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Ten Reasons to Love Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: #4 and #5
Warning: The following discussion of 14th century literature may contain material that is not suitable for all audiences. Parental guidance is strongly suggested.
Reason #4: The Miller's Tale
As I mentioned in my last installment, the pilgrims' contest begins with the Knight telling a classic story of chivalry, romance, nobility, and all those other lofty ideals that good people are supposed to aspire to. The tale receives the praise of the whole company and the Host asks the Monk to tell another tale that can match it. Instead the Miller, who is so drunk he's almost falling off his horse, announces that he has a story, which he begins to tell over the host's protests.
Before the Miller begins, though, Chaucer inserts his own tongue-in-cheek disclaimer (as always, the Modern English translation comes from Harvard):
What more should I say, but this Miller
He would not refrain from speaking for any man,
But told his churl's tale in his manner.
I regret that I must repeat it here.
And therefore every respectable person I pray,
For God's love, think not that I speak
Out of evil intention, but because I must repeat
All their tales, be they better or worse,
Or else (I must) falsify some of my material.
And therefore, whoever does not want to hear it,
Turn over the leaf and choose another tale;
For he shall find enough, of every sort,
Of historical matter that concerns nobility,
And also morality and holiness.
Blame not me if you choose amiss.
The Miller is a churl; you know this well.
So was the Reeve also and many others,
And ribaldry they told, both of the two.
Think about this, and don't blame me;
And also people should not take a joke too seriously.
I think Chaucer is extremely funny when he writes this way. We know that he composed every word of The Canterbury Tales, but he has invented this clever construction in which he is a character in his
own story and is merely recording the words and actions of the people in his company. Thus Chaucer essentially beats any critics to the punch by disparaging his own writing. Later he even more directly mocks the fictional version of himself, but that's a post for another day.
For now, let's take a look at what, exactly, is so filthy that it merits a disclaimer from the author.
In some ways The Miller's Tale is a parody of The Knight's Tale: a story of two men in pursuit of the same woman. But while the Knight's Tale, would be comparable to the film Ben Hur in our culture, the Miller's is more like Porky's (or, if you prefer, American Pie). The tale tells about John, an old carpenter, who has taken a very young and very beautiful wife, Alison. John is past his prime and cannot...um...satisfy his wife. He suspects that Alison is cheating on him, and with good reason. There is a third person living in the house: Nicholas, a poor student, who rents a room from the carpenter (you can probably see where this is going).
On the day this tale begins Nicholas is flirting with Alison:
And intimately he caught her by her crotch,
And said, "Indeed, unless I have my will,
For secret love of thee, sweetheart, I die."
I'm going to stop for a second because this is one of the things that bugs me about modern English translations of The Canterbury Tales. The word crotch here, I believe, is a polite substitute chosen by the translator, and fails to capture the coarseness of the original language. Here's what Chaucer wrote:
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, "Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille."
The word is queynte, which is Chaucer's version of a word that is still used in English today and is considered very offensive. I bring this up not because love gratuitously offensive language, but because it has a lot to do with the style of the story, the type of language it is told in, and the character of the Miller (remember, Chaucer reveals the characters of the pilgrims through the stories they tell). Already we can see a huge contrast just between the first two tales: The Knight's Tale is an edifying story of romantic love amongst the noble classes, filled with lofty language. The Miller's Tale is a coarsely humorous tale of sex amongst the lower classes, filled with offensive language.
Anyway, back to the story. Nicholas has just sworn to Alison that if he doesn't sleep with her right away he will die. Alison plays hard-to-get for about eight lines before giving in. But, she says, she cannot do it right away: she says they must wait for the right opportunity so her husband won't find out about it. Nicholas agrees to wait and he begins to plan a way to trick the carpenter. At this time Chauc--I mean, the Miller introduces the fourth character in his story: Absalon, another young man who believes he is in love with Alison. He is the clown of the story, a loser who dresses in ridiculously elegant and ill-suited clothes in an attempt to attract women. He sits under Alison's window with his guitar and attempts to serenade her.
This goes on for quite some time:
From day to day this elegant Absolon
So woos her that he is in a sorry state.
He stays awake all the night and all the day;
He combs his flowing locks, and dressed himself elegantly;
He woos her by go-betweens and agents,
And swore he would be her own servant;
On more thing: Absalon is, for some unexplained reason, very squeamish about farting (this detail becomes very important later).
Meanwhile, Nicholas has devised an elaborate scheme to occupy the carpenter: he convinces the simple man that God is sending a flood. So John sleeps in a bathtub suspended from the ceiling, which frees up Nicholas and Alison for the entire night. Early the next morning Absalon comes calling outside the window, looking for a kiss. He won't take no for an answer, and Alison finally agrees to give him a smooch to make him go away. The next part I'll let you read for yourself:
This Absolon wiped his mouth very dry.
Dark was the night as pitch, or as the coal,
And at the window out she put her hole,
And Absolon, to him it happened no better nor worse,
But with his mouth he kissed her naked ass
With great relish, before he was aware of this.
