By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Miller’s Tale’ is one of the most technically accomplished, and perhaps the funniest, of Geoffrey Chaucer’s completed Canterbury Tales. An example of a French literary form known as the fabliau, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ appears to have been Chaucer’s invention (many of the other tales told in The Canterbury Tales were translations, or retellings, of stories found in earlier literary sources): Chaucer’s genius appears to have been in bringing together three well-known features of the traditional fabliau. More on those in due course. First, though, if you haven’t read ‘The Miller’s Tale’, you can do so here. Naked bottoms and flatulence are to be found therein!
‘The Miller’s Tale’: plot summary
John, a carpenter who lives in Oxford, is married to a young, pretty woman named Alison. They have a lodger in their house, who is a clerk or student of the University of Oxford, named Nicholas. Nicholas and Alison take a shine to each other, and Nicholas hatches a plan so he can spend the night with Alison away from her husband.
Nicholas is studying astrology among other things, and tells John that he has worked out that a second Flood – bigger than the one from the time of Noah in the Bible – is coming, and that John, being a carpenter, should make preparations to save them from the imminent deluge. John sets about building three tubs which can be suspended from the roof of the outhouse, saving the three of them from the waters.
While John is asleep in his tub, Alison and Nicholas sneak off to have sex. At this point, however, Absolon – who is, like Nicholas, a clerk, and who, like Nicholas, fancies Alison – comes by the house and stops at the window, wanting to seduce Alison. When he refuses to leave her alone, he offers to kiss him through the open window, and promptly sticks her naked backside out the window, so Absolon kisses it. He is disgusted and runs to borrow a red-hot iron from the nearby blacksmith.
Absolon then returns with the red-hot iron, and this time Nicholas sticks his backside out of the window – and ‘farts’ in Absolon’s face. Absolon shoves the red-hot iron in Nicholas’ bum, prompting Nicholas, in pain, to cry out for water.
Waking at the sound of the shouting, John, still in his tub, hears Nicholas shouting ‘water’ and thinks the Flood is coming. He severs the ropes that are holding the tubs to the roof and falls down, breaking his arm. John’s neighbours all think he’s gone mad.
‘The Miller’s Tale’: analysis
‘The Miller’s Tale’ fuses three common tropes or features of the comic fabliau: the second Flood, the misdirected kiss (usually with a recipient other than the one the kisser intended), and the branding with a hot iron, usually somewhere … intimate. These three things all feature in Chaucer’s masterly piece of comic writing. He took a native French form (fabliaux in French are usually told in tetrameters) and Anglicised it, using the iambic pentameter rhythm which Shakespeare would later help to make the definitely poetic metre of the English stage.
‘The Miller’s Tale’ succeeds ‘The Knight’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales, and for good reason. The Knight has just told a story about two knights, Palamon and Arcite, engaged in a bitter and intense rivalry for the same beautiful woman. The Knight’s tale, as befitting a man of his rank and chivalric reputation, was a noble romance: ‘high’ rather than ‘low’, we might say.
By contrast, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is bawdy, ignoble, and focused on shoving bottoms out of windows rather than engaging in knightly deeds to try to prove one’s love. The Miller actually drunkenly interrupts the next pilgrim due to tell a tale after the Knight (the Monk); although some of the company try to shut him up, the Miller is determined to cut through the noble and even rather stiff style of the Knight’s tale with something altogether more down to earth. He certainly succeeds. Few students of The Canterbury Tales are likely to pronounce the Knight’s tale their favourite of the two.
Is ‘The Miller’s Tale’, then, just a bit of bawdy fun? It certainly is offered as a comic skit, and has similarities with more recent farces (as well as modern sitcoms) in the way its various plot strands overlap and knit together for comedic effect. But even if we grant that ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is predominantly ‘just a bit of fun’, this downplays the role that the Miller’s story plays in the context of the storytelling game that is The Canterbury Tales. The Miller is making a statement about the previous tale: the Knight’s tale, set in ancient Thebes, and boasting a cast of kings and knights and an emphasis on lofty and noble chivalric ideals, is far removed from the Miller’s world of ordinary people, with their sex lives, trades, and – yes indeed – bodily functions (Nicholas’ fart is as great as if it had been a thunderbolt because it cuts through the perceived pomposity of the Knight’s tale).
What’s more, even comedy can tell us a considerable amount about the social world its characters inhabit. In ‘The Miller’s Tale’, the middle-class carpenter (he has a trade and obviously quite a big house, and is wealthy enough to be able to attract a beautiful and much younger wife), the middle-class student Nicholas, and the middle-class clerk Absolon, all inhabit a social milieu one rung down from the world of the Knight’s tale.
The story is also resolutely set in the present day (or more or less), rather than thousands of years before. The Miller’s tale, like the later Merchant’s tale featuring the ageing husband January and his young wife (who also, like Alison, cheats on her husband), shines a light on a time when men with financial means could marry women for their beauty, while the women had to marry older men for their money.
So, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is ribald and fun, but it is making a point – and the Miller is making a point about what kinds of people feature in stories and whether stories about people very far removed from ‘real’ people are all that relevant to him and his social circle. Things will get personal hereafter, as the Reeve – a kind of carpenter – picks up the storytelling baton and tells the next tale, with a miller, rather than carpenter, the butt (as it were) of the joke.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.