Chaucer's The Cook's Tale

Olga BurakovThe Explicator. Washington: Fall 2002.Vol. 61, Iss. 1;  pg. 2, 4 pgs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract (Document Summary)

If examined through the lens of the Book of Genesis, Chaucer's "The Cook's Tale" transcends the inferior position attributed to it in the past and transforms into an opening of the Genesis narrative of Adam's Fall, a narrative that is central to Chaucer's biblical poetics.

Full Text (1674   words)

Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Fall 2002

Critical attention to the Cook's Tale has been relatively scarce, primarily focusing on the tale's unfinished state or the possible reasons for Chaucer's decision to abandon an uncompleted manuscript.1 The attempts that have been made to interpret the Cook's Tale within a unified framework of Fragment A view the tale as a final stage in a "degenerative movement" that governs the whole fragment (Howard 245). However, if examined through the lens of the Book of Genesis, the Cook's Tale transcends the inferior position attributed to it in the past and transforms into an opening of the Genesis narrative of Adam's Fall, a narrative that is central to Chaucer's biblical poetics.2

In the prologue to his tale, the Cook refers to the Old Testament, acknowledging Solomon's authority and advocating his wisdom: "Wel wide Salomon in his langage, / 'Ne bring nat every man into thyn hous"' (1.4331).3 Even more importantly, the Cook identifies the purpose of his tale, which is to "quite" the inn-keeper Harry Bailly for the abuse that he poured upon the Cook earlier: "'Herry Bailly, by thy faith, / Be thou nat wroth. [...] But er we parte, ywis, thou shalt be quit"' (1.4358-62). Considering the authoritative position that Harry Bailly occupies among the pilgrims, not only judging the merits of their stories, but also imposing a hierarchical order among them, the Cook's challenging Harry subtly prepares the ground for a major thematic concern in the Genesis story, that of defying a higher authority, which will be developed in the tale itself.

In addition to introducing the element of disobedience, the Cook's Prologue likewise evokes another central component in the Genesis story-a "sensationalist pursuit of satisfaction" (Woods 190). This stands as the primary reason for the Cook's genuine delight in the Reeve's Tale, not incidentally described in physical terms, as well as the Cook's decision to tell his own tale:

The Cook of London, whil the Reeve spak,

For joye him thoughte he clawed him on the bak. [ ...] 'I praye to God, so

yive me sorwe and care

If evere, sith I highte Hogge of Ware,

Herde I a millere bettre yset awerk [. . ..

But God forbede that we stinten here.' (1.4335-39)

Apart from thus creating a superbly ironic portrait of a Cook driven by a "hunger for sensation" (Woods 190), this element of the prologue serves as an appropriate way into the Cook's Tale itself, a tale that pivots on Perkyn Revelour's relentless pursuit of pleasure, which, to a certain extent, emulates the trajectory of Adam's Fall and his subsequent banishment from paradise.'

The Cook's Tale opens with an image of Edenic plenitude, created both through the tale's setting-a victualer's shop filled with food-and through the description of Perkyn Revelour himself, which employs the word "full" three times in its first ten lines:

Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe,

Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe,

With lokkes blake, ykembd ful fetisly [...].

He was as ful of love and paramour

As is the hyve ful of hony sweeter (1.4367-72)5

However, Perkyn, who feels discontent in the shop, almost immediately disrupts the Edenic plenitude: "He loved bet the taverne than the shoppe" (1.4376). As William Woods suggests, "[Perkyn's] nature asserts the claims of youth and sexuality [... ]. Perkyn is [... ] a dapper, restless, bird-like youth whose nature simply can not be pent up 'narwe in cage'-or in his master's shop [... 1. [E]very aspect of Perkyn's social and even professional conduct is indirectly an expression of his sexuality" (192-93). To escape the ennui of the shop and fulfill his desire for dancing, gambling, and womanizing, Perkyn steals from his master: "That fond his maister wel in his chaffare, / For often tyme he foond his box ful bare" (1.4389-90). Though here the Cook's Tale ostensibly deviates from the Genesis model, conflating Adam and Eve into one figure and making Perkyn solely responsible for the act of stealing, one cannot fail to see the structural similarity between the forbidden money box hidden in the shop and the forbidden tree of knowledge in "the midst of the garden [of Eden]" (Gen. 2:9).6 Moreover, both Adam's and Perkyn's acts of disobedience are prompted by a certain future promise that the forbidden object holds, whether the knowledge of good and evil in Adam's (or Eve's) case, or just the knowledge of evil, of "dys, riot or paramour" (1.4392), in Perkyn's.

