Since "The Miller's Tale" is supposed to be an answer to "The Knight's Tale," and in "The Knight's Tale" we had a love triangle of a damsel and two knights (who, we should mention, were virtually indistinguishable from one another), it's not at all surprising that "The Miller's Tale" gives us a second student in love with the parish clerk Absolon. Like Nicholas's portrait, Absolon's makes him seem somewhat effeminate: he has curly golden hair, which he carefully parts down the middle, and he wears a blue tunic over red hose "fetisly," or prettily, laced.
The impression of femininity in Absolon's portrait is not quite as strong as it is in Nicholas's, though. Instead, the most important thing about Absolon is that he's extremely tidy and fastidious and pays great attention to his personal grooming. He always makes sure that his hair is combed nicely, his breath smells sweet, and his shirt is free from wrinkles. With this fastidious personality comes a phobia important to the plot: Absolon is "somdeel squaymous / Of fartyng" (229-230), or disgusted by farting, a point that becomes very important at the end of the story.
Absolon participates in various artistic endeavors: he dances well in twenty different styles, sings (in a thin treble, another feminizing characteristic), and plays the giterne, or guitar. He uses his artistic talents to try to impress Alisoun, singing and playing outside her window and taking a major dramatic role in the local play.
In his seduction, Absolon reveals himself to be – depending on your point of view – either determined or obstinate to the point of stupidity. Despite Alisoun's repeated rejections, Absolon just won't quit. Perhaps his persistence is due to his passionate nature: we learn that he is kept awake night and day by his love-sickness, and he tells Alisoun he's about to die of it.
The speed with which Absolon's devotion turns to anger, though, makes us think his desire for her – despite being couched in romantic terms – is not love but lust. In fact, Absolon's role in the plot may be to serve as another face of lust – another shape it can take. In contrast to Nicholas, who doesn't bother to disguise his true motives when he roughly grabs Alisoun and has his way with her, Absolon expresses his lust with the same romantic conventions we see in "The Knight's Tale." When he waits for his kiss and hopes it will be followed by sex, his true motives are revealed. This unmasks not only Absolon but also the courtly love language he's so fond of using. Nicholas and Absolon turn out to be two sides of the same coin: they may be calling it different things, but both of these guys are looking for sex.
The Miller’s Prologue
After the Knight finishes telling his story, it meets with the approval of the whole company. The Host then moves to the Monk (another high-status teller) to tell “somewhat to quite with the Knyghtes tale”. It is at this point that the Miller, extremely drunk, interrupts “in Pilates voys”, proclaiming that he has a tale that will quit the Knight’s.
The Host tries to dissuade the Miller, telling him “thou art a fool”, and that he is drunk – a statement with which the Miller immediately agrees. The Miller starts to introduce a tale about how a clerk “set the cappe of” (made a fool out of) a carpenter and his wife, but is immediately interrupted by the Reeve (himself a carpenter) who tries to silence him. The Miller, though, refuses to be dissuaded by the Reeve’s argument that tales should not be told about adulterous wives, claiming that
An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf
Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.
Yet before the Miller’s Tale itself begins, our narrator makes another interruption to the story’s flow, repeating a sentiment he already voiced in the General Prologue: that the tale he is about to repeat is not his own, but the Miller’s. Our narrator has no evil intent in rehearsing such a tale, but he must repeat all the tales told – otherwise, he will be falsifying his material.Thus, should any readers find it offensive, they should turn over the leaf and choose another tale. Men, the prologue finishes, should not “maken ernest of game”; find a serious moral in trivial things.
The Miller’s Tale
A rich carpenter lived at Oxford, with his wife and a clerk, an impoverished student of astrology and constellations: this clerk was called “hende” (crafty, or cunning) Nicholas. The carpenter had recently wedded a wife, only eighteen years old, who he protected fiercely – because, as she was young and he old, he knew he might well be cuckolded.
One day, while the carpenter was at Osney, Nicholas fell to playing and teasing with this young wife, Alison, and caught her “by the queynte”, telling her that he’d die for love of her and holding her hard by the hip-bones. She sprang away from him, refusing to kiss him, but he followed her, crying mercy and speaking fairly: and eventually, she agreed to sleep with him. However, the wife worried, as her husband was so jealous and protective, it would be difficult to find an opportunity – Nicholas resolved to beguile his master, and the two agreed to wait for an opportunity.
