Miller’s Tale, The

Miller’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1392)
   The second of the CANTERBURY TALES, the Miller’s Tale is a bawdy FABLIAU put into the mouth of the drunken Miller, who claims to tell the story to repay the Knight for his courtly romance. A story of the rivalry between two clerics lusting after a carpenter’s wife, the Miller’s Tale’s plot parallels that of the KNIGHT’S TALE; but as a comic tale of middle-class characters, the Miller’s fabliau undercuts the chivalric values of the Knight’s courtly ROMANCE. Long considered indecent, the tale is today considered one of CHAUCER’s greatest achievements and the premier example of its genre. The tale is perhaps the best-known of all literary fabliaux, combining naturalistic description with a complex plot involving two widespread folklore patterns: the “second flood” and the “misdirected kiss”motifs. In the tale a rich old carpenter named John weds a young wife, Alison, whom he jealously guards. His boarder, the student Nicholas, propositions Alison, who readily yields to his advances. Meanwhile the fastidious parish clerk, Absalon, also woos Alison, but the lady prefers Nicholas.
   Nicholas is able to convince John that he has foreseen a second great flood, and persuades him to hang three kneading tubs from his ceiling in which Alison, John, and Nicholas can sleep the night of the flood and float safely away in the morning. They climb into the tubs that evening, and when John falls asleep, Nicholas and Alison climb down and frolic in the carpenter’s bed. Absalon, the parish clerk, interrupts them, begging at the window for a kiss.When he agrees to leave if she kisses him, Alison puts her backside out the window. In the dark,Absalon kisses it, and when he hears derisive laughter as the window closes, he realizes what he has done. He returns to the window with a red-hot plowshare borrowed from a blacksmith, and, seeking revenge, asks for another kiss. This time Nicholas puts his posterior out the window, and Absalon brands it with the plowshare. As Nicholas screams in pain for “water,” John awakens, believes the flood has come, and cuts the rope holding his tub. He crashes to the floor, breaking his arm, and when the neighbors come to see what the noise is about, Alison and Nicholas convince them the carpenter is mad.
   The humor of the story lies not only in the comic situations, but also in Chaucer’s arrangement of the two plots to make them converge in the unexpected ending. This complexity of plot, as well as Chaucer’s carefully developed characters, elevates the Miller’s Tale well above the conventional medieval fabliau.
   In addition to Chaucer’s transformation of the fabliau genre, scholars have been interested in the Miller’s Tale’s ironic parody of COURTLY LOVE and of the Knight’s Tale. Other themes of scholarly interest have included the idea of justice in the story, the various allusions to the MYSTERY PLAYS, and the related problems of class raised in the tale.
   ■ Benson, Larry, et al., ed. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Brewer, D. S. “Class Distinction in Chaucer,” Speculum 43 (April 1968): 290–305.
   ■ Kolve,V.A. Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1984.
   ■ Mann, Jill. “Speaking Images in Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale..’ ” In Speaking Images: Essays in Honor of V. A. Kolve, edited by R. F. Yeager and Charlotte C. Morse, 237–254. Asheville, N.C.: Pegasus Press, 2001.
   ■ Patterson, Lee. Chaucer and the Subject of History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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