The Reading Room

A Proposition Critiqued: The Miller’s Tale

An earlier post explored the rigorous ‘dialogue’ elicited by the Knight’s Tale between the other pilgrims. The Miller is the first to push back, using a two-pronged attack against the ideas of high philosophy and courtly romance in his own Tale in the form of two of its principal characters: Absolon and Nicholas.
The Miller is the first to push back against the ideas of high philosophy and courtly romance outlined in the Knight's Tale, particularly through two of his own tale's principal characters: Absolon and Nicholas.
Absolon represents in many ways the earlier tradition of love poetry from which the medieval courtly romance stemmed, a tradition going as far back in the Latin West as the love poems of Ovid and Horace. Just as Ovid advises in his Ars Amatoria [The Art of Love], “Fro day to day this joly Absolon / So woweth hire that hym is wo bigon. / He waketh al the nyght and al the day; / He kembeth [combs] his lokkes brode [broad locks of hair], and made hym gay [them cheerful]; / He woweth hire by meenes and brocage [go-betweens and agents], / And swoor he wolde been hir owene page / He syngeth, brokkynge as a nyghtyngale” (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales Fragment A, 3371-3377). All of these are tell-tale acts of the love poet, the user/acceptor of Ovid’s advice. Yet in the Miller’s Tale, and in the light of the high romance which has just preceded, Absolon’s attempts at wooing a married woman appear downright pathetic. He is little more than a dandy, a “myrie child”, well-skilled in the ways of hygeine and charters, in dance and playing songs, in drinking and incensing “the wyves of the parisshe faste / and many a lovely look on [t]hem he caste” (3325-3342), but incapable of much else. Alison, the woman he attempts to woo, finally lets him kiss her, only for him to find out that it is most certainly not her lips which he is kissing in the dark of night. Sent packing and scrubbing his lips in horror with anything he can find (sand, dust, straw, cloth, woodchips) (3747-8), Absolon’s only material reward for his efforts is a chance at revenge by later stabbing Nicholas, the man Alison has been cheating on her husband with, in the behind with a red-hot fire-poker.
And this is itself one of the most explicit critiques the Miller offers of the Knight’s Tale. Where in the first tale two rival men contested for the hand of a maiden, she is now a married woman. Where once the rivals were noble knights, moved by their passions but always remembering their code of chivalry, we have one man who is a blatant paramour and one who manipulates his host and courts his wife. The noble contest for love on the field of a tournament has been replaced by sex jokes and dirty tricks in the dead of night. Little could be more different than these two tales of rival lovers. Little could be more different than their methods of courtship and yearning for they woman they love. The high courtly romance has thus been lowered to bodily seduction and adultery.
Nicholas’ cunning and trickery is itself the Miller’s other criticism of the Knight’s Tale, for he was a “poure scoler” of Oxford, and, besides his courses at the university in logic, “al his fantasye / was turned for to lerne astrologye” (3190-2). Where the Knight’s Tale had the pagan gods, the actual stars, influencing events on earth and granting blessings, the Miller has brought the story low, brought this element of fate to a mere predictor of fate, a cunning manipulator of the foolish. The reverence the Knight gives to the stars and to the high learning of those like Boethius who have studied their motions and accepted the consequences is thus put into serious question as the Miller lays out exactly how easily this knowledge can be abused. Nicholas, desiring to sleep with his host’s wife, manages to convince his host that he has seen in the stars the coming of another flood like the flood of Noah. He urges his host, a carpenter, to set about making three lifeboats at once, and when he, exhausted from his hasty labor, collapses into a deep sleep, Nicholas gets his wish. Just as the sentiment of high romance was put into question with Absolon, so too is the sentiment of high learning and philosophy which underlies the Knight’s Tale put into question with Nicholas, both men in their own way pursuing these lofty ideals of love and philosophy, but using these very things which the Knight upholds to seek after their own base desires instead.
For all this debasement, however, the Miller's Tale still retains something of the Knight’s sense of justice, if a weakened, twisted form of it; both would-be lovers receive somewhat of a punishment for their actions: Nicholas receives a hot poker in his behind , and Absolom gets to kiss Alison—just not where he would have preferred.  Absolon at least learned his lesson from the the affair, “For fro that tyme that he hadde kist hir ers, / Of paramours he sette nat a kers, / For he was heeled of his maladie. / Ful ofte paramours he gan deffie, / And weep as dooth a child that is ybete” (3755-59). Despite the general low debauchery to which the Miller has dragged his own rendition of the Knight’s Tale, then, there is still in it a sense of justice, and a sense both of caution in the face of these high ideals of the Knight, and an understanding of what the execution of these ideals by fallen humans tends to look like. What appears to be only the amusing ramblings of a drunkard on the surface, then, proves to contain a much more thorough critique beneath, “For,” the Miller seems to be asking, “what good are these high ideals of love and philosophy to the actual, living man?” And so the debate rages on.