The similarity between the two narratives is further enhanced in the figure of Perkyn's master, a godlike figure who significantly remains anonymous, a fact that should draw our attention because Chaucer takes particular care to name each of his male characters in the preceding tales, as well as to give specific names both to the Cook and to the Host in the prologue to the Cook's Tale.' Like God in the Genesis narrative, the master in the tale is represented as an impersonal embodiment of the moral values, primarily an authority that provides an antithetical frame of reference to Perkyn's insatiable sensuality: "Al have he [the master] no part of the mynstralcye" (1.4394).8 Therefore, it is not surprising that the master's decision to banish Perkyn from the shop, prompted by Perkyn's theft and misbehavior, is based on and buttressed by a proverb that involves an apple as its central trope: "'Wel bet is roten appul out of hoord / Than that it rotie al the remenaunt"' (1.4406-07).

The proverb echoes the Genesis narrative both in its explicit use of the fruit element, central to the Genesis story, and in its implicit introduction of the theme of decay and mortality-associated with Perkyn-that ultimately jeopardizes the perfect order that the master maintains in his shop. The parallel with the Genesis story is quite obvious: God banishes Adam primarily because of the latter's mortality, fearing that Adam will eat from the tree of life, attain immortality, and become as one of the angels: "God said, `Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he put forth his hand, and also take of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever. [...]' Therefore [... ] God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, [... ] So he drove out the man" (Gen. 3:22-24). Perkyn's master banishes him from his shop once he recognizes the danger Perkyn poses to the social order. And, like Adam, Perkyn immediately acquires another residence that he shares with a nameless woman who supports herself through prostitution (1.4421-22). This woman's occupation is paradigmatic of Eve, the first fallen woman, who tempted Adam and initiated him into the sins of the flesh. Thus, appropriately, the Cook's Tale ends at a point when Perkyn and this nameless, fallen woman are united under one roof, this being similarly a conclusion of Adam's life after his loss of paradise in the Book of Genesis.

[Footnote]

NOTES

 

 

 

[Footnote]

1. For a discussion of the unfinished manuscript of the Cook's Tale, see M. C. Seymour, "Of this Cokes Tale," Chaucer Review 24.3 (1990): 259-62. For a possible revision and ending of the Cook's Tale, see Daniel J. Pinti, "Governing The Cook's Tale in Bodley 686," Chaucer Review 30.4 (1996): 379-388; V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1984) 257-96. Kolve draws a parallel between the Cook's Tale and the Bible; however, he suggests that "one can see latent in the tale's beginnings a prodigal-son story" (276).

 

 

 

[Footnote]

2. For a discussion of Chaucer's appropriation of the Bible in Fragment A of The Canterbury Tales, see Lawrence Besserman, Chaucer's Biblical Poetics (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1998).

3. For a detailed discussion of the source of the proverb, see Riverside Chaucer, n. 4331.

4. One can also see how Perkyn's symbolic fall from grace ironically adumbrates the Cook's last appearance among the pilgrims in the Prologue to the Manciple's Tale. There, the Cook, having had too much to drink, falls from his horse and recovers his equilibrium later with the help of other pilgrims. His excessive drinking, which causes his fall, reiterates Adam's sin of gluttony, a sin that, according to several of the Canterbury pilgrims, precipitated Adam's Fall and his exile from paradise: "Like the Pardoner before him, [... ] the Parson adduces the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the loss of Paradise to exemplify the disastrous effects of the sin of Gula (Gluttony): 'This synne [... ] corrumped al this world, as is wel skewed in the synne of Adam and of Eve"' (Besserman 86-87).

 

 

 

[Footnote]

5. This description of Perkyn patterns its spectrum of colors on the book of Genesis and its description of one of the four rivers of Eden, the river Pishon: "[Pishon] is the one which flows through the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good. There is aromatic resin and the onyx stone" (Gen. 2:11-12).Though goldfinches are not really gold, but simply "brightly-colored" (Riverside Chaucer n. 4367), resin is usually of a brown, yellowish color, and onyx stones have black layers.

6. One can perhaps explain the absence of Eve from the Cook's Tale by accepting the Cook's axiom that "ther is no theef withoute a lowke" (1.4415), which in a way makes an elaborate Eve figure dispensable at this point.

7. Constance B. Hieatt points out that we discover for the first time the Host's name in the

 

 

 

[Footnote]

Cook's Prologue in "A Cook They Had With Hem For the Nones," Chaucer's Pilgrims, ed. Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T. Lambdin (London: Greenwood P, 1996) 203.

8. Perkyn's "mynstralcye" is "probably associated with the kind of 'mynstralcye' that Nicholas performed with Alysoun (`He kiste hire sweete and taketh his sawtrie, I And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodie')" (Woods 193).

 

 

 

[Reference]

WORKS CITED

 

 

 

[Reference]

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Cook's Prologue and Tale." The Riverside Chaucer. 3d. ed. General ed. Larry Benson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. 84-86.

Howard, Donald Roy. The Idea of the Canterbury Tales. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976. William F. Woods. "Society and Nature in the Cook's Tale." Papers on Language and Literature 32.2 (1996): 189-205.

 

 

 

[Author Affiliation]

-OLGA BURAKOV, New York University

 

 

 

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