Laughing at the Carpenter

by Cathy Cupitt

The tragic and the comic are not polar opposites, or mutually exclusive,
but subtly and sometimes almost paradoxically inter-linked modes of experience.

It is common when considering The Canterbury Tales to discuss how some tales seem designed to emphasise the themes of others. Two such tales are the Miller's Tale2 and the Knight's Tale3.

At first glance these two tales seem an incongruous pairing. The Knight's Tale is told by an eminent person, is an historical romance which barely escapes a tragic ending, and its themes are universal: the relationship of individuals to providence, fortune and free will. The Miller's Tale is told by a drunken "cherl" (MT 3182), is a farcical fabliau, and has "a plot, not themes"4. And yet, in my opinion, there is much to be gained by reading the Miller's Tale with the themes and characters of the Knight's Tale firmly in mind. The juxtaposition of the Miller's Tale to "the Knight's Tale makes its very lack of significance significant"5.

These two tales have seemingly opposite doctrines, and yet, it seems to me, both have the same object: to encourage us to survive the misfortunes and uncertainties of life as best we can. The Knight's Tale tells us to "maken vertu of necessitee"(KT 3042) while the Miller's Tale expects "every wight" to "laughen at this stryf"(MT 3849).

The Miller's Tale is designed to "quite" (MT 3127) the Knight's Tale. It certainly matches it in quality of composition, but 'repays' the other tale mainly through its use of comedy. Humour throws new light on the characters and actions of the preceeding tale.

The folly of the carpenter in the Miller's Tale is by no means the only comic device used by Chaucer to create humour, but it is central in many ways. "He is, in theory, the 'authority figure' of the tale, and it therefore opens with him; his gulling occupies the central section; and it closes with his literal and metaphorical downfall."6

The excerpt from lines 3601-3642 displays some of the ways that Chaucer uses the figure of the carpenter to generate humour. In this section the carpenter is: ironically fooled by his wife; used as a comparison in order to cast ridicule on Arcite's and Palamon's fervent love of Emelye; an example of the folly of age, rather than the wisdom that was developed in Theseus; and, of course, set up as the climax's 'fall guy'.

Farce is the most obvious form of humour in the Miller's Tale, but I think irony is the most important. Chaucer plays off text against text to great ironic effect, both inter and extra-textually. In fact, the carpenter is a perfect ironic antidote to the Miller's advice of the Prologue. We read there that the best way for husbands to escape the humiliation of being cuckolded is that:

An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf
Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.

(MT 3163-3164)
Yet it is the carpenter's lack of inquisitiveness that not only makes him a cuckold, but leads to his public humiliation. If he had been a little more inquisitive of his wife's secrets, and if he had known a little more of "Goddes pryvetee" first hand he would have been saved humiliation! He is, however, a complacent, ignorant man. In the opening lines of our extract it becomes clear that he is oblivious to Alisoun's agreement with Nicholas, and he sees nothing incongruous in the casting of himself as a pseudo-Noah. The crowning irony of this scene is in the twist that Alisoun already knows John's secret "bet than he" (MT 3604).

It is also an irony that it is Alisoun's prompting "Help us to scape, or we been dede echon" (MT 3608), as much as Nicholas' act, that spurs John into foolish action. His depth of love allows another man to enjoy his wife. John's hapless following of his wife's advice leads the narrator into one of the few rhetorical statements of the tale:

Lo, which a greet thyng is affeccioun!
Men may dyen of ymaginacioun,
So depe may impressioun be take.
(MT 3611-3613)
When read with the Knight's Tale in mind, this seems to be a pointed satirical attack on the over-the-top behaviour that Arcite and Palamon partake in, in the name of love. Their courtly love can only be made ridiculous by comparison to the carpenter's quaking and wailing. We find a humorous incongruity. In the Miller's Tale "the language of the court incongruously creeps up against the homely village terms"7. This technique becomes obvious when we look at the carpenter's actions when he thinks of Alisoun being drowned.
He wepeth, wayleth, maketh sory cheere;
He siketh with ful many a sory swogh;
He gooth and geteth hym a knedyng trogh.
(MT 3618-3619)
Apart from the ludicrous "knedyng trogh" this sounds very like something we've read somewhere before:
How greet a sorwe suffreth now Arcite!
The deeth he feeleth thrugh his herte smyte;
He wepeth, wayleth, crieth pitously.
(KT 1219-1221)
Courtly love is not all that is subverted in the Miller's Tale. The wisdom of age is also questioned through an implied comparison of John and Theseus.

