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When the Miller proposes to “quite,” or revenge, the Knight’s tale in the Prologue to his tale (3127), he alters the host’s use of the word “quite” (3119). Whereas the Host is asking the Monk to match the Knight’s tale, the Miller wants to requite it, and he does exactly that. The Miller tells a tale that both parallels and parodies “The Knight’s Tale,” and by doing so, ultimately displays a valid and optimistic alternative to the ideals of chivalric courtship and love presented by the Knight.
The Miller, like the Knight, employs a love triangle as the central element of his tale; however, he greatly alters this convention. Instead of dramatizing idealized aristocratic notions of courtly love, the Miller presents a tale about lower-class characters set in a rural village. He rejects the ritual of long suffering courtship by replacing it with a bold sexual encounter between Nicholas and Alison in which the clever clerk attempts to seduce Alison by grabbing her “queynte” (3276). While Arcite and Palamon restlessly worship Emily in the Knight’s tale, Nicholas wins Alison over in the span of three lines “This Nicholas gan mercy for to crye,/ And spak so faire, and profred him so faste,/ That she hir love hym graunted ate laste” (3288 3290). In these three lines, the Miller does not even specify what Nicolas exactly says to Alison, perhaps suggesting that the language of wooing is not important. Palamon and Arcite, on the other hand, compose elaborate lamentations about love, but Emily does not even hear their words.
The Miller denies the conventional ritual of courtship, by parodying the courtly lover figure through his characterization of Absolon. Absolon is stripped of any masculinity that the two lovers of the Knight’s tale possess as he is portrayed through literary descriptions usually associated with femininity. For instance, “crul was his heer, and as gold it shoon” (3314), and he sings with “his voys gentil and small” (3360). Despite his obeying the traditional code of courtship, “he waketh al the nyght and al the day…he woweth hire by meenes and brocage…he sente hire pyment, meeth, and spiced ale” (3373 3378), Alison rejects him. The most comic aspect of Absolon’s characterization, however, is perhaps his squeamishness towards bodily functions like “fartyng” (3338) and body parts as he rubs his lips “with dust, with sond, with straws, with clooth, with clippes” (3748) after he figures out that he has just kissed Alison’s rear-end.
The Miller not only presents and pokes fun at the courtly lover figure through Absolon, but more importantly, he points out the chivalric suitor’s inability to understand the realities of love. From the very moment Absolon is introduced in the tale, the audience is told that he is easily offended by bodily functions. When Absolon learns that he has kissed Alison’s behind “his hoote love was cooled” (3754) and his “maladie” was healed (3757). As the representative of conventional ideals of love, Absolon’s failure to appreciate the body points to not only his failure to understand love in realistic, human terms, but also the incompleteness of principles presented in romances such as “The Knight’s Tale.” Sex and human contact are important elements of love. The body is a vital part of the relationship between lovers and this is displayed through Alison and Nicholas’s courtship.
John, Alison’s aged husband, although not characterized as a parody of courtly conventions like Absolon, possesses many chivalric traits, and his failure to avoid being cuckolded points to the failures of the refined world of “The Knight’s Tale” as well. His overly, unfaltering devotion towards Alison seems to be the driving force of his unfortunate fall, literally and metaphorically. Immediately after Nicholas tells John about the flood, he replies by lamenting “Allas, my wyf!/And shal she drenche? Allas, myn Alisoun”(3522 3523). He asks Nicholas for a “remedie” (3525) only after he weeps for Alison. The Miller points out during this event that “Lo, which a greet thing is affeccioun!/ Men may dyen of ymaginacioun” (3611 3612) suggesting that John’s strong emotions hinder him from distinguishing fantasy and reality. By suggesting that John is blinded by his feelings like the two suitors of “The Knight’s Tale,” the Miller again points out the fallibility of courtly conventions.
Those who represent any aristocratic principles fail to accomplish their desires, while those who do not are rewarded with the fulfillment of their lust. Nicholas, who is ironically described as “hende” or chivalrous, but is rather bawdy and devious, wins Alison’s hand even though he is economically lower than John. Alison, the character most removed from the romantic world of “The Knight’s Tale,” is granted sexual satisfaction and is the least harshly punished character. She is by no means similar to the idealized Emily of “The Knight’s Tale” because she has a “likerous ye” (3244), readily betrays her husband, and is described by sensuous, earthly imageries for “she was ful moore blisful on to see/ Than is the newe pere-jonette tree”(3247 -3248).
Although vulgar, “The Miller’s Tale” is valid in repaying “The Knight’s Tale.” It is a fabliau, a comic tale that, contrary to aristocratic tales, presents a lively portrayal of everyday life in lower-class society. Since the fabliau depicts the disorderly, it is only natural that this genre should represent the Miller’s disruptive voice – for he literally disrupts the order of tale-telling by insisting to “quite” the Knight’s tale. Additionally, the fabliau is not only a structured, learned genre, but the tale which the Miller presents expands the form even further. The Miller’s tale renders vividly descriptive passages such as the depiction of Alison. The tale exhibits two complex plot lines: that of Nicholas’s scheme and Absolon’s courting. These join coherently in the very end as Nicholas’s cry for water after being branded in the “toute” (3812) alarms John to cut the rope, hurling the old fool down from the roof.
The parallelism between the Miller and the narrator also legitimizes the Miller’s voice as an equal alternative to the Knight’s Tale. Like the narrator who imparts a descriptive portrait of each pilgrim in “The General Prologue,” the Miller starts his story by descriptively characterizing those presented in his tale. In the prologue to his tale, the Miller apologizes in advance for his vulgarity, blaming the offensive aspects of his tale on his drunkenness. The narrator, likewise, apologizes ahead of time for any future offenses he is about to impart in the tale, telling his audience that he “moot reherce” all the tales “be they bettre of werse” as they were told (3173 3174). Since the narrator emphasizes recounting the tales in true form to its original teller, he portrays himself as unbiased and therefore acquires the audience’s approval and trust. In equating the Miller with the narrator, Chaucer is attempting to obtain the audience’s approval of the Miller and, hence, suggesting the authority of “The Miller’s Tale.”
While “The Knight’s Tale” is an eloquent account of chivalry and courtly love, “The Miller’s Tale” provides a more positive and enjoyable alternative. By perverting idealized notions of love and pointing out the sensuous aspect of courtship, the Miller exposes the shortcomings of aristocratic traditions. Although the tale follows the fabliau tradition, it is articulated elegantly, placing it on par with the Knight’s tale, ultimately validating its commentary on love and courtship.
Benson, Larry D., eds. The Riverside Chaucer: Third Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
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