First of all, the Pardoner sets the scene of his tale. Once upon a time in Flanders there was a group of young people who gave themselves up to debauchery and to gambling. They frequented brothels and taverns, where they danced to music and played at dice at all hours of day and night and where their excessive eating and drinking in that devil’s temple they worshipped the devil himself. All the time they swore great and wicked oaths on the different parts of Christ’s body, as if they were themselves tearing Christ’s body to pieces over and over again, and as if they thought the Jews had not torn him enough.They were amused by each other’s sins. All the dancing girls, market-girls, singers, prostitutes, and sweet-sellers who came into that place were really working for the devil, to draw the revellers into lechery, which is part of gluttony.
The pardoner now claims inaccurately that the Bible supports him in saying that sexual sin is linked with drunkenness.The reader cannot reach The Pardoner’s Tale itself without seeing it as intimately connected with the character and purposes of its teller. The opening scene of debauchery in the tavern links back to the theme of the Pardoner’s own drinking. Indeed, he mentions having just had a drink of ale at the end of his prologue.
It could be seen that the Pardoner is in fact telling his tale – with its preaching against drunkenness – inside the tavern where he has had his drink. There is no explicit reference in the poem to support this, and the last line of the tale (‘Anon they kiste, and riden forth hir weye’) could be taken to mean the pilgrims have been on horseback throughout the tale. Chaucer does tend to forget the setting of the tale telling in the Canterbury Tales, except when this is particularly significant.If a tavern setting were to be imagined for the Pardoner’s performance, Chaucer would probably have mentioned it.
In any case, the preaching against drunkenness is only part of the tale, not the whole. The Pardoner’s stop at an inn before he tells his tale is probably enough to suggest his own involvement with the world of taverns. Even in his drunkenness, there is the hint of extravagant performance and boasting:’Nay, I wol drinke licour of the vine,And have a joly wenche in every toun.’His drinking is associated with his sexual boasting, and this at least we know must be an empty boast.
Within the Pardoner’s tale itself, approximately the first third is taken up by the Pardoner’s examples of his preaching against those sins of the tavern scene with which he opened. It is only after his preaching that he returns to his narrative of the search for Death. This is the example of that short and memorable tale which he has already said is most effective in preaching to ignorant audiences. The story of the three revellers is consequently being used for the Pardoner’s purpose, in order to give tangible narrative form to the dangers of the sins that he attacks, particularly avarice.
Thus, when the modern reader eventually reaches the story of the three revellers, his way of reading should have been shaped by the moralising viewpoint of the earlier part of the tale. The characters of the revellers and the other minor characters then take on a symbolic, emblematic significance. For it is the method of the preaching introduction to the tale to see the universe in terms of moral examples. The lives of characters in the past are recalled because of the moral lesson that can be extracted from their fate.
The arguments against the sins are the performance of a skilful exercise, which shows the Pardoner completely in control of his material, but also in control of its emotional effects on the listener. Notice how the Pardoner interrupts the strict course of his argument to lay hold on his listeners’ feelings. He does this with a liberal use of exclamations. He exclaims against the sins, their various effects, and also against the sinners.
The alteration of teaching and exclamation is an insidious feature of the Pardoner’s methods of persuasion. For the exclamatory passages help to enlist the listener’s emotions in agreement with the preacher and so make his teachings seem more inevitably right.Who would not agree with the Pardoner as he exclaims against these sins? For there is no disagreeing with the terms in which he condemns them. And he well knows the effectiveness of repetition.
In his methods, the Pardoner is making use of traditional features of medieval preaching. It was an art in which the accumulation of example was a stylistic strength. For the audience of a medieval sermon favoured a weight of ‘authorities’ behind the precepts conveyed by the sermon. As we would expect, the Pardoner employs the traditional manner, although more slickly than most contemporary preachers.
He accumulates a body of examples for each type of sin. He introduces quotations from St Paul to support his teaching:’Of this matiere, o Paul, wel kanstow trete:’Mete unto wombe, and wombe eek unto mete,Shal God destroyen bothe’, as Paulus seith.’He parades a knowledge of the Bible infinitely impressive to an ignorant audience.’And over al this, aviseth yow right welWhat was comaunded unto Lamuel-Not Samuel, but Lamuel, seye I;Redeth the Bible, and finde it expresly.
‘Who would argue with a man so in command of his Bible that he can warn his hearers against misunderstandings? The Pardoner’s confidence in his methods is well founded. It is an impressive performance, which proves the correct moral conclusions. It becomes even more impressive, in a different way, as the Canterbury pilgrims watch a thoroughly evil man proving the right moral conclusions, which still have no effect on him.The form is the Pardoner’s preaching, then, is authentic, and this guides the reader’s response to his ‘exemplum’ of the attempt to kill death. But the sins attacked by the Pardoner can all be seen to be grimly relevant to the story of the three revellers. The structural pattern of the three sins underlies the story itself.
The last sin of the Pardoner’s sermon – blasphemy – provides the first turning point of the story. Those who blaspheme by swearing casually on the parts of Christ’s body are wickedly associating the name and character of God with their own degraded and trivial circumstances. Only somebody indifferent to the power of language could blaspheme, because he would be unable to appreciate the terror of what he was saying. The word became divorced from its reality.
In the Pardoner’s tale, the three revellers are also unable to link the word ‘death’ with any reality they already know. This is wonderfully done by Chaucer, when he makes his three revellers misunderstand the child. The child thinks of death as the traditional personification of much medieval art, who takes his victims by surprise and strikes them with his spear:’Ther can a privee theef men clepeth Deeth,That in this contree al the peple sleeth,And with his spere he smoot his herte atwo,And wente his wey withouten wordes no’And when the inn keeper supports the story of the child, he similarly uses figurative language, which attributes to the confusion of the revellers. He tells them that death has destroyed the inhabitants of a nearby village and adds:’I trowe his habitacioun be there’This habit of personifying an abstract idea like death is beyond the drunken revellers’ understanding and they assume a personification must be a person.
‘Deeth shal be deed, if that they may him hente!’The revellers are the victims of a terrible literalism. The evils of drink must be partly to blame in clouding their understanding. But their incessant blasphemous oaths also show they are blind to anything but the literal and material appearance of things.It is Chaucer’s achievement that he creates such a balance between the specific and realistic, and the general, that the events of the story seem both vividly particular and infinitely symbolic.
The scene in the tavern illustrates this balance. It is striking that the three revellers are never given names, even though this is sometimes awkward. Their namelessness seems part of Chaucer’s plan – it gives the story a more general tone. Similarly, the revellers ask the child to find out the corpse’s name, and although he already knows before they ask him, he does not tell them the name. This is part of the mysterious quality of the scene. Yet, on the other hand, there is something very real and vivid in the noise of the funeral bell clanging through the street. By contrast, the child’s speech about death is so universally applicable, so solemnly general, that it seems more than any child would say about death.
Chaucer has prepared the way in the tale so efficiently that its characters can seem to have a symbolic, emblematic identity. On the other hand, there is nothing more natural and human than the way the innkeeper interrupts to support what the child has said:’By seinter Marie’, seyde this taverner.The child seith sooth..’It is by this alteration of the concrete and the mysterious that the tale’s style gives the work as a whole a both vivid and haunting impression.