No Joke: Transcendent Laughter in the Teseida and the Miller's Tale

Timothy D ArnerStudies in PhilologyChapel Hill: Spring 2005.Vol. 102, Iss. 2;  pg. 143, 16 pgs

 

 

 

 

Abstract (Document Summary)

Miller's Tale, which represents Chaucer's masterful parody of the Knight's Tale, can be read as a retelling of Teseida. It offers a more faithful representation of Boccaccio's literary and philosophical intent. Arner provides literary analyses on Miller's Tale and Teseida.

Full Text (6556   words)

Copyright University of North Carolina Press Spring 2005

ALTHOUGH no direct source exists for the story of John, Nicholas, Alisoun, and Absolon, the Miller's Tale represents one of Chaucer's finest examples of literary translation. Recognized as a masterful parody of the Knight's Tale, the story told by the Miller succeeds in "quiting" that of the Knight by recasting the characters and themes of the Knight's courtly romance into the comedic genre of the fabliau, thus making "ernest" into "game."1 Recent scholarship on the relationship between the two tales has focused on issues of class and has celebrated the Miller's Tale as a carnivalesque triumph of the churl over the knight.2 This approach tends to privilege the voice of the Miller rather than the poetic authority of Chaucer as author, so Chaucer's sources for these tales are often overlooked. While many critics have examined Chaucer's use of the Teseida as his source for the Knight's Tale, none has recognized that by having the Miller parody the story of Palamon and Arcite, Chaucer translates not only his own work but also Boccaccio's text into fabliaux.3

The Miller's Tale can be read as a retelling of the Teseida in which Chaucer reflects on his use of that source in both the Knight's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde. While the Knight's Tale is much more closely related to Boccaccio's text in terms of genre and the number of verbal echoes, the Miller's Tale offers a more faithful representation of Boccaccio's literary and philosophical intent. Because Chaucer's relocation of Arcita's apotheosis and laughter from the Knight's Tale to the Troilus has attracted a great deal of critical attention, the inclusion of that laughter in the Miller's Tale has gone unnoticed. I would suggest that Arcita's laugh is relocated to the Miller's Tale twice-once within the tale itself when the townspeople look down with laughter upon John, and again in the Canterbury pilgrims' response to the Miller's performance. This laughter aligns the Miller's Tale with the Teseida on a metafictional level that provides the reader with a philosophical and critical perspective to counter that of the Knight's Tale.

Boccaccio's Teseida serves as a kind of sequel to Statius's Thebiad in which the rivalry between Eteocles and Polynices for the throne of Thebes is reenacted in Palemone and Arcita's rivalry for the hand of Emilia, an erotic focus that replaces the drive for power. The Theban lovers in the Teseida attempt to settle their dispute through violence, first engaging in single combat in a field outside of Athens and then in a tournament arranged by Teseo. The tournament is designed to allow each man to prove his worth in battle without the risk of bloodshed and death, yet a number of Greeks are killed in the fighting. After the competition, the victorious Arcita falls from his horse, and knowing that he will soon die, he bestows Emilia upon Palemone. While the Greeks mourn his impending death, Arcita offers prayers and sacrifices to Mercury, laments his fate, and passes away with a softly spoken "A Dio, Emilia."4

The ceremony and pathos of book 10 of the Teseida are immediately called into question in book 11 when Arcita's soul departs his body and travels toward the eighth sphere of heaven. Like Scipio in Cicero's Somnium Scipionis,5 Arcita enjoys the sight of the stars and the music of the spheres before turning his gaze back to earth, where he looks down upon the place where his body lay:

e seco rise de' pianti dolenti

della turba lernea, la vanitate

forte dannando dell'umane genti,

li quai, da tenebrosa cechitate

mattamente oscurati nelle menti,

seguon del mondo la falsa biltate,

lasciando il cielo; e quindi se ne gio

nel loco che Mercurio li sortio.

