ENGL 325: Chaucer

This essay was written on May 3rd, 2018 for ENGL 325: Chaucer, taught by Dr. Edward Risden. This essay takes a look at the three best essays from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” I chose to write about “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Franklin’s Tale” as I found each of these stories to be significant. Each tale includes memorable motifs and courteous characters that prove them each to be notable and unforgettable.

The Three Finest Tales

The pilgrimage to Canterbury has just begun. In order to pass the time for the long journey ahead, each traveler tells their tale. With characters such as the Cook, the Reeve, and the Wife of Bath, it can be assumed that there will be some very interesting and memorable stories to be shared. As someone who is responsible for declaring the three best stories told while on the way to Canterbury, it is important to listen and understand each person’s tale. For instance, the Cook told such an awful tale that he was not allowed to even finish telling it. As the pilgrimage to Canterbury comes to a close, it is decided that the Knight, the Miller, and the Franklin all told the finest stories along the way. The Knight, a respectable noble, had a tale that was well-received because it displayed traits of traditional knightly honor and chivalry. The Miller’s Tale was appreciated due to the elements of satirical nature. The Franklin’s Tale was favored as it included a conflict that ended up ending happily for everyone involved. Because these three tales all include memorable motifs and courteous characters, they are classified as Chaucer’s best stories within The Canterbury Tales.

Due to his high class rank and nobility, the Knight was able to start off the telling of the tales on the way to Canterbury. His tale was highly favorable in that it addressed traditional knightly honor and chivalry. Classical romance tales were also highly enjoyed as they were stories that included elements of love but were majorly based on adventure. The travelers would have looked up to the Knight as well as his characters within his tale. Arcite and Palamon, although conflict with each other within the tale, both exemplify what it means to be a noble knight. This is seen as they assist each other in properly suiting up for the battle for Emelye. Despite the fact that they are enemies about to battle for their potential maiden, they made sure their opponent was properly suited up. This demonstrates nobility, a main characteristic in a knight. This gracious gesture would have been admired by those taking on the pilgrimage. 

Emelye is another character to whom of which would have been looked up to by the audience on their journey. Although she is a character that has no say in her destiny, she does pray to Diana, the goddess of chastity, pleading that Palamon and Arcite do not continue with their battle. Emelye knows that because she does not love Aricte nor Palamon. “Chaste goddesse, wel wostow that I / Desire to ben a mayden al my lyf, / Ne nevere wold I be no love ne wyf” (1446-1448). Here, she admits that she would not make a loving wife to either of these men because she has no say in who she is going to end up with anyways. Emelye is admired for her bravery and her respect for Arcite and Palamon even though she does not want to get married. She accepts her fate, despite her wishes to remain single, and continues to live her life as told by other people. Because of her bravery and aim to please others, she encompasses what it means to be a noblewoman. Many on the pilgrimage would have found her an admirable woman.

Those on the pilgrimage looked up to the Knight because of his sense of pride. Within his tale, the ideals of being noble and proud are seen through Arcite’s and Palamon’s knightley characteristics. Although within the end, Arcite ends up dying, but passing with pride because of his chivalrous morals.  

And certeinly a man hath moost honour 

To dyen in his excellence and flour,

When he is siker of his goode name;

Thanne hath he doon his freend, ne hym, no shame.

And gladder oghte his freend been of his deeth,

Whan with honour up yolden is his breeth,

Than whan his name appalled is for age,

For al forgeten is his vassellage. 

Thanne is it best, as for a worthy fame,

To dyen whan that he is best of name. (3047-3056)

The audience traveling to Canterbury respects this as it sets up a clear idea on the morals believed by the Knight. This passage clarifies the importance of obtaining honor through one’s accomplishments as well as being a good, noble human. This is seen through Aricte as he passes away in the end of the story. Although he did not win Emelye in the battle, he still died with honor as he ended his life continuing to have respect for Polaman’s and Emelye’s newly found marriage. Polaman may have won the fair maiden in the end, he still held the utmost respect for Arcite. Their abilities to be respectful in spite of their rivalry made them admirable to the passengers on the pilgrimage. 

Satire was another favorable literary element within a story while traveling to Canterbury. Classified as a fabliau, the Miller’s Tale is considered one of the finest stories told on the pilgrimage. In order to understand the context of the Miller’s Tale, it must be known that the Miller and the Reeve had a rift between them. The Reeve had told a terribly offensive story that threatened the daughter and the wife of the Miller. Although the Miller could have responded in a similar offensive fashion, he chose to instead, tell a satirical tale about a carpenter. Because of his response to the Reeve, the Miller has already proved that he is more mature and appropriate than his enemy. His ability to take the high road and tell a lighthearted story to the passengers in the pilgrimage was appreciated and looked fondly upon by his audience. This shows that the Miller’s Tale, despite the clash between himself and the Reeve, was able to tell a story that was entertaining and enjoyable for everyone. 

Bringing elements of satire to an exhausting trip was much appreciated by those encompassed in this journey. After Nicholas and Alisoun had become successful in their affair, the story is enlightened by an instance that would have brought laughter throughout the crowd. Within denouement of his tale, all events go awry. Absolon plants a kiss upon the rump of Alisoun, John falls from the rafters of his barn, and Nicholas performs an act that would have resulted in laughter from the crowd: 

This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart

As greet as it had been a thonder dent, 

And he was redy with his iren hoot, 

And Nicholas amydde [the] ers he smoot. (3806-3810)

Chaucer added a twist to the Miller’s Tale in having Nicholas pass gas would have resulted in a burst of laughter from those on the pilgrimage. This lighthearted element would have been very entertaining to those involved in this journey. The Miller chose to include this as he understands it shows the importance in that not every story needs to be one that deeply questions the moral agenda of the audience.

As a poor, young scholar, the Miller’s audience would have quickly become infatuated with Nicholas. Although he did successfully encourage Alisoun to be unfaithful to her husband, he works in ways that are entertaining to an audience. There is a glimpse of this in the beginning when he convinced John that he was an astrologer and a fortune-teller. Due to John’s gullible nature, he of course believed him. Nicholas is also a witty character as seen in the last bit of the tale. He is excited to help Alisoun prank Absolon and sticks his rump out the window as well as her. This goofy element included in this tale would have also been appreciated by the travelers. While yes, Nicholas does cause conflict in the marriage between Alisoun and John, he does it in a way that is appreciated because of his humor rather than looked down upon as he is not portrayed as mischievous. 

Many stories that are shared throughout the pilgrimage contain conflicts that often are not resolved to the character’s favor. For instance, the Monk’s Tale tells the story of a tragedy that acknowledges a downfall to which is unable to be recovered. However, the Franklin’s Tale is one that brings hope back into the mind’s of the travelers. Classified as a breton lai, this tale perfectly exemplifies true characteristics of love and chivalry as displayed through the relationship between Dorigen and Arveragus. Their love for each other is so strong in that after she had confessed her promise she had made to Arrelious, Arveragus had responded calmly and was not as hurt as most others would be in this situation. 

Arveragus and Dorigene his wyf

In sovereyn blisse lenden forth hir lyf

Nevere eft ne was ther angre hem bitwene. 

He cherisseth hire as though she were a queene,

And she was to hym trewe for everemoore. (1551-1555)

Even though Dorigen had broken the promise that she were to be faithful to Arveragus while he was away, he is practicing forgiveness as he continues to love and worship her as his wife. Unlike the Manciple’s Tale which resulted in Phoebus killing his wife after she was unfaithful to him, Arveragus was extremely forgiving and understanding of Dorigen’s actions while he was away. The travelers would have appreciated this as it restores their faith in love as the story results in Arveragus and Dorigen living happily ever after. Averagus is admired as he displays acts of forgiveness and acts of true love for his wife. 

The travelers also regained their faith in humanity through the kind and generous acts displayed by the student-magician. After the magician had done Arrelious a big favor for a hefty price, he had come to learn that it did not go as planned. The magician felt badly that after all of his efforts, Arrelious still did not win over the woman of his dreams. Although there was a hefty price to be paid, the magician understood his unfortunate circumstance and said to him:

Sire, I releesse thee thy thousand pound,

As thou right now were cropen out of the ground,

Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me.

For, sire, I wol nat taken a peny of thee

For al my craft, ne noght for my travaille.

Thou hast ypayed wel for my vitaille.

It is ynogh, and farewel, have good day!

The magician was understanding of Arrelious’ situation as he did not make him pay for his craft or his labor. He just told him to “have good day” and send Arrelious on his merry way. The travelers on the pilgrimage took a large liking to this story as it displays humble acts of kindness. It shows them that not every story needs to result in a large dispute between two characters. This story teaches the travelers the importance of forgiveness and understanding as portrayed through the magician.

The great debate on which stories told on the Canterbury pilgrimage can be solved in looking at the messages they send to their audience as well as how favorable the characters are. The Knight’s Tale was highly favorable as it preached the importance of being noble. Noble, a characteristic that was highly admirable, was displayed through Arcite and Palamon despite the conflicts between them. Emelye, also to be considered a noblewoman, is admired by many. The Miller’s Tale, though different than the Knight’s Tale, was highly liked in that it brought elements of satire to the journey. Listeners appreciated the Miller’s ability to tell a story that was lighthearted yet, still takes a jab at the Reeve. The story that holds a special place in the hearts of the travelers was the Franklin’s tale. This tale restored their faith in humanity as it teaches the importance of forgiveness and kindness. This is exemplified through Arveragus as he forgives Dorigen for being unfaithful which proves that true love is alive between their relationship. The student-magician also displays humility as he is understanding of Arrelious’ unfortunate situation. The combination of these three tales brought lighthearted entertainment to the long journey to Canterbury. As these tales are continued to be told, readers throughout the years are able to hear stories that include plot in which results in a favorable ending as well as learn about characters that practice good morals. These three tales, although not connected, all come together to provide positive motifs for the passengers on their long journey to Canterbury. 

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales A Selection. Ed. by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, second ed., Broadview Editions, 2013.

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