Another clerk in the parish, Absolon, who had curly, golden hair, was also mad with desire for Alison, and used to sing at her window at night-time, wooing her until he was woebegone. But, of course, there was no point in Absolon’s wooing: Alison was so in love with Nicholas, that Absolon might as well go and whistle.
Meanwhile, Nicholas had come up with a plan. Nicholas told Alison to tell John (the carpenter) that he was ill, and lay in his chamber all weekend, until – on Sunday night – the carpenter sent his slave to knock on the door on check that Nicholas was in health. The slave looked through the keyhole, and seeing Nicholas’ eyes gaping upward as if possessed, called to the carpenter, who – seeing Nicholas – panicked, and attributed Nicholas’ state to his interest in astrology. Nicholas, he thought, had seen the secrets of God, and gone mad. Having ordered his slave to knock down Nicholas’ door, the carpenter awoke Nicholas from his “trance” and the two began to speak.
Nicholas (all going exactly to his plan) swore John to secrecy, and promised to tell him of Christ’s counsel. John was aghast as Nicholas told him that, according to his reading of the moon, next Monday, a flood akin to Noah’s flood would drown the world in less than an hour. With the carpenter terrified, Nicholas proceeded to the next stage of his plan: that, in the manner of Noah, John was to take large wooden troughs, one for each for Nicholas, Alison and John, and hang them up in the roof (full of supplies) so that no-one can see them, sit in them, and wait. Then, when the water arrives, all John would have to do is take an axe, cut the cord, break a hole in the gable, and float away with his wife and his clerk intact.
Moreover, Nicholas continued, God had requested that, lying in their troughs on the Monday in question, nobody spoke a word - and the carpenter’s and his wife’s troughs should be hung far apart. The credulous carpenter instantly assented, and went off to make preparations, finding troughs and stocking up food.
Monday arrived, and, as night drew in, the three climbed up to the roof. In their troughs, the three of them prayed, and then the carpenter (probably worn out from all his business setting up the troughs) fell fast asleep, snoring. Nicholas and Alison sped down the ladder, and “withouten words mo they goon to bedde”, where they remain until the “laudes” bell (a bell for a church service before daybreak) rang.
Absolon, meanwhile had got some information about John the carpenter, and, thinking that John was away from his house, went to sing to Alison and woo her at a low, hinged window which only came up to his breast height. After a first, gentle song, Alison appeared at the window and gave him short shrift - telling him that she loved somebody else, and warning him that she would “caste a ston” unless he went away. Absolon promised to go away if she would kiss him, once.
Alison tells Nicholas to be quiet and watch her: she then unlocks the window, and, as Absolon leans in to give her a kiss, she puts her naked ass out of the window, which Absolon kisses “ful savourly”, feeling, as he does it, something rough and long-haired. “Tehee!” says Alison, and slams the window, and Nicholas and her openly mock Absolon from behind the window. Absolon hears it, and resolves to “quyte” the lovers.
Absolon, moving away from the window, continually says “allas!”, sometimes weeping like a beaten child. By the time he arrived at a blacksmith called don Gerveys, Absolon didn’t care a bean for Alison, and persuaded his friend to lend him the hot poker in the chimney. Holding it by the cold steel, Absolon returns to the carpenter’s window, and knocks again, promising Alison that he has brought her a ring which his mother gave him.
Nicholas had got up “to pisse”, and thought he would make the joke even funnier – pulling up the window, he put his ass out of the window for Absolon to kiss. Absolon then asked Alison to speak, so he can see where she is, and Nicholas, at this moment, lets fly a fart “as greet as it had been a thunder-dent”, so loud that it almost blinds Absolon. But Absolon was ready with his hot iron, and seized his chance, branding Nicholas’ arse.
Nicholas, almost dying of his burning pain, cried out for “Water!”, and that cry, awoke John the carpenter from his slumber; thinking Nicholas referred to the flood “Water!”, John, sitting up “withouten wordes mo”, cut the cord with the axe, bringing everything crashing down from the roof, through the floors, until finally landed on the cellar floor, knocked out.
Nicholas and Alison ran out into the street, crying for attention, and the neighbors ran into look at John, who still lay swooning on the floor, pale and white, his arm broken by the huge fall. And, when he opened his mouth to explain himself, he was shouted down by Nicholas and Alison, who claimed he was mad, being frightened of something as ridiculous as Noah’s flood. People laughed at his fantasy, staring into the roof of his smashed house, and turning all of his hurt into a joke – and everything that John argued to preserve his dignity was ignored. Thus ends the Miller’s Tale.