(11.3)

[And he laughed to himself at the plaintive laments of the Lernean people, and he severely censured the vanity of humankind, which pursues the false beauty of the world, neglecting heaven out of the clouded madness and darksome blindness of their minds. Then he went to the place that Mercury had chosen for him.]6

Arcita's vision of heaven offers him a new perspective on human action and his own death. His own lament in book 10 is replaced by laughter at the laments of others, at the "vanity of humankind." The grieving of the Athenians over the physical body of Arcita seems foolish as his soul transcends the worldly sphere and moves toward a higher realm of being. Unable to achieve the same vision, the Greeks continue to lament Arcita's death and perform elaborate funeral rites. Book 11 moves from Arcita's heavenly perspective back to earth to describe these ceremonies as they were celebrated in pagan antiquity, though their significance has already been called into question. John Steadman explains, "In pursuing epic and heroic decorum, Boccaccio not only apotheosizes his hero but proceeds, immediately afterward, to endow him with funeral honors equally worthy of a hero.. . . The burst of laughter that precedes this scene undercuts its solemnity and undermines its epic dignity."7 Arcita's mocking laughter stands in tension with the epic conventions of pagan heroic funeral rites, which, as in Virgil's Aeneid and Statius's Thebiad, are meant to restore order and provide comfort after the unexpected and unfortunate fall of a worthy man. The tension, however, exists only for the reader, who is allowed to hear Arcita's laugh; for the characters within the poem, the ceremonies succeed in providing a sense of closure, most fully symbolized by the wedding of Palamone and Emilia at the end of book 12.

After identifying the tension created by Arcita's laugh, Steadman questions whether Boccaccio actually intended the funeral scene to be so undermined.8 The answer has to be yes because of Boccaccio's intertext, as he is consciously drawing from Dante's Paradiso. As the Pilgrim enters the constellation of Gemini, which was Dante's own sign of the zodiac, he looks back to see how far he has traveled:

Col viso ritornai per tutte quante

le sette spere, e vidi questo globo

tal, ch'io sorrisi del suo semblante;

e quel consiglio per migliore approbo

che l'ha per meno; e chi ad altro pensa

chiamar si puote veramente probo.

[With my sight I returned through all and each of the seven spheres, and saw this globe such that I smiled at its paltry semblance; and that counsel I approve as best which holds it for least, and he whose thought is turned elsewhere may be called truly upright.]9

Dante's smile becomes Arcita's laugh in the Teseida as Boccaccio adds an auditory element to Dante's signal of his contemptus mundi. Both Dante the pilgrim and Arcita laugh at the vanity of mankind for its failure to regard the limits of human action. For Dante, this failure occurs in a strictly Christian context, for he regards as foolish those who privilege the earthly sphere and thus deny their salvation. Boccaccio's invocation of Dante reminds the reader that the classical world of the Teseida is necessarily flawed, for the pagan characters have no hope for redemption. The intertextuality of the passage contrasts Dante's proper Christian perspective with the pagan world of the Teseida, allowing the medieval reader to share in Arcita's laughter at the meaningless funeral rites performed over his body.

To appreciate Arcita's laugh fully, the reader must step outside of the Teseida and into the Commedia, out of pagan antiquity and into a strictly Christian paradise. But Dante himself draws from classical (pagan) sources for the passage in the Pamdiso: the Somnium Scipionis and Lucan's account of Pompey's apotheosis in book 9 of the Pharsalia.10 By including Arcita's flight in his Teseida, Boccaccio invokes a complex textual tradition that aligns his protagonist with important pagan and Christian literary figures, thus removing him from the fictional world of the poem and further distancing him from its surviving characters. This disrupts the reader's experience of the poem, which no longer functions as an independent work but directs attention outside of itself toward literary tradition. Throughout the final two books of the poem, however, Boccaccio attempts to contain his text in its world of antiquity by describing the funeral ceremonies of the Greeks, allowing the reader only a glimpse of Arcita's vision before being thrust back to earth to rejoin the laments and rites of Teseo, Palamone, and Emilia for the remainder of the text. Arcita does not get the last laugh; Palamone experiences worldly bliss through his marriage to Emilia after Arcita has died.

Still, Boccaccio's efforts to contain his text within the pagan world cannot succeed because of the power of Arcita's laugh. The three stanzas that open book 11 of the Teseida undo the work of the poem as well as Boccaccio's copious self-commentary that accompanies it. The lines describing Arcita's apotheosis offer a look back not only upon the pagan world but upon the text itself, asking the reader to see the "vanity" of the world of the poem and also to look to Dante's Paradiso and other analogues for greater poetic perspective. As Barbara Nolan points out, "From the suprahuman perspective of immortality at the beginning of Book XI, Arcita's spirit, as we know, revises his, and every other earlier assessment in the poem of the world's gifts."11 Through Arcita's laugh, Boccaccio deconstructs his own narrative.

