The bawdy “Miller’s Tale” is the second in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, immediately following “The Knight’s Tale.” In his tale, the Miller brings to light the idea of requital. Initially, the Host chooses The Monk to respond to the “Knight’s Tale,” however the drunken Miller, a ‘loudmouth and a buffoon,’ interrupts and demands to tell a tale. The Host refuses only until the Miller threatens to leave the group. The Host then relents and the group hears the Miller’s vulgar and silly tale.
In the “General Prologue,” Chaucer describes the Miller (“Robyn”) as a large man, stout and sturdy, with a comically large mole on his nose with red hair growing out of it. He has a big red beard, a mouth like a “furnace” (for setting things on fire), and he wears a sword at his side. He wears a white coat and a blue hood, and he known as a thief (not unlike the thieving miller in the “Reeve’s Tale”). The Miller is a great wrestler, and he plays the bagpipes, which is what initially leads the group out of town en route to Canterbury.
The Miller is explicitly crude and uncouth. He is pale-faced drunk, swearing about Christ’s body parts, and arguing with the Reeve. Chaucer, the narrator, pauses for a moment and provides an apology for the Miller’s drunken ribaldry. Chaucer removes blame from himself (he expresses “regret” at telling the story) and suggests that if readers should find offense in the tale, they should turn ahead to other tales. This deliberate obfuscation on Chaucer’s part prompts us to examine the “Miller’s Tale” with a closer lens.
At the outset of his tale, the Miller explicitly intends to requite the “Knight’s Tale.” His requital may either raise the competition to new heights, by introducing a more noble tale, or else bring the “Knight’s Tale” low by means of vulgarity. Literature is necessarily comparative and even competitive, hence why the Greeks in their competitions for tragedies were crowned with merely a laurel (rather than awarded a free meal as in The Canterbury Tales). In order for us to consider literature in its intended context, side by side, we must believe that literature has limits: some literature is better than others.
Predictably, “The Miller’s Tale” is silly and vulgar. The Miller sets out to tell a “legende and a lyf” (or biography) about a wealthy old carpenter (named John) who is cuckolded by his beautiful young wife (named Alisoun -also the true name of the Wife of Bath among the pilgrims). This carpenter and his wife live in Oxford and board with a poor, young Oxford Clerk (or scholar) named Nicholas who is well studied in astrology. His knowledge of astrology can predict the weather, and other future events.
One day, Nicholas persuades Alisoun to sleep with him and they quickly fall in love. Meanwhile, another young parishioner fancies Alisoun. His name is Absolon (in allusion to the Hebrew Bible). Nicholas devises a plan for he and Alisoun to be together – he feigns being sick and claims to have a vision from God declaring a new flood will soon take place. John, in his credulity, believes Nicholas and he devises a plan to hang three tubs from the ceiling to float upwards when the waters rise. That Monday night, when John the carpenter falls asleep, Alisoun and Nicholas sleep together in John’s bed. Then Absolon arrives professing his love for Alisoun, but she denies him and plays a nasty trick resulting in Absolon kissing her “ers” (“arse”). Then, in anger, Absolon runs to the blacksmith for a red-hot iron poker with a plan to “requite” Nicholas and Alisoun. He returns, and this time Nicholas sticks his rear end out the window only to be branded by the poker. In pain, Nicholas jumps and begins shouting for “water!” but this triggers the carpenter, John, who has been asleep in his elevated tub, to believe the flood has finally come. He cuts himself down from the ceiling in his tub (thinking he will float) and instead comes crashing to the ground. He breaks his arm. In the commotion, many other Oxford clerks arrive at the scene and they laugh at John for his foolishness, and Nicholas and Absolon.
“The Miller’s Tale” is something of an anti-intellectual tale. It takes place in Oxford and the most learned man among the group is mischievous and licentious. He sleeps with the wife of his innocent and poorly educated roommate, a laborer. We pity the poor carpenter who has been made a mockery and a cuckold. In contrast to the “Knight’s Tale,” we find no rich allegory or allusion to classical antiquity and its gods. Instead, the Miller is decidedly contemporary. He is a Christian. “The Miller’s Tale” contains significant Biblical allusions, not least of which is the story of Moses and the swearing by Christ’s body, and the Miller closes his tale requesting that God save all in the company.
Nicholaus, the Oxford clerk, is the analog of Arcite in the “Knight’s Tale” -intelligent, diplomatic, and cunning. John, the carpenter, is a craftsman who is unlike any character found in the “Knight’s Tale,” though perhaps his innocence is best mirrored in the character of Palomon.
So, what exactly does the Miller requite in the “Knight’s Tale?” First, he is skeptical of the intellectual and high-minded, classically-based rhetoric found in the “Knight’s Tale.” Nicholaus, and his fellow Oxford clerks, are not to be trusted. Second, the Miller makes a parody of the idea of two men battling over one woman: both are made a disgrace in the end. Clearly, the carpenter and his wife, Alisoun, never had a happy and just marriage. Alisoun gives into her lust, breaking her marriage vow, and her innocent husband is made a fool. The story is a comedy, ending without a happy and ‘perfect joy’ (marriage). Instead, the “Miller’s Tale” warns about the dangers of an ill-founded marriage, not unlike the union between Palomon and Emily at the end of the “Knight’s Tale.” To the Miller, the Knight is excessively imaginative, simple, and naïve in his portrayal of love and marriage.
However, like Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, the Miller drunkenly intrudes into the pilgrim’s competition. His idea of requital against the “Knight’s Tale,” is not to present a more lofty or virtuous tale, but rather to offer a bawdy story that inverts many of the Knight’s courtly praises: Alisoun is not a perfectly beautiful maiden, but rather she is a cheating wife; Nicholas and Absolon are Oxford scholars who give no respect to custom, as evidenced in their courtship of Alisoun; and John, the carpenter, is a pitiably naïve husband who holds far too much faith in the stories of his intellectual superiors. The Miller is resentful and disillusioned. His story is a cautionary tale against the embellishments of people of a higher station, like the Knight or the Oxford scholar. People who tell lavish stories can also lead their listeners to do ridiculous things (like climb into a tub hanging from the ceiling).
In another light, Alisoun is the mirror of Emily, and John is the mirror of Palomon from the “Knight’s Tale.” Only, in the “Miller’s Tale” he critiques the idea of Palomon and Emily’s marriage: the marriage of the lover to his beloved without her willingness. The Miller suggests the Knight’s idea of courtly love is naïve and incomplete. Unlike the “Knight’s Tale,” there is no politician, like Theseus, overseeing things. It is purely a state of Chaos, in which the characters break oaths and play pranks upon one another.
The Miller prefers not to think too much. He says as much at the outset of his tale. He is happily married, but he does not know if his wife has cheated on him. And he prefers not to find out either. He hopes to remain blissfully unaware, despite his portrayal of John’s ignorance in the tale. The Miller does not take stock in human imagination:
“Men may dyen of ymaginacioun
So depe may impressioun be take” (3512-3613)
The Host in the “General Prologue,” under the authority of Aristotle and Horace, asks us to judge each of the tales based on a two-fold criteria: those that instruct and delight. Accordingly, the “Knight’s Tale” was certainly delightful but perhaps lacking in instruction, while the “Miller’s Tale” is instructive, but is certainly more crass than delightful. Both tales expose a deprivation in each other.
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. Here one may read a Middle English text that is closer to what Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, actually wrote than that in any other modern edition.