The Chaucerian Miller: Not the Typical Miller
Most people who have closely read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will remember the colorful pilgrims on their way to Canterbury: The courtly Knight, the controlling Host, and of course, the drunk, ignorant Miller and his vulgar tale - The Chaucerian Miller: Not the Typical Miller introduction. Or, is the Miller as drunk and/or ignorant as we are led to believe? The Host sure wants us to believe this when he comments that “Som bettre man shal telle vs first another [tale]” (22) once he sees that the Miller wants to follow the Knight’s tale. Another example of the Host’s attitude is when the Host sees that the Miller is determined to recite his tale, bitterly remarks, “…Tell on, a deuele wey / Thow art a fool. Thy wit is ouercome” (26-27). However, I believe that actually, Chaucer stands up for the common, working-class society, but does not make that claim explicitly. He wants us to reconsider the way we think about the Miller. However, the reason for doing this is a bit unclear to me.
We are first introduced to the Miller in the General Prologue to the Cantebury Tales, where he is described as a “stout carl” told that “He [is] a ianglere, a golyardeys, / And that [is] moost of synne and harlotryes” (561). We are told about his brute strength, so brute that he is able to tear down doors with his bear hand, or by head butting. Moreover, the wart on the tip of his nose puts the finishing touches Chaucer needs to convince any reader of the General Prologue that the Miller is an unsophisticated man, who has enjoyed the base aspects of life, and gets pleasure out of the more primitive things, such us his sinful, vulgar tales. In essence, we are set up to have certain, low expectations of the Miller, his intelligence, and his ability to conduct himself properly.
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With regard to the Miller’s conduct, Chaucer does not let his readers’ expectations down, as the Miller rudely interrupts the Host and stalwartly insists on being the next to tell a tale. When the Host courteously tries to persuade the Miller to wait for his turn, the Miller stubbornly replies “By Goddes soul…that wol nat I / For I wol speke or elles go my wey” (24-25). We see then, as a Andrew Moore put it, “the Miller is as metaphorically strong headed as he is physically” (Moore),
After a prima facie reading of the descriptive details, it is easy, and perhaps natural, to conclude that the Miller is the crude figure that we are being directed to view. However, upon closer readings, one is asked to reevaluate those conclusions and give the Miller more credit. First, the Host, the narrator, and the Miller himself tell us that he is extremely drunk. In fact, according to the nararrtor the Miller “that fordronken was al pale / So that unethe upon his hors he sat” (12-13). In other words, the Miller is so drunk he is pale. However, even after the Miller tries to caution the listeners that his drunkenness may impair his ability to recite his tale, he continues to give us a stylistically and lyrically flawless tale. Not only that, but he is able to add elements of satire, irony, and other rhetorical features. The Miller is clearly not as drunk as we initially believe. But, why does Chaucer do this?
Aside from the Miller’s ability to flawlessly articulate his story, there are other signs that cause us to consider the Miller as an intelligent man. The first sign of the Miller’s intelligence comes from the very first thing he says when he interrupts the host by saying “…By armes and by blood and bones / I can a noble tale for the nones / With which I wol now quyte the Knightes tale” (17-19). We see in this instance that the Miller is able to play with the word “quyte,” since his meaning of the word is to “repay” while the Host intended it to mean “match” when he asked the Monk to “…quyte with the Knightes Tale” (11). In this case, the Miller is in fact being cleverer than the Host, but that is not noticeable unless one reads between the lines.
Recalling the quote we just considered, we also can see that not only is the Miller being cleverer than the Host, as I mentioned earlier, but in fact, is almost outright telling everyone that he is on the same plane as the Knight. By telling the people that he is capable of “quyting” the Knights tale with a noble tale of his own, he is telling everyone that he is noble himself. For example, in the Book of Job, when Job questions God’s seemingly unjust acts towards him, God lashes out at Job. by questioning God, Job must have believed himself to be on an equal plane as God. Similarly, the Miller believes to be on a similar plane as the Knight. In fact, their stories are both very similar, except for the details on how the female is won over. I believe that in fact, the Miller’s tale is a more honest tale, and that the Knights is too idealistic. Perhaps this is the Miller’s reason for the rude interruption of the Host. He cannot keep quite after hearing such an appalling story about love, a love he believes to be too romantic and not the least bit sexual.
Once the Knight finishes telling a story about courtly love, where Palamoun, who is the “purer” lover, (he prays to Venus, while Arcite prays to Mars) wins the maiden, Emelye’s heart. However, for some reason unknown to me, the Miller does not like it, and thus will “quyte” the Knight’s tale by telling one, which is almost a complete foil of the Knight’s tale. In the Knight’s tale, we have a tale of the “true love” two cousins, Arcite and Palamoun, share for a fair maiden, Emelye. In the Miller’s tale, we have “…hende Nicholas / Of derne love he coude and of solas” (91-92), Absolon who is described as “…somdel squaymous” (234) and the Alison, “So gay a popelote, or swich a wench” (151).