The significance of Arcita's laugh was certainly not lost on Chaucer, who imported the scene into his Troilus to much greater effect. He deliberately calls attention to the Dantean intertext through translation of Beatrice's prayer to the Virgin Mary (Pnradiso, 14.28-30; Troilus, 5.186366) in the poem's final stanza and explicitly contrasts the joys of heaven with the pains of earthly existence.12 Chaucer's narrator shares in Troilus's laughter at the world and directs the reader toward an appropriate response to the poem as he renounces the "false worldes brotelnesse" (5.1832). The same "lovers, that bathen in gladnesse" (1.22) to whom the poem is initially dedicated are admonished in the final stanzas to turn their thoughts away from the foolish, worldly love that the previous five books have described in order to share in the divine vision achieved by Troilus:

O yonge, fresshe folks, he or she,

In which that love up groweth with youre age,

Repeyreth horn fro worldy vanyte,

And of youre herte up casteth the visage

To thilke God that after his ymage

Yow made, and thynketh al nys but a faire,

This world that passeth soone as floures faire.

(5.1835-41)

Echoing the Teseida, Chaucer specifically renounces the vanity of the world, a vanity that the author himself has exhibited in some measure by writing this romance. However, unlike Boccaccio, Chaucer ends the poem with a look toward heaven rather than a return to the world of pagan antiquity. This gesture provides the reader with a seemingly authoritative interpretive position bound to a specifically Christian worldview.

While the final stanzas of the Troilus may seem to close off interpretation by offering a "proper" Christian perspective, Chaucer shows that he anticipates hermeneutic difficulties when he sets the poem free from his hand. "Go, litel bok" (5.1786), he says, in an orphaning of the poem that leaves it open to alternate readings. He recognizes that "ther is so gret diversite" (5.1793) in the English language, which may lead to divergent redactions of the text, and that he can only hope "that thow be understonde" (5.1798). The poem will be subject to various readings and misreadings, a problem that even the Christian ending of the poem cannot avoid, as Chaucer himself demonstrates through the voice of the God of Love in the prologues to his own Legend of Good Women. Both Boccaccio in the Teseida and Chaucer in the Troilus appreciate the numerous possibilities for textual interpretation and, in fact, invite the reader to comment on the poem from different perspectives through the selfcommentary ventriloquized by their heroes.

While Chaucer adds Arcita's apotheosis to his translation of II Filostrato, he excludes it from his translation of the Teseida. Chaucer opens the storytelling contest of the Canterbury Tales with the story of Palamon and Arcite, an adaptation of Boccaccio's text that has been modified to suit the character of the Knight. Charles Muscatine's important study of the Knight's Tale shows how Chaucer's changes to the Teseida provide the story with a greater sense of symmetry, arguing that "order, which characterizes the structure of the poem, is also the heart of its meaning."13 According to Kurt Olsson, the Knight s Tale builds on the Teseida's themes of honor and security with heightened emphasis.14 V. A. Kolve suggests that Chaucer selected this tale to be first "precisely for its exclusion of Christian material, and for the self-limitation that such a choice entailed for him as a poet."15 Within the narrative frame of the Canterbury Tales, the Knight retains the highest social position amongst the pilgrims, and his tale reflects his concern with keeping order in a potentially chaotic situation. By ascribing this tale to the Knight, Chaucer presents the reader with an example of narrative control as exercised through the voice of the one truly noble pilgrim.16

Recent critics have found the Knight's attempt to create a sense of order unsatisfying. Geraldine Barnes writes, "Despite all its philosophical grandstanding, pomp, and ceremony, the Knight's Tale is, contrary to all the norms of chivalric romance, ultimately bereft of a positive ethic."17 Barbara Nolan argues, "Neither the characters, nor the Knight as teller, nor the audience can arrive through the text ... at a transcendent truth or a fully comforting explanation for the poem's (and the world's) largely painful events."18 The characters achieve only "partial understandings" throughout the poem, thus denying the text the closure that the Knight's performance seeks to provide.19 These close examinations of the philosophical shortcomings of the Knight's Tale have proven useful, but in looking at Chaucer's specific choices in translating the Teseida, it seems important to bring the focus back to the Knight's intent and relative success in articulating a discourse of literary and philosophical order. The exclusion of Arcite's apotheosis from the Knight's Tale maintains the poem's internal logic and closes off alternate hermeneutic possibilities in an effort to offer the "faire compaignye" (I.3108) of pilgrims an unambiguous "sentence" (General Prologue, I.798).

