Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Miller's Tale

by Diana Dosik


      Devotion, duty, honor --the grandest of themes flow through Chaucer’s The Knight's Tale, a gathering of "dukes, earls and kings...for love and for the glory of chivalry"(103). The Miller's Tale also addresses the mating dance, but from a different perspective.
      Chaucer’s "true, perfect, gentle Knight" (5) opens the story-telling contest with a romantic tale of chimerical chivalry, piety, and fortune. His courtly preoccupation with "truth and honor, liberality, and courtesy" (5) shines through the noble soldiers, Arcite and Palamon, illuminating the wise, righteous, merciful ruler Theseus, and highlighting the faultless Lady Emily, whose "complexion vied with the color of roses" (51). "Fortune and her false wheel" (45) control the plot, as regal personas are maneuvered by chance and by the gods. In lofty, long-winded prose, the Knight revels in the ordered social strata and in the order of the universe: each character is cared for "according to his rank," (103) and each gallant ultimately gets his wish.
      The Knight’s scrupulous idealism presents a stark contrast to the Miller’s gritty parody of quixotic valor. Similarly framed by a love triangle, the Miller’s fabliau lionizes the bawdy cunning of a vulgar clerk. The Miller turns the Knight’s elegant world upside-down, mocking religion, ridiculing romance, and contradicting social ideals. The "hero" is young and licentious, his "lady" is cruel and unfaithful, and the character that most closely adheres to the Knight’s standard of true love and purity is humiliated for his credulousness and lampooned by the entire town. Nicolas, the clerk is punished, not for deceiving his landlord, or for sleeping with Alison, but for foolishly trying the same trick twice. Justice is not delivered by the powers that be above, but by the angry, vengeful priest who adopts Nicolas’ sly style and beats him at his own game.
      The lewd, slang-spattered Miller’s tale is a shocking wake-up call after the Knight’s florid imagery. Once the Knight has concluded his poetic ramble, Chaucer, as narrator, forewarns the audience that he "must repeat all…tales, be they better or worse" (149), and then allows the Miller to cheerfully address parts of the anatomy that don’t exist in knightly sagas. Though both use natural metaphors to describe the ladies in question, the Knight evokes a Garden of Eden, while the Miller paints a carnal forest. Emily is at first mistaken for a goddess, her voice "as heavenly as an angel’s" (51), while Alison sings "like a barn swallow", "skittish as a colt" (153). Palamon’s sweetheart is a chaste virgin, but Nicolas’ amour is a married woman. The suitors articulate their love characteristically. Arcite pines away in prison for Emily, wailing, "The lively beauty of her who wanders in that place yonder works sudden death upon me; unless I have mercy and favor from her…I am but dead" (55). Nicolas also moans that death will claim him without his lady, but his desires are purely physical: "Unless I have my will of you, sweetheart, I’m sure to die" (155).
      In both the Knight’s and the Miller’s tales, oaths and promises are made and broken. Upon hearing the plight of wretched passersby, Theseus "swore…that he would…avenge them upon the tyrant Creon" (47). Arcite and Palamon are "bound most solemnly by oath" (55) to respect and love each other as brothers. They later vow undying love for Emily, as well as eternal service to the gods when requesting a literal Deus ex machine. Arcite promises, "on [his] faith as a knight" (77), to bring armor to Palamon and fight him to the death. When oaths of brotherhood and love for Emily conflict, the knights abandon their primary persuasion of mutual support and become, just as fervently, "servants of Love" (85), pawns of Venus and Cupid’s arrow. The solemn oaths of the Knight’s tale are comically flipped in the Miller’s tale, carelessly blurted without the least intention of being kept. Alison makes her oath to Nicholas "By Saint Thomas à Becket, that she would be his to command" (155) while promising the carpenter that she is his "faithful, true, wedded wife" (169). Extracting John’s "word of honor" (169) in secrecy, Nicolas envisions "a wild and furious" flood (165), but vows to "save [Alison] and [John] and [himself]" (165). The Miller ridicules the chivalrous faith in promises, suggesting that, in the mundane world, oaths are misused and broken for more trivial and ignoble purposes than romantic love or kinship.
      The tales achieve a certain unanimity in their take on the female gender. The reader is hard-pressed to choose which image is less complimentary: the Knight’s depiction of frail, servile, damsels, marrying on command, or the immoral, wicked tease in the Miller’s tale. Theseus’ ladies, weep and moan profusely (83, 85) and are apt to "feel such sorrow…that for the most part they mourn thus, or else fall into such sickness that in the end they certainly die" (132). In "the best joke of all" (85), Emily, the reluctant virgin, has absolutely no desire to wed either of her ardent suitors. When pressed into service, her only conjugal requirement is that she marry the man who "most desires [her]" (109). Polemically, the carpenter’s "wench," (153) with her "wanton eyes" (153) while no lady, is no pushover. She breeches the covenant of marriage without a second thought, and cruelly humiliates the wooing Absolom.
      As one tale follows the other, Christian virtue is juxtaposed against Machiavellian ruthlessness, presenting an ironic clash between valor and shrewdness. Palamon and his cousin rejoice at the chance to risk their lives for their beloved Emily, while Nicolas prides himself on slyly endangering John’s life for a night of pleasure. Though Arcite refuses to harm the unarmed Palamon, crafty Nicolas figuratively stabs his generous host in the back, and delights at the chance to kick Absolom when he’s down. While the Knight's gentle rhetoric makes the Miller sound coarse, the Miller's practicality clears the air of pretension left by knightly vows and jousts. Similarly, the end results range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Palamon is rewarded for his undying love with eternal wedded bliss and Arcite tumbles to a gory death after a moment of glory, while on a smaller stage John suffers a hard fall for his naiveté, Nicolas takes the heat after letting down his guard, and the romantic dandy Absolom learns to open his eyes before leaning in. While the theme of the Miller's tale seems less elaborate than the Knight's, both focus on love and the foibles of humanity. Whether dressed in armor or "a flared apron"(153), all the players are part of the human comedy.