Hence, we have young man, unable to handle his natural urgings, another young man, who would not be able to stomach the realities of such urges, were they attainable, and a young, budding lady. In the Knight’s tale, it takes Palamoun several long years to finally win Emelye’s heart, while it only takes Nicholas a few lines to win Alison’s heart. In the Knight’s Tale and as I mentioned above, it is Palamoun, who prays to the goddess of love, Venus, eventually winning Emelye’s heart, being the more noble lover. In the Miller’s tale, it is the more crude and straightforward Nicholas who wins Alison’s heart. Generally, in almost all aspects of what love is and how is ought to be obtained, the Miller’s tale challenges the Knight’s. What appears to be happening is the Miller strongly disagrees with the Knight’s philosophy on love, so he is taking his story, giving a different (and in the Knight’s opinion, repulsive) twist and “stuff it right back down his throat!” (Barrie). Again, only a person of a considerable amount of intelligence would be able to do such a thing on such short notice, with such precision in detail and presentation.
Aside from giving such a well-executed story, there are still other signs that the Miller is an educated man. For example, during the description of John, we are told of his marriage and that “He knew nat Catoun, for he was rude” (119). “The “Distichs” (closed couplets) of Cato were far and away the most popular elementary textbooks in schools during the early Middle Ages and beyond. They were prized not only as a means of teaching Latin but as a repository of valuable moral advice” (Kolve).
Hence, in order to make such a remark, one must know of the subject that one makes such a remark about-in this case, the Miller is educated about Cato’s teachings. Someone who feels uneasy about this may argue that it’s simple to just memorize certain things that are considered “educated” amongst society, but I would find this highly unlikely. Again, from the Miller’s description, we can see he is a down-to-earth fellow, not one who succumbs to such vanity. A second, but perhaps less supporting note is the Miller’s explanation of Nicholas’s astrology tools, and how they are used. For similar reasons to the ones just presented above, the Miller would have had some knowledge about the science.
Furthermore, we learn in the General prologue that the Miller is a skilled bagpipe player. Considering all the facts I have just put forth (the Miller’s sophisticated story, his play with words, his knowledge of Cato and astrology, and his musical talents), it is reasonable to conclude that the Miller is an intelligent, educated man, or at least a substantially more intelligent and educated than one may have assumed after a superficial reading of The Canterbury Tales.
Having established that the Miller is not as crude a character as one may have previously assumed, I shall now consider some of his unavoidably “Miller” traits. First, while he is an educated, intelligent man, he nevertheless tells a bawdy story. While I strongly believe that the reason for this is to counter the Knight’s tale, I also believe that there is a side of “the Miller” we expect. In other words, while we are given a new light in which to consider the Miller, we must not believe that this is a man of supreme intellect, some Rhodes Scholar for example.
There are still some expectations that must be met. Jill Mann mentions that in the General Prologue, “the animal imagery in the portraits of the Miller, Pardoner and Summoner persuades us that we are dealing crude or unpleasant characters” (Kolve, 475). Secondly, the Miller is a man who likes to drink, and is said to be substantially drunk. While I suspect that the Miller is exaggerating the effect the alcohol is having on him to conform to his companion’s expectations, it is most likely that he is tipsy and has a liking for alcohol. If Chaucer does not meet our expectations of what a Miller would be like, The Canterbury Tales would be a false recount of Chaucer’s time, which many Chaucerians believe was one of his reasons for writing them.
Now that we have established what kind of man the Miller is, let us speculate on why Chaucer would create such a character. As I hypothesized in the introductory paragraph, I strongly believe that Chaucer was making a social commentary about what was considered to be true and what he believed to be true. In other words, he is trying to tell people that a person’s social position is not necessarily an exact indicator of his talents or intellect. There are several modern examples in support of this statement, Albert Einstein being the quintessential example.
Having been an “unsuccessful” students by professor’s standards, and hence landing a position as patent clerk, he went on to completely revolutionize physics forever. I do not believe the Chaucer was trying to encourage people think this much of the working class, but I think he wanted to give them some credit. These ideas were probably some social observations, and he happened to write down. He even warns the reader that “eek men shal nat maken ernest of game” (78). B.H. Bronson reinforces this theory, as he writes “in a time like ours, when the individual artist is often exalted above the statesman, it is next to impossible to reconcile ourselves to the idea that an admittedly very great poet wrote mainly for fun” (Bronson, 5).
I had posed a question earlier in the essay, which was: why does Chaucer exaggerate the Miller’s state of intoxication? I believe we are now in a position to consider the reason. In short, I believe that without the fact that the Miller liked to drink, Chaucer’s argument for the Miller being an intelligent man would have been a bit weaker. The ability of the Miller to tell such a tale with such precision and finesse, commenting on Cato and everything else I mentioned above, while being drunk only adds to his intelligence. Who knows how much better the tale would be had he a clear mind, untouched by the impairments of alcohol.
Again, going back to the Einstein example, who knows what other paradigm shifts Einstein would have created if he had the proper facilities and opportunities to conduct some of his research earlier on in his career, rather than having been restricted to a patent clerk’s desk. Perhaps he would have created none, but clearly there would have been the potential to.
While this is the Miller’s reason to follow the Knight, Chaucer’s reason is to break up the idea we have about social ranks and positions. I am not sure why Chaucer is not able to just come out and say it, but that he is making his opinion seems pretty clear to me, as he is constantly not taking responsibility for his ideas by asking stating:
And therefore every gentil wight I preye,
For Goddes love, demeth nat that I seye,
Of evel entente, but that I moot reherce,
Hir tales alle, be they better or werse
Or elles falsen some of my matere. (63-67)
I am not really sure why Chaucer does not want to take responsibility for tales, but that is the topic of another essay.