From the moment of Arcite's fatal wounding, which shows Theseus's inability to stave off death through the imposed rules of the tournament, the Knight attempts to contain the event's immediate threat to order. The focus then moves from the scene of the tragedy back to the city of Athens, a space under the absolute authority of Theseus. There, attention is focused on the body of Arcite, on its specific wounds and the remedies applied (I.2743-61). The Knight objectively describes the inevitability of Arcite's death, an inevitability that stems not from chance or divine providence but from physical reality. Muscatine notes that the cataloging of Arcite's bodily wounds "involves the reader not in moral conclusions, but in complicated physical data with associations so cold and scientific that no moral conclusion can possibly be drawn."20 His death is to be accepted rather than interpreted, for the details of the state of his body leave no room to question whether another outcome might be possible: "Fare wel phisik! Go ber the man to chirche! / This al and som, that Arcita moot dye" (I.2760 -61). The Knight offers no opinion of Arcite's death, only facts and evidence to show that death is a human reality with no greater significance.

In his final speech, Arcite laments his misfortune, but he ultimately accepts has fate and strives to reconcile the rivalry that has driven the action of the poem. He tells Emily that to her "I biquethe the service of my goost" (I.2768) in a reaffirmation of the courtly love pledge that he made when he first spotted her from the tower. Still, he knows that this service cannot exist beyond this world after his soul has left his body, and he recognizes that once he dies he will remain "in his colde grave / Allone, withouten any compaignye" (I.2788-89). These lines acknowledge that death denies the possibility of dialogic discourse, which precludes the opportunity for further or alternate understandings of life in or beyond this world. As Edward Condren points out, "death here symbolizes the end of the struggle" for man to succeed in "the full integration of his faculties" that Arcite finally achieves.21 Unable to find meaning after death, Arcite must assign a final understanding to worldly existence before he dies, and he does so by rearticulating the values that he has tried to uphold throughout his life: "trouthe, honour, knyghthede" (1.2789).22 His focus remains fixed within and upon earthly events and human interaction in a final validation of the world of the poem.

The Knight grants Arcite his final "Mercy, Emelye!" (1.2808) but denies him and the reader his transcendence and laughter:

His spirit changed hous and wente ther,

As I cam nevere, I kan nat tellen wher.

Therefore, I stynte; I nam no divinistre;

Of soules fynde I nat in this register,

Ne me ne list thilke opinions to telle

Of hem, though that they written wher they dwelle.

Arcite is coold, ther Mars his soule gye!

(I.2809-15)

Arcita's apotheosis in the Teseida introduces a transcendent alternative to pagan antiquity, but the Knight wishes for his story to remain firmly within the ancient world.23 The structural and thematic principles of order that the Knight's Tale seeks to expound can only be maintained through a conscious containment of Arcite's soul. As H. Marshall Leicester Jr. notes, the narrator "is resolute in cutting off all consideration of consolatory possibilities in higher realms," allowing the Knight to offer instead consolation in the poem's own terms.24 The journey of Arcita's soul is modified in order to keep the audience focused on the text. While Boccaccio has Mercury lead Arcita through the heavens, the Knight commends Arcite to Mars, the god to whom Arcite had previously shown devotion in his prayer for victory, a move that "refers us back to the emphasis on his own work."25 While the reader of the Teseida (and the Troilns) follows Arcita's gaze toward heaven, the Knights Tale eliminates this possibility by directing attention only to itself.

To some degree, Arcita's apotheosis is indirectly present in the lines above through the Knight's occupatio. Chaucer does not have the Knight simply skip over the fate of Arcite's soul but reminds the reader that his narrator must work to suppress the potentially disruptive textual material in his source. Leicester explains: "Occupatio brings the speaker before us and breaks the transparency of the narration. This particular instance presents the speaker to us as a man in conflict not only with his source but with himself, obsessively continuing to describe something he also seems to feel he should not be spending so much time on."26 The occupatio emphasizes the textuality of the poem, its status as "a thing 'made.'"27 The tension inherent in these lines allows Chaucer to highlight the narrator's self-awareness of his role as a speaker addressing an audience to whom he wishes to provide an example of the possibility for order in a seemingly chaotic world. Unwilling to introduce a perspective that might call into question his entire performance, Chaucer's Knight must renounce this scene in Boccaccio's work without directly acknowledging his renunciation. His occupatio rejects the Teseida's disruptive countertextual moment by denying it a place in the poem. The mocking Arcita of the Teseida, whose laughter is amplified in the Troilus, is completely silenced in the Knight's Tale as the narrator insistently reminds the reader that "Arcite is coold."

