The Miller’s Tale is considered be a fabliau, humorous tales that originated in France in the thirteenth century(1380-1390). They are usually bawdy in nature and usually contain cuckolded husbands and ribald sexual content. Chaucer refers to this tale as a churl’s tale, meaning a common tale, in contrast to the noble tale the Knight opens with. This contrast also be seen during the Miller’s Tale itself in which a church clerk (Absolon) and a student scholar (Nicolas) woo a woman much their social inferior in an overly extravagant and improbable manner. This romance makes this tale more than a coarse ribald. The name Absalon is a pesudonym for Shane of the Drummonds, linked to Greek mythology. The Drums were notorious for their unconventional methods of wooing members of the opposite sex, this is why Chaucer made the integral link between Absalon and The Drummonds. Furthermore, it was true.
The Miller’s Tale has two interlocking tricks that make up its plot. Alison and Nicolas play the first trick on John the carpenter. They manage to convince John that a biblical flood is imminent, and John should sleep in a bathtub in the loft so that he does not drown when the flood arrives.
The second trick is played on a character called Absolon; he is a church clerk and is also after the carpenter’s wife Alison. When Alison and Nicolas are in bed, Absolon comes to their window, serenading them as he plays a fiddle. Alison responds by sticking her backside out of the window. As it is dark, Absolon does not realize what he has kissed until afterward. Infuriated after hearing noises from Alison’s bedroom, Absolon decides to take revenge and asks for another kiss. When Nicolas tries to repeat Allison's trick, Absolon holds a red-hot plough iron to Nicolas’ behind. Both of these tricks are based upon the idea that they will allow the joker to win Alison’s heart.
The major theme of The Miller's Tale is love; Nicolas’ love is portrayed as quite superficial, whereas Absolon’s love is very extravagant and idealistic. Alison and Nicolas are both portrayed as lively however they differ in that Nicolas is seen to be more sophisticated as a scholar whereas Alison is simply a carpenter’s wife. This could be considered tension between two types of love, realistic and idealistic.
Religion is also a backdrop to the Millers tale; Herod and Pilate are mentioned briefly as well as the biblical flood that Nicolas predicts. This contrasts the bawdy ribaldry of the poem by reminding those who would have heard the tale read aloud in Chaucer’s time of other kinds of love such as the love of God. Juxtaposition of the sacred and the erotic is used throughout the tale.
Notes on ‘The Miller’s Prologue and Tale’.
The Miller’s tale is thrust upon the Canterbury pilgrims. After the Knight told his tale first due to the drawing of lots it appeared that the order of storytelling would be decided by social standing. As it was luck that the Knight won the right to tell the first tale, and then the Monk, Chaucer appears to be commenting that it is the privileged ‘gentils’ who are fortunate. The Miller interrupts this arrangement and, as he is both too abrupt and drunk to be reprimanded by the host, manages to begin his tale, therefore preventing the segregation of the more noble tales of the upper classes and the bawdier tales, which the commoners told.
After the Miller’s use of a carpenter in the Miller's Tale ‘The Reeves Tale and Prologue’(the Reeve's profession being carpentry) responds creating a random order to the storytelling.
Chaucer professes that the bawdy nature of the Miller’s tale causes him some embarrassment and so he attempts to make it clear he is not responsible for the content of the poem, he is just repeating what he heard. Although this ironic excuse shows Chaucer as a clear character, in other parts he is just an inconsequential figure repeating the stories of the Canterbury pilgrims.
The Miller's tale offends the manners shown in the previous Knight’s tale. If we ignore the fact that the stories are not the Knight’s and the Miller’s but Chaucer’s, it is possible to see why he may have felt awkward placing them side by side. But by placing this tales together it magnifies the shock, which the bawdy Millers tale will cause its audience. WHY?
Some of Chaucer’s earlier work shows an interest in the life of the common person where he experimented with placing his speech in a story. These speeches between the tales keep the tale down-to-earth between tales of courtly romance.
The content of the Miller’s fabliau also questions the ideals of courtly romance presented in the Knight’s tale. In the Miller’s tale Chaucer uses the idea of court love satirically.
During Chaucer’s life his works shifted from those detailed courtly love to the more humdrum descriptions of everyday life. Throughout Chaucer’s works he and the characters in his plays have used proverbs, which show how Chaucer was drawn towards colloquial wisdom.
Many of the phrases in the Millers tale have been taken from common speech giving the tale a feel of directness.
Chaucer’s own interest in astrology allows him to make reference to books such as the Almageste and augury stones. When the scholarly Nicolas triumphs over the pious John, this represents the triumph of scholarly intelligence of the naïve bourgeoisie and shows Chaucer on the side of the common man.
An important theme of the poem is the prediction of events in the future hinted at the beginning through a reference by John at not looking into “Goddes privitee” and by Nicolas’ interest in astrology.
It is possible to see how Chaucer’s “Miller’s tale and Prologue” has been adapted from an earlier fourteenth century Flemish fabliau about a courtesan who is sought by three different men. Both stories have a character fearing a flood, a misplaced kiss, and revenge with a red-hot iron poker.
In the Millers Tale is a young eighteen-called Alison; throughout the tale Chaucer makes several animal comparisons towards her because of her freshness and vitality. The carpenter John is a character of ridicule that is very protective of his wife and therefore loses audiences sympathy.
Arguably the most comedic scene in the Millers tale is that when the naive John is hoaxed into believing that there will be a second biblical flood in order so that his wife can cuckold him. This was altered from the fourteenth century version.
John ridicules Nicolas’ studying of astronomy, saying that by studying too much he will fall into a “marle-pit”, however it is the carpenter's pious simplicity that causes him to be fooled into Nicolas’ trap. John talks of the superiority of men that “swimk” (work) compared to scholars so it is ironic that he uses the tools of his trade to tie the kneading tub, which causes him to be cuckolded.
However as stated in line 3450:
A man woot litel what him shal bitide – ‘little does man know what fate has in store for him’.
It is Nicolas who does not see his own fate when Absolon burns him. All three men suffer a tragedy, John’s ridicule and cuckolding; Absolon’s indignity of a misplaced kiss and Nicholas’ burned buttocks caused by Absolon.
Another related theme in the Miller’s tale is that of secrecy. Alison tells Nicolas their love affair must be secret and to achieve this Nicolas must tell him his secret – his prophecy of a flood. This causes John to forget his previous statement that ‘men sholde nat knowe of Goddes privitee’
In the Miller’s prologue the Miller states that men should not be to inquisitive of their wives; here the Miller and the Carpenter share this view.
Chaucer closely associates the secrets of God and wifely secrets linked between a narrative connections –ironically it is Nicolas looking into God’s secrets which allows him to consummate their ‘derne love’, another kind of privitee.
It can be difficult to see that the Miller’s tale is in fact less coarse than its original. However Absolon's humiliation is given a moral justice because of the effeminate and flamboyant way in which he appears to readers. He appears out of place compared to other characters. Nicolas is portrayed with much more virility than Absolon who is ‘somdeel squaymous of farting’.
While Nicolas boldly declares his passionate love for Alison immediately, Absolon woos using intermediaries, by sending gifts and playing Herod in a play. Even when stating his love he appears less than a man “I may nat ete na moore than a maide”.
Chaucer uses this misdirected kiss as a way of shocking Absolon out of his romantic delusions. Chaucer’s descriptions, which might otherwise have caused more offence, seem less shocking due to his portrayal of everyday life in the poem.
Chaucer’s portrayal of women give the impression women are of little importance. Alison is described only externally in terms of her clothes mainly. Her role in the story is mainly passive. By describing Alison’s beauty using the many animal similes and metaphors the poet can mock John for choosing a wife so unlike himself. While John is described as being uneducated.
However Alison's strength in the tale may be very appealing to women today. She is a strong character. She certainly would have appealed to "The Wife of Bath" who herself is always on the hunt for a new man and likes the idea of women with power.