The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale
"The Miller's Tale" is the story within Geoffrey Chaucer 's The Canterbury Tales in which the Miller interrupts the Host's proposed order of tale-telling. Although the Host has asked the Monk to continue the game, the drunken Miller interrupts to declare that he knows a tale "sumwhat to quyte with the Knightes tale" (11). By "quyte," the Miller means "answer" or "respond to," and so one way of reading "The Miller's Tale" is as a response to "The Knight's Tale." The Knight told a highbrow romance about a love triangle between two knights and their ladylove, an impossibly beautiful and unobtainable woman named Emily.
"The Miller's Tale" is also about a love triangle, but it's far from highbrow. Instead, "The Miller's Tale" comes from the genre called fabliau. Fabliaux were bawdy stories, usually dealing with adulterous liaisons. In contrast with the type of romance the Knight tells, which is concerned with abstract questions of order, fraternity, and love, the fabliau is mostly concerned with sex and the body. Using the fabliau genre transforms the elements of "The Knight's Tale" into more earthy, bodily versions of themselves. In "The Miller's Tale," the love triangle becomes a sex triangle. The love interest is difficult to win over not because she is so perfect, but because she's the wife of another man.
This type of earthy, physical story is exactly what we would expect from a lower-class person like the Miller in a "medieval estates satire," the humor of which depended on stereotyping people based on their occupation or social class. (For more about medieval estates satire, see The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Frame Story, "In a Nutshell" and "Setting.") Chaucer confirms this in the Miller's Prologue when he says, "The Millere is a cherl, ye knowe wel this; / So was the Reeve eek and othere mo, / And harlotrye they tolden bothe two" (Miller's Prologue 74-76). So another way to think about "The Miller's Tale" is how it conforms with the "harlotrye," or lewdness, expected from the medieval stereotype of a lower-class person. It's true that "The Miller's Tale" is very earthy and physical, as lower-class people were thought to be. But they were also thought to be stupid, all brawn and no brains. So what are we to make of the sheer cleverness of this tale's ending?
Why Should I Care?
Ever wondered how to get the object of your desire? Well, in "The Miller's Tale" you have three different possibilities: 1) Get a job and a house, 2) Move into her building and aggressively seduce her, or 3) Be really romantic, sending her lots of flowers and gifts and singing moonlight love songs outside her window. Lest you think that seven hundred years later this age-old problem has been resolved, you need only turn to the pages of Men's Health or Cosmopolitan to find headlines that circle the issue: "Convince Her to Date You," "Win Her Over in 10 Minutes," "How to Find Your Summer Fling."
Yet, as we see in "The Miller's Tale," winning her over is only half the battle; securing her for good is another matter. So does "The Miller's Tale" give you any more realistic a picture of love and its limitations than those grocery-store magazines? Well, that's debatable. Let us know what you think.