Testing Boundaries in Literary Forms: The Beast Fable and Romance in the
Nun's Priest Tale
Chaucer utilized many literary forms when composing his Canterbury Tales. Among these forms he utilized were the beast fable and romance. We find elements of both of these forms in the Nun's Priest's Tale. Yet Chaucer was a decidingly original poet. When he took these forms he made them his. He often diverged from the accepted norms to come up with stories that were familiar to the fourteenth century reader yet also original.
First let us look at the use of beast fable and how Chaucer diverged from tradition. One significant difference is that there is almost no human interaction with the animals. We have a brief description of the human inhabitants of the farm and then they disappear until the end. The true "humans" are the animals themselves as they possess almost total human qualities. For example, Chauntecleer and Pertelote are a "married" couple and bicker as humans. They also "love" each other. "He loved hir so that wel was him terwith" (VII. 2876).
Most striking is the logical analysis both chickens are capable of. Where beast fables would be resolved by action, these chickens think through the situation. Both Chauntecleer and Pertelote quote authoritative sources: "But natheless, as touching daun Catoun/ That hath of wisdom swich a greet renoun/ Though that he bad no dremes for to drede/ By God, men may in olde books rede" (VII. 2970-73). This is an interesting quote for it touches upon many of the differences this Tale in relation to other beast fables. The rooster quotes an authority, refers to a God and discusses dreams. Chauntecleer is embarrassingly pedantic.
The rooster's dream is significant as it and the discussion that follows it takes up much of the tale itself. The focus is not on the action (Chauntecleer's capture by the fox) but on who is correct. Is Chauntecleer's position on dreams correct or is Pertelote's? The extensive discussion of the dream steers the story away from the "moral" of Chauntecleer's vanity.
Romance in medieval literature concerned itself with noble knights and Chaucer decidingly parts from this by having his noble knight a rooster. The noble character also is peerless in a certain ability. Chaucer tells us that Chauntecleer has the best crow: "Thanne crew he, that it mighte nat ben amended" (VII. 2858). Chauntecleer is described as quite dashing, fitting the noble heroic characterization. "His comb was redder than the fyn coral/ And batailed, as it were a castel wal" (VII. 2859-60). Chauntecleer also has his ladies, but the others are pushed into the background-his heart belongs to Pertelote. All these breaks from conventional romance illustrate the parody that Chaucer utilizes.
The ending has a moral as all beast fables do. Yet this is not the purpose of the Tale. Beast fables have explicit morals practically shouted to the audience. The Nun's Priest's Tale lacks this. In fact there is not a singular moral to be had from the story. There are several such as do not be overly proud, listen to your intuition. While traditional beast fables had anthropomorphic animals, these represented one stereotypical human characteristic. The "romance" aspect helps to further the break from this tale being just another beast fable. Chaucer's beasts are much more diverse--making them more human.
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