale about a carpenter, will insult carpenters, of which he is one, but the Miller begins to tell his tale, in spite of the Reeve’s objections.

Illustration of Robin the Miller
playing the bagpipes
source Wikipedia

The Miller’s Tale

A Carpenter named John lived in Oxford, and he had a student named Nicolas, as a boarder, who was poor, learned in Astrology, well-versed in the art of love, and knew how to conduct himself.  The Carpenter, though old, was newly wedded to a handsome eighteen-year-old girl, Alisoun, and while he appears a kind, simple man, he guards her jealously, afraid that another man will steal her affections.  Nicolas decides that he will have his way with her, and Alisoun is a willing accomplice.  Now to get the Carpenter out of the way. Yet not only does the Carpenter have this wily student plotting to steal his wife, but also Absolon, the parish clerk, has seen her, fallen in love and decides to woo her with music outside her window, but the miller’s wife is not interested.

Meanwhile Nicolas cooks up a plan to rid them of the Carpenter, so they can spend the night together.  He convinces him that a flood, second only to Noah’s, is coming and that he needs to acquire three large tubs to hang from the ceiling where the three of them can sleep, and when the waters arrive, they can cut the ropes and float away.  The Carpenter, convinced of the tale, spends a great deal of time collecting the tubs and doing the work.  He is so exhausted that he falls asleep immediately in his tub, and then Alisoun and Nicolas climb down to enjoy themselves in his bed.  Little do they know that Absolon is once again going to try to win Alisoun’s favours by wooing her from outside the window.  She agrees to a kiss but, to Absolon’s stupified surprise, what she stick out the window is her bare backside and not her head.  Ai-ya! Absolon is repulsed and leaves, but when he returns, he has a branding iron with him. This time Nicolas, to give the clerk further shock, decides to stick his rear end out the window for the next promised kiss, and does he get the surprise of his life!  His cry of “Water!” wakes up the Carpenter who thinks the flood is upon him and cuts his rope.  For his troubles, the poor Carpenter gets a broken arm and the ridicule of the whole town.

Alison and John (1913)
Russell Flint

This tale seems a response and a parody to The Knight’s Tale, in that The Knight’s Tale was filled with chivalry, courtly love, honour and destiny, whereas in this tale, there is adultery, lust, and deception, depicted with obscenity and humour.  As in The Knight’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale also presents another love triangle, but in this case, it is one that is base and immoral, instead of the Knight’s illustration of courtly love.

In addition to turning the virtues of The Knight’s Tale on its head, the Miller seems to be offering a commentary on the church, and not a very pleasant commentary at that.  The Carpenter has the same trade as Jesus and Joseph, and is presented as a rather ingenuous, bumbling fool.  Absolon’s position of parish clerk appears to offer more negative criticism.  His dialogue seems to sometimes grow from Songs of Songs, as he uses some of the most beautiful biblical love poetry to seduce another man’s wife.  I’m unsure as to whether his name is a lampoon of the biblical character Absalom, King David’s son who was known for his ingratiating manners and pretentious love of pomp and show.  Everything meaningful about the biblical Absalom is portrayed on the outside, but there is no depth to his strength of character.  The Miller’s Absolon obviously has a faith that holds little meaning for him and has no effect on his actions.

These bawdy tales were favourites of Chaucer’s times and are categorized as a fabliau, originating in France and characterized as short merry tales, “generally about people in absurd and amusing circumstances, often naughty sexual predicaments. The stories frequently involve a betrayed husband (the cuckold), his unfaithful wife, and a cleric who is the wife’s lover. “ (1)

The next tale will be told by The Reeve, the pilgrim who protested the telling of The Miller’s Tale.  What shall we find in his tale, and how will it link to the two we have already heard?

2 thoughts on “The Canterbury Tales ~ The Miller’s Prologue and Tale

  1. Great post! The Miller's Tale was so silly, but such good fun. There was definitely a religious commentary to it and you did a better job than I did on highlighting it 🙂

  2. There were so many goodies bundled up in this tale! I wish I had more time to explore it, but I can always return to it again. I now think it might have been a good idea to read some background on the Middle Ages and their storytelling. I think C.S. Lewis has an essay on Chaucer ~~ this period was his specialty. I'll have to search around to see if I can find it.

    Thanks! The religious component is really sticking out. Marrying religion with bawdy revelry was unexpected for me. However Chaucer does remind me a little of Shakespeare. 🙂

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