The Knight's frequent narratorial intrusions throughout his tale reveal an ever-present anxiety about the reception of his performance by his audience.28 The Knight seems to take the purpose of the narrative contest to heart as he strives to provide the Canterbury pilgrims with a tale "of best sentence and moost solaas" (General Prologue, !.798), and he consciously works to ensure that they enjoy and understand his performance in the appropriate context. Olsson notes the Knight's "commitment to accommodating the desires of people gathered in a 'compaignye'" through his "sustained emphasis on formal Observaunce' and, more largely, the repeated use of publicly approved literary formulae."29 The philosophical attitudes expressed through the actions and speeches of Theseus serve not only to justify Arcite's death and explain the world's governing principle of order in an effort to comfort the grieving Athenians but also to instruct the Knight's audience how to interpret and evaluate the events of the poem. The ceremony surrounding Arcite's funeral and the happy marriage of Palamon and Emily satisfy generic conventions while validating the claims articulated by Theseus concerning the presence and value of order in the universe.

Although many critics have found the Knight's arguments to be flawed, within the fictional frame of the Canterbury Tales the Knight's performance seems to be respected by his immediate audience. As Michaela Grudin points out, the Knight's Tale shows "opinion and dialogue being replaced by reverence and receptivity."30 The success of his performance is evidenced by the opening lines of the Miller's Prologue:

What that the Knyght had thus his tale ytoold,

In al the route nas ther yong ne oold

That he ne seyde it was a noble storie

And worthy for to drawen to memorie,

And namely the gentils everichon.

(I.3109-13)

The Knight has not only pleased the pilgrims but has effectively silenced them. Chaucer articulates their response in negative terms there was no one who did not say that the story was noble-so the tale's greatest achievement lies in its ability to preclude rather than produce additional commentary. The silencing of Arcite's soul in the Knight's Tale leads to the silent assent of the audience at the tale's conclusion, suggesting that the Knight has realized his goal of staving off any potential disruption of his story, at least in the reception. His omission of Arcite's laugh thus contains his text within a limited interpretive scope and negates the possibility of a dissident hermeneutics.

Of course, the silence of the pilgrims does not last long; a dissenting voice is soon heard. The Miller offers to "quite" the Knight's tale, and it is commonly accepted that he does so admirably through his translation of the Knight's chivalric romance into the comic, bawdy medium of the fabliau. While some critics have argued that the Miller opposes the Knight's philosophical vision of order through a deliberate refusal to speculate on any "transcendent idea or ideal,"31 I would argue that Chaucer includes in the Miller's Tale the very possibility of transcendence that the Knight had sought to exclude. While the Knight had struggled to suppress the possibility of Arcita's textually disruptive laugh, the Miller's entire performance functions only to build up to it, to bring this laughter to the fore. Through the laughter of the "folk" both within and outside of the tale-laughter enjoyed only by those who can both literally and metaphorically look down upon the events of the story from a privileged perspective-Chaucer reinserts Arcita's laugh into his fabliau adaptation of the Teseida, thus providing a selfcommentary on his previous work in the Knight's Tale and the Troihis. The Miller's "quiting" of the Knight can then be read not only as social critique but also as Chaucer's attempt to highlight hermeneutic possibilities within his own writing.32

The fabliau provides Chaucer with the perfect medium for engaging in this project. Joseph Bédier's famous definition of fabliaux as "contes à rire en vers" shows laughter to be the most important aspect of the genre, as the comédie elements allow the poems to question conventional truths presented in more authoritative modes of discourse.33 The Miller's Tale has often been seen as the greatest achievement in the genre because of its eloquent structural parody of romance. The violent rivalry between Palamon and Arcite for Emily in the Knight's Tale is reimagined in the Miller's Tale as the efforts of John and Nicholas to possess the body of Alison, while the "furie infernal" (!.2684) sent from the gods to smite the victorious Arcite takes human form in the emotional fury of Absalon, who, having suffered the humiliation of the ignominious kiss, takes revenge on Nicholas. But the Miller's parody goes beyond what is present in the Knight's Tale by calling attention to what has been omitted. The tale's comic framing, an important convention of the fabliau, allows Chaucer not only to exploit the fabliau genre fully but also to invoke the Teseida's moment of textual destabilization that the Knight had wished to avoid.34

The laughter within the tale itself highlights possibilities for interpretation. Aroused by the screams of Nicholas and the crash of John's fall, the people of the town gather in the street to witness the commotion. After hearing that John thought Noah's flood was coming,

The folk gan laughen at his fantasye;

Into the roof they kiken and they cape,

And turned al his harm unto a jape.

