The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale Introduction
In A Nutshell
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The Canterbury Tales just don't get any more unsettling than "The Reeve's Tale."
What you're about to read is a disturbing story about how two young students take revenge on a miller who has cheated them of flour by raping his wife and daughter and beating him to a pulp. If it sounds unsavory, that's because it is: what begins as a seemingly lighthearted story very quickly takes a sinister turn. At the end of it, we the audience are left feeling sick to our stomachs, wondering how something that initially seemed so innocent could have become so very dark.
"The Reeve's Tale" is an attempt by the Reeve to "quite," or answer, "The Miller's Tale." The Reeve is angry because the Miller has just told a story in which a carpenter is humiliated by his wife and her lover. The Reeve appears to interpret this as an attack on the entire carpentry profession, and because he was formerly a carpenter, he decides that he must answer this perceived attack with "bleryng of a proud milleres eye," or the fictional "take-down" of a miller (11). The similarity of the "punishment" of the miller and carpenter—humiliation by adultery—is one way in which we might read this tale as "answering" the Miller's.
Like "The Miller's Tