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Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Miller's Tale: Comparison
Beauty in Dirt and Clouds
When there is a fart in a story and the reader is meant to laugh, we often take this as a signal to shut down the analytics and just laugh, or roll our eyes. Accordingly, the Miller’s Tale is easily dismissed as silly, comic relief at best. After the high style and tragic nature of the preceding Knight’s Tale we, as readers, welcome a break in beauty for some light fun. Upon close reading, however, the Miller’s bawdy Tale reveals arguably as much beauty and wit as the Knight’s; with careful tweaks. While the Miller gladly falls into his role in the Peasant Third Estate, drunk, loud, and a proud cheat, his story uses language closer to realism and, as a result, the familiarity of the greater audience. Likewise, the Miller’s Tale’s structure and subject matter, specifically inversions of courtly love. Combined with its language directly challenges the supposed superiority of the Knight’s romantic/epic tale.
Because the Miller’s Tale directly follows the Knight’s, and in fact is forced in with some urgency, the impulse to compare the two is already warranted simply by placement. The Miller swears by “By armes, and by blood and bones” (3125) his tale is appropriate for the moment suggesting a kind of correspondence between the two. Furthermore the Miller goes on to claim he will “quite the Knyghtes tale.”(3127) Suggesting the Miller’s tale is in response to the Knight’s. In comparison, both stories feature a love triangle, “prophecies”, and “love” at first sight. The last of which, “love” at first sight, is distinct in the two stories because of the way it manifests itself. We are to suppose that Alcitre and Paloman’s visions of Emelye from a tower are much more noble, gentler than Nicholas’ coveting of Alisoun but both arise from physical attraction based on sight and nothing else. Paloman even worries that Alcitre will take Emelye by force, gathering family to “make a were so sharp on this citee”(1287). In a way this is more offensive than Nicholas grabbing Alisoun by her “quentye”, but not regarded as such because of the high style. Later we see this notion of superiority reflected in the pilgrims’ responses to either Tale. By creating two stories with such similar motifs and traditionally high themes, Chaucer demonstrates the triviality of supposed lofty subject matter. The Miller, whether wittingly or not we do not know, undercuts the reverence we as readers along with the pilgrims have just had for the Knight and his Tale. Chaucer, through the Miller, illustrates just how this same subject matter, the courtly and spiritual, can be subverted and still maintain the same basic foundation. Chaucer’s narrator, at the end of the Miller’s prologue, absolves himself of blame and claims “eek men shal nat make ernest of game.”(3186) This can be seen as either a dismissal of the Chaucer’s own story as silly, or a prediction that despite the Miller’s Tale’s similarity in general subject matter people will not take it seriously.
The pilgrim’s revere the Knight’s Tale, “In al the route nas ther yong ne oold/That he ne seyde it was a noble storie" (3110 - 3111) Noble they call it, not just enjoyable but morally good and important, a word reflecting the estate of the speaker and his subsequent position among the other pilgrims. Compare this to the reaction the Miller receives, “for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.”(3858) We see disproportionate responses to essentially the same plot reflecting Chaucer’s contemporaries’ infatuation with courtly love, the clouds. Chaucer’s Miller contrasts these romantic clouds with the dirt that was daily life for the Peasant Third Estate. It is interesting to note that the Miller himself calls his Tale “a noble tale for the nones”, or occasion.(3126) Again, this further draws the comparison between the two Tales.
There are several biblical allusions in the Miller’s Prologue and Tale. The Miller speaks “in Pilates voys” (3124), mentions “a carpenter and of his wyf,”(3142) and references the flood of Noah. The Miller’s apparently limited biblical knowledge comes from, and parodies, mystery plays which would have the main source of biblical teaching for the Third Estate in the Middle ages. As limited and subversive these biblical puns and references may be, in continuing comparison with the Knight’s Tale we see references to pagan deities over a story referencing the Bible. Again this idea of “high” subject matter becomes problematic for contenders of the Knight’s superiority. Chaucer forces the reader to reconcile this disparity and question just what is it about the Knight’s Tale that the pilgrims find “noble”.
The Miller makes no apologies for his behavior which begs the question, much like the Wife of Bath, why should he? Clearly the prejudices against the Miller, and the Wife of Bath, will be applied no matter what his behavior (for the Miller these prejudices come with occupation and station, for the Wife of Bath primarily gender). So the Wife of Bath might as well brag about her voracious sexual appetite while spouting scripture and so why shouldn’t the Miller cheat a little and get drunk. It is because of this class prejudice though, Chaucer shows us, we and the pilgrims disregard the Miller and his Tale, not because of his lack of story or intelligence. Indeed wit is demonstrated in the Miller by not only his response to the Knight’s tale but also a witty retort to the Reeve’s interruptions of his prologue. Beyond story and biblical allusion though, the Miller’s use of more colloquial, yet no less beautiful language at times, competes with the Knight’s higher and perceived to be more noble style.
Perhaps the best example of the Miller’s style is his descriptions of Alisoun. The Knight’s Tale describes its leading lady, Emelye, in a traditional style. Emelye is noted for her “ rose colour” (1038), fairer “ Than is the lylie upon his stalke grene” (1036), and “as an aungel hevenysshly she soong” (1055). Admittedly these are all beautiful, yet somewhat conventional images. Alisoun is described often in floral terms, suggesting a commonality with the chaste female stereotype. The Miller, on the other hand, describes Alisoun with similar analogies but geared more towards, less conventional more common comparisons. Where Emelye is delicate as a lily, Alisoun is small and slender as a “wezele”(3234). Alisoun wears an apron “as whit as morne milk” (3236) and is “softer than the wolle is of a wether.” (3249). When put side by side it is apparent that the Miller does not lack for poetry, and arguably his analogies are more relevant, more evocative because they use images more related to farm life and the life of the villager.
Because of the wide difference, yet apparent equality in either teller’s description of their two ladies one must ask, which is more appealing? This subjectivity and doubt whether you lean one way or another ultimately proves the Miller’s point, that he will tell a tale to quit the Knight’s. With special attention paid to demonstrate the Miller’s rustic, bawdy, matching, though often subverted, story and imagery, Chaucer demonstrates a deepness to a character we might, taking the narrator’s advice, might just pass by without thought. We the reader, much like the pilgrims, much like the people of Chaucer’s day, revere the Knight and dismiss the Miller without bothering to pay close attention to what is said, or the inner lying value in his story. A close reading however reveals a story every bit as detailed as the Knight’s Tale.
Chaucer, Geoffrey, Robert Boenig, and Andrew Taylor. The Canterbury Tales: A Selection. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.