For every clerk anonright heeld with oother.

They seyde, "The man is wood, my leeve brother";

And every wight gan laughen at this stryf.

(I.3840-49)

The absence of any sign of the Flood leads the clerks to unanimously decree John "wood" because he has so obviously erred in his belief. While John has been confused by Nicholas, the "folk" can assess the reality of the situation and perceive the disjuncture between John's irrational actions and socially appropriate behavior.35 The events of the tale are characterized as stryf, a word that can signify both conflict between adversaries and, more generally, discord.36 For the clerks and the townspeople, John's attempt to protect himself from a nonexistent Flood is properly recognized as a purposeless struggle that ends only in disaster. Their laughter is a sign of this recognition, a recognition John cannot attain as long as he remains trapped within his own system of beliefs. His madness lies in his inability to transcend the events that have just occurred, while the "folk" can transform his "harm unto a jape" because they enjoy a distanced perspective.

As Robert R. Edwards notes, this moment is distinctly textual: "The folk who laugh at John's 'fantasye' wish to textualize loss and physical pain ... to make it into another story told retrospectively."37 Their mocking laughter signals the creation of a narrative that subordinates John's story and endows the events with new meaning-John's personal tragedy becomes public comedy. His preparation for the Flood and cutting of the ropes when he hears Nicholas shout "Water!" (I.3817) seem to John to be reasonable actions, but to those whose vision has not been clouded by Nicholas's lies, John's story can be seen as a ridiculous "stryf." Just as Arcita's apotheosis allows him to reevaluate the events of the Teseida and the laugh at the insignificant pagan funeral rites, the perspective of the "folk" grants them the ability to deride the foolishness of John's mistaken claim to know "Goddes pryvetee" (I.3454).

Of course, because the townspeople in the Miller's Tale do not know the whole story, their version of the events is likewise incomplete; however, it is not inaccurate.38 They remain ignorant of Nicholas's trickery, Alison's infidelity, and Absolon's revenge, but they can still create a new narrative that reaches an appropriate conclusion:

They tolden every man that he was wood;

He was agast so of Nowelis flood

Thurgh fantasie that of his vanytee

He hadde yboght hym knedyng tubbes thre.

(I.3833-36; italics mine)

Chaucer here consciously echoes the Teseida, revealing that the "folk" can, through the interpretation of the events and the construction of their own narrative, achieve the same transcendent perspective given to Boccaccio's Theban knight. Their laughter, like Arcita's, is directed toward human vanity, and both Arcita and the "folk" connect this vanity with madness ("mattamente oscurati").The clerks and the "folk" do not directly reconstruct John's narrative, but their interpretation of the scene allows them to participate in a process of creation and reception of an equally authoritative story containing pleasing "solaas" and valid "sentence." Chaucer writes into the Miller s Tale a series of legitimate discursive possibilities that counter the monologic effort of the previous tale.

The Miller's closing lines further encourage these discourses by recapitulating the events of the tale without providing any real closure:

Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,

For al his kepyng and his jalousye,

And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye,

And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.

This tale is doon, and God save al the rowte!

(I.2850-54)

The chaos of the final scene and the laughter of the "folk" remain, for the narrator looks no further than what we already know has happened. He invites the reader back into the chaos of the tale and makes no attempt to reassert his own narrative authority by restoring order to the world of his fabliau. While the majority of extant French fabliaux include an explicitly stated moral or proverb,3" Chaucer avoids this type of hermeneutically limiting gesture. He brings the comic elements back into focus, asking the audience to enjoy once again those images that give birth to disorder and its subsequent vocalized response. The final lines of the Miller's Tale allow the audience to reimagine its events from the privileged position outside the narrative and continue to laugh at the spectacle of the characters' vanity. The Miller's Tale is thus linked textually and philosophically to the Teseida through the very moment that the Knight's Tale fails to include.

Arcita's laugh is again rewritten immediately following the Miller's Tale as the pilgrims' response:

Whan folk hadde laughen at this nyce cas

Of Absolon and hende Nicholas,

Diverse folk diversely they seyde,

But for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.

(Reeve's Prologue, I.3855-58)

Like the "folk" within the tale, the pilgrims can view the events from a perspective outside the story, and their perspective grants them an even more encompassing vision. They can look down upon not only John's madness but also the poetic justice wrought upon the characters of Absolon and Nicholas, both of whom have proven themselves equally vain. Their laughter, like Arcita's, mocks the futile efforts of the characters in the story to exert control beyond their means. Bemused by this spectacle and its results, the laughing agents assert their ability to judge these figures who unselfconsciously participate in a flawed system. The laughter in both the Teseida and the Miller's Tale is bitter in its mockery, but it also positively signals an affirmation of the perspective enjoyed by those privileged with an awareness of their own position outside of the narrative.

As the pilgrims respond to the plight of the characters and the Miller's performance as a whole, Chaucer displays not only the rise of a carnivalesque social voice but the establishment of a host of literary voices. The pilgrims express approval of the story through their laughter and then offer comment as each sees fit. As the "diverse folk diversely" articulate their responses, the readers become authors, each able to enter into literary debate. While the idea of "diversite" (I.1793) can give cause for concern, as it does at the end of the Troilus, in the context of the Miller's Tale it celebrates the opportunity for the production of texts and their circulation within a community of readers united in their differences by a shared hermeneutic project.40 If the Knight's Tale suppresses the possibility of counter-discourse (no one "ne seyde it was a noble storie"), the Miller's Tale invites dialogue and divergence surrounding the text. Arcita's transcendent escape from the world of the Teseida is figured in the move from the world of the Miller's Tale into the pilgrimage frame of the Canterbury Tales, a frame that provides space for individual critical response and the circulation of competing narratives.41

In the Miller's Tale Chaucer textualizes a key moment of the Teseida that his Knight had attempted to elude with his occupatio. Having used Boccaccio's poem in the Troilus and the Knight's Tale, Chaucer turns it into a fabliau that calls attention to his earlier translations. In doing so, he continues to engage in a literary dialogue not only with his source but with his own works. If we read the Miller's Tale as textual commentary rather than social commentary, the poem functions as a means for Chaucer to explore the ideas of poetic creation and reception. Like Boccaccio, Chaucer prefers tension over resolution, and the Teseida's important countertextual moment holds special significance as a model for the way in which an author can both assert and deny his own literary authority. For Chaucer, Arcita's laugh resonates as a sign of hermeneutic possibility.

The Pennsylvania State University

[Footnote]

1 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Miller's Prologue and Tale, in The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), I.3127, 3186. All subsequent citations of Chaucer are from this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

2 For one example of this type of Bakhtinian reading of the Miller s Tale, see John Ganim, "Chaucer and the Noise of the People," Exemplaria 2 (1990): 71-88. Lee Patterson offers an excellent historical contextualization of the Miller's Tale in Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 244-79.

3 In Before the Knight's Tale: Imitation of Classical Epic in Boccaccio's "Teseida"(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), David Anderson argues that Boccaccio himself transposes the Teseida to Decameron 7.10. He suggests that "[a]lthough there are no verbal echoes of Decameron 7.10 in the Miller's Tale, it is tempting to conclude that Chaucer gathered his strategy for imitating the Knight's Tale in the Miller's Tale from the rich fields of Boccaccio's works, just as he adopted Boccaccio's strategy for imitating Statius in the Knight's Tale itself" (218).

4 Giovanni Boccaccio, Teseida detla nozze di Emilia, éd. Alberto Limentani, vol. 2 of Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, ed. Vittore Branca (Milano: Mondadori, 1964), 10.113. All subsequent citations of Boccaccio are from this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

5 Marcus Tullius Cicero, De re publiai, trans. Clinton Walker Keyes, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928), 6.10-26. Chaucer, using Macrobius's commentary, summarizes Scipio's dream in Parliament of fowls, 31-84.

6 Translation by Bernadette Marie McCoy, The Book of Theseus (New York: Medieval Text Association, 1974), 289.

7 Steadman, Disembodied Laughter: "Troilus" and the Apotheosis Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 50.

8 Ibid.

9 Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, vol. 3 of The Divine Comedy, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 22.133-38. All subsequent citations of Dante are from this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

10 Steadman, Disembodied Laughter, 42-65.

11 Nolan, Chaucer and the Tradition of the "Roman Antique "(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 193.

12 Karla Taylor, Chaucer Reads "The Divine Comedy "(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 190. See also Steadman, Disembodied Laughter, 175-209.