From the start of the tale, John is "set up ... as that traditionally licensed victim of satire, the old man who marries a young wife, [and] he is portrayed as richly complacent and gullible"8. Constantly referred to as "this sely carpenter" (eg. MT 3601), John is shown as comically foolish when he prepares for "Noees flood" (MT 3616). It is true that John's genuine sorrow at the thought of his wife's death is touching. Yet it is impossible not to revel in his 'downfall' after we have witnessed him sneaking around the town for a "tubbe", "kymelyn" and "knedying trogh" (MT 3620-3621), juxtaposed with his easy sacrifice of his "knave" and "wenche"(MT 3631).

This setting up of the carpenter to take the climactic and humiliating fall is humorous in its own right, but it also paints a picture of age and experience that is in startling contrast to that of the Knight's Tale. Where "the Knight's Tale celebrates the wisdom of age, the Miller's Tale points out its folly"9. John sacrifices his servants where Theseus insists on a non-lethal test by battle. John is "sely" where Theseus has the qualities of "wysdom and chivalrie" (KT 865). It doesn't seem to occur to the carpenter to think ahead, or ask: what exactly will happen the day after the flood? Whereas Theseus plans his enterprises, such as the battle between Arcite and Palamon, in detail (see KT 2537-2560).

It is, therefore, surprising to find that there are similarities as well as differences between these two men. Neither man knows "God's pryvetee". Both men are willing to sacrifice the lives of others: Theseus with the life imprisonment of Arcite and Palamon; John by sending his servants to their `doom' in the face of the flood.

In pointing out the folly of age, and with John's and Theseus' similarities and differences in mind, the Miller's Tale stimulates a re-evaluation of the character of Theseus, posing the questions: How wise was he really? How worthy of emulation?

The contrast of the extremes of wisdom and folly, idealism and amorality, romance and fabliau, suggests to me that a middle ground exists between these tales; perhaps even that it is 'reality' which lies somewhere between the two. I believe that a quest for a human reality may be the common theme that ties the Knight's and the Miller's, and perhaps all the Canterbury tales and prologues, together.

Chaucer's use of the romance and fabliau genres, may seem worlds apart in style, content and themes, but when added together they become a richer tapestry which hints at the complexities and paradoxes of being alive and human.

Romance asserts the possibility that men may behave in a noble and self-transcending manner; fabliau declares the certainty that they will always behave like animals ... Neither is 'true' or realistic, though we might say that our understanding of what is true gains depth from having different slanting lights thrown upon reality.10
Through laughing at the carpenter, feeling pity for Arcite, enjoying Nicholas' cunning, and admiring Theseus' wisdom, we gain a richer understanding of ourselves.

A translation of the passage from the Miller's Tale discussed in this essay is also available online.


Benson, Larry.
The Riverside Chaucer: Third Edition. Oxford: OUP, 1987.

Cooper, Helen.
Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: OUP, 1989.

Lippitt, John.
"Nietzsche, Zarathustra and the Status of Laughter." The British Journal of Aesthetics, 32 (1992), 39-49.

Miller, Robert.
"The Miller's Tale as a Complaint." Chaucer Review, 5 (1970), 147-160.

Pearsall, Derek.
"The Canterbury Tales II: Comedy." In Boitani, Piero. and Mann, Jill. (eds). The Cambridge Chaucer Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 125-142.

End Notes

  1. John Lippitt, "Nietzsche, Zarathustra and the Status of Laughter," The British Journal of Aesthetics, 32 (1992), p. 39-49. This from p. 48.
  2. Larry Benson, The Riverside Chaucer: Third Edition (Oxford: OUP, 1987), The Miller's Tale. All line references to the Miller's Tale will be given in text, preceded by the initials "MT".
  3. Larry Benson, The Riverside Chaucer: Third Edition (Oxford: OUP, 1987), The Knight's Tale. All line references to the Knight's Tale will be given in text, preceded by the initials "KT".
  4. Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales (Oxford: OUP, 1989), p. 101.
  5. Cooper, p. 101.
  6. Cooper, p. 99.
  7. Robert Miller, "The Miller's Tale as a Complaint," Chaucer Review, 5 (1970), p. 147-160. This from p. 150.
  8. Derek Pearsall, "The Canterbury Tales II: Comedy," In Piero Boitani and Jill Mann (eds), The Cambridge Chaucer Companion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 125-142. This from, p. 131.
  9. Cooper, 99.
  10. Pearsall, p. 129.

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