Back he jumped, and thought it was amiss,
For well he knew a woman has no beard.
He felt a thing all rough and long haired,
And said, "Fie! alas! what have I done?"
Humiliated, Absalon runs off plotting revenge. He obtains a red-hot poker and returns to Alison's window. This time he says he has a ring which he will give her in return for a kiss. Nicholas decides he wants in on the action:
This Nicholas was risen to piss,
And thought he would make the joke even better;
He should kiss his ass before he escapes.
And he opened up the window hastily,
And he puts out his ass stealthily
Over the buttock, to the thigh;
And then spoke this clerk, this Absolon,
"Speak, sweet bird, I know not where thou art."
This Nicholas immediately let fly a fart
As great as if it had been a thunder-bolt,
So that with the stroke he was almost blinded;
And he was ready with his hot iron,
And he smote Nicholas in the middle of the ass.
Off goes the skin a hand's breadth about,
The hot plough blade so burned his rump
And for the pain he thought he would die.
As if he were crazy, for woe he began to cry,
"Help! Water! Water! Help, for God's heart!"
This carpenter woke suddenly out of his slumber,
And heard someone cry "water!" as if he were crazy,
And thought, "Alas, now comes Nowell's flood!"
He sits up without more words,
And with his ax he smote the cord in two,
And down goes all; he found nothing to sell (wasted no time),
Neither bread nor ale, until he came to the pavement
Upon the floor, and there he lay in a swoon.
At this point I can imagine a 14th century audience rolling in the aisles. People's sense of humor doesn't change as much as we think, and it seems that fart jokes are more or less timeless. Indeed, Chaucer tells us that after the Miller is finished with his tale the pilgrims all, more or less, laughed and enjoyed themselves...except for one man.
Reason #5: The Reeve's Tale
Sometimes, in large group settings, when a bunch of people are laughing and having a good time (perhaps at someone else's expense, but in an innocent and good-natured way), there will be one person who doesn't really have a good sense of humor. He wants in on the fun, though, and attempts a similar joke, but goes way over the line. Instead of laughing the other people react in horror or disgust at the guy's dismal attempt at humor (I know you've seen this before).
The Reeve is that guy.
From the beginning of The Miller's Tale the Reeve, being a carpenter himself, believes that the story is supposed to be about him, so he takes great offense at the telling of it. To get back he follows it with his own story that is supposed to similarly embarrass the Miller. In his tale a dishonest miller is patronized by two college students needing their wheat ground. They try to watch the miller do it to make sure he doesn't steal any of the flour, but the miller cuts the men's horses loose so they have to run after them. By the time the students catch the horses it is late and they must stay the night at the miller's house...in the same room as the miller, his wife, and his 20-year-old daughter (again, I'm sure you can see where this is going). The two men, as repayment for their stolen flour, decide to swyve the miller's wife and daughter (here also the most appropriate translation for swyve is a four-letter word I'd rather not use myself). The means by which they accomplish this is a crude and simple one involving moving a crib from one bed to another so that the wife forgets which is hers.
The Reeve is clearly not as good a storyteller as the Miller, lacking and kind of cleverness or comedic timing. All his attempts at humor fall flat. Not only that, but when you think about the actual story it's rather disturbing. While Nicholas and Alison from The Miller's Tale are consenting adults and co-conspirators, the wife and daughter in The Reeve's Tale are mostly innocent parties who essentially become victims of rape. Of course, the Reeve doesn't see it this way--he thinks his tale is a hilarious story about a miller getting what's coming to him.
The contrast between the two tales and the personal conflict that plays out between the storytellers are what I enjoy most about this part of the book. Many people have objected to these two tales on the grounds of their indecency, and it's interesting that Chaucer's stories can still stir up trouble over 600 years after they written--and with good reason. These are very dirty stories. But I think that dismissing them on such grounds does a great discredit to the cleverness of Chaucer's writing, especially with The Reeve's Tale. The Miller's Tale is actually fairly well-written, but The Reeve's Tale is bad, and intentionally so. Remember Chaucer's disclaimer: he wants us to believe that these stories are coming from the fictional storytellers, not him. So when the Reeve tells a dreadfully unfunny tale it's a reflection on his character, not Chaucer's writing. The intentionally and painfully bad is a much more sophisticated kind of satire that we may be used to seeing in contemporary art and literature (think along the lines of Spinal Tap or The Office), but it's something I'm not used to seeing in the classics. To me, this puts Chaucer literally centuries ahead of his time. I would argue that literature has only recently caught up with him.
I don't want to overstate the point right now (I'll have much more to say about it later). So I'll just end things here by repeating Chaucer's disclaimer:
Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame;
And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game.
(Think about this, and don't blame me;
And also people should not take a joke too seriously.)
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
http://brendoman.com/kyle/2007/06/14/ten_reasons_to_love_chaucer_s_canterbury_3">Reason #2: The Pilgrims and Reason #3: The Knight's Tale