13 Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), 181.

14 Olsson, "Securitas and Chaucer's Knight," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 9 (1987): 12353.

15 Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984), 86.

16 Kolve calls the Knight's Tale the "most insistently 'artificial' of all Chaucer's major poems" (ibid., 135).

17 Barnes, "Chaucer's Double Telling of the Knight's Tale," in Words and Wordsmiths: A Volume for H. L. Rogers, éd. Géraldine Barnes (Sydney: University of Sydney Press, 1989), 10.

18 Nolan, Tradition of the "Roman Antique," 149.

19 Robert R. Edwards, Chaucer and Boccaccio: Antiquity and Modernity (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), 39. See also David Aers, Chaucer, Langland, and the Creative Imagination (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), and Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative, 142.

20 Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, 186.

21 Condren, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and Organization of the "Canterbury Tales "(Jacksonville: University Press of Florida, 1999), 49.

22 H. Marshall Leicester Jr., The Disenchanted Self: Representing the Subject in the "Canterbury Tales" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 342. Leicester notes that Arcite's speech follows the conventions of complaint and lament, thus denying his death any larger significance outside the poem (340).

23 Nolan, Tradition of tlie "Roman Antique," 248.

24 Leicester, The Disenchanted Self, 343.

25 Aers, Creative Imagination, 186. It is important to note that by commending Arcite's soul to Mars, the Knight attempts to keep Arcite in the world of the tale but unwittingly threatens his own sense of order. The description of the temple of Mars in the Knight s Tale (1.1967-2050) presents Mars as a god of disorder; his temple contains images of "Meschaunce," "Woodnesse," and "fiers Outrage," among others. Indeed, the statue of Mars depicts him as unstable: he "looked grym as he were wood" (I.2041).

26 Leicester, The Disenchanted Self, 354.

27 Kolve, Imagery of Narrative, 135.

28 Condren, Energy of Creation, 55.

29 Olsson, "Securitas and Chaucer's Knight," 127.

30 Grudin, Chaucer and the Politics of Discourse (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 86.

31 Kolve, Imagery of Narrative, 214. see also Andrew James Johnston, "The Exegetics of Laughter: Religious Parody in Chaucer's Miller's Tale," in A History of English Laughter: Laughter From Beowulf to Beckett and Beyond, ed. Manfred Pfister (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), 17-33.

32 I agree with Katherine Zieman's position that Chaucer's primary concern is "not the articulation of a particular social voice, but the creation of a literary one" ("Chaucer's Voys," Representations 60 [15)97]: 70).

33 Bédier, Les Fabliaux: Etudes de littérature populaire et d'histoire littéraire du Moyen Age, 6th éd. (Paris: H. Champion, 1964), 30. see also R. Howard Bloch, The Scandal of the Fabliaux (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), John Hines, The Fabliau in English (New York: Longman, 1993), Brian J. Levy, The Comic Text: Patterns and Images in the Old French Fabliaux (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), and Charles Muscatine, The Old French Fabliaux (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

34 Laura Kendrick argues that the fabliau "so flagrantly satisfied erotic and aggressive desires and flouted authority that it had special needs for denying devices, some of the most powerful of which were metatextual or contextual" and that these commonly were expressed through the frame of "comic performance and reception" (Chaucerian Play: Comedy and Control in the "Canterbury Tales " [Berkeley : University of California Press, 1988], 57).

35 Patterson, Subject of History, 272.

36 "Stryf" is also used a number of times in the Knight's Tale to describe the rivalry between Arcite and Palamon. Here the word can refer to the "stryf" among John, Nicholas, and Absolon and their attempts to possess Alison. If the rivalry in the Miller's Tale is a reconception of the Palamon and Arcite story, then the laughter in the Miller's Tale is not only a laugh at John, but a laugh at the Theban knights who are foolish enough to endure "stryf" in the pursuit of false, worldly delights.

37 Edwards, Chaucer and Boccaccio, 110-11.

38 Ibid., 111.

39 Muscatine, The Old French Fabliaux, 101.

40 This idea of diversity obviously was of great concern to Chaucer, for variations of the phrase "diverse folk diversely they seyde" occur throughout the Canterbury Tales -in the Man of Law's Tale (II.211), the Merchant's Tale (IV.1469), and the Squire's Tale (V.202).

41 Jon Cook, "Carnival and The Canterbury Tales: Only Equals May Laugh,' " in Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, and History, ed. David Aers (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 171.

 

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