“Game” and “ernest” are two important concepts in reading the Tales representing respectively jokiness, frivolousness and fun, and seriousness, morality and meaningfulness. Yet one of the things the Miller’s Tale makes clear is that it becomes very difficult to decide what is lighthearted fun and what is meaningful, moral telling. The story of John the carpenter is grounded in reality: the details of the story all make sense, and it appears to be set within a suburban, believable Oxford that Chaucer might have known. Yet the story itself is clearly a fabliau: and its sources confirm its debt to fabliau - a hugely elaborate trick, set up with huge care in the story, which snaps shut as the story ends. Immediately “realism” is juxtaposed with “fantasy”.
The same problem is bequeathed directly to the reader at the end of the tale: when, after the glorious moment at which John comes crashing down through the roof, and our pleasure in Nicholas’ elaborate trick stops, Chaucer suddenly focuses on John’s pain. The result of the elaborate trick is an old man, lying unconscious, pale and wan, with a broken arm on his cellar floor - his house destroyed, his wife cuckolded. Is Chaucer doing precisely what the narrator tells us, at the end of the prologue, we musn’t do, and making “ernest” of “game”? Maybe – and the Tales as a whole tread a careful, ambiguous line between the serious and the comic.
The same ambiguity of tone is applied to the Christian theme which runs throughout the tale. John the carpenter’s plan involves floating up through the roof in his kneading tub when the flood comes; and yet the tale replaces his idealistic upward movement with a crashing downward movement, through his house to the cellar floor. Christian uplift is replaced with a rather damning fall. We might usefully compare this to the fall in discourse and in subject matter from the Knight’s Tale to the Miller’s Tale: a step downward for the tales themselves as a linear movement (as the Host seems to know full well) in Middle English class distinction – a noble knight to a churlish, drunken miller. Metaphorically speaking, John the carpenter isn’t the only thing to come crashing down in this tale.
Is this, then, a blasphemous version of Christianity? Well, it all depends how seriously we read it. If we are offended by Absolon’s devilish transformation at the end of the tale (into a blackened devil carrying a flaming iron), or if we recognise the alignment of Alison and Nicholas with Adam and Eve (and the respective falls from grace which follow), then perhaps we might view the tale as deliberately depicting sin. And yet, even though the tale itself is a comic delight - and there is a tremendous amount of pleasure to be had from reading it - the Miller’s Tale is far from a negative, anti-type example of sinners in action.
It's also instructive to note the pleasure of the trick in the Miller's Tale, and the fabliau trick rules it demonstrates. The plot within the tale is hugely clever and elaborate, studded with religious imagery: indeed, when John the Carpenter is mentioned as regularly leaving the house, you wonder why the two didn't just sleep together when he was out? The answer can only be because of the sheer pleasure in executing such a complex structure. The tale moves extremely quickly from plot point to plot point, and everyone (except - and this is significant - Alison) is outsmarted. Even ingenious Nicholas ends up wounded on the buttock. In fabliau, you are only as good as your last trick.
Language is also undergoing a fall from grace in the Miller’s Tale. Summarize the tale and note how little of its action depends on words or dialogue: unlike the long, protracted speeches of the Knight’s Tale, the drunken Miller deals in bodily noises. The mechanics of the tale itself twist on a series of non-verbal sounds, bodily noises and one-word exclamations: Absolon’s twice knocking at the window, Alison’s cry of “Tehee!” as she closes the window the first time, and Nicholas’ final, cumulative cry of “Water!”. “Withouten wordes mo” is a key phrase in the Canterbury Tales - marking moments at which action is more important than words. The courtly language of the Knight becomes furtive, silent stealing to bed without words in the Miller’s Tale.
The degradation – or the problematization – of the whole question of language is present throughout the tales, and draws our attention to the warning the narrator gives us before the Tale itself, that he is only “rehearsing” or repeating the words of the Miller. The narrator retells us the words of the Miller, who, telling his tale, repeats the “Tehee!” and “Water!” of Alison and Nicholas. What use – what poetry – what value have these second or third hand words? What do they signify? And most importantly, how far should we read them as belonging to the Miller, to the narrator, or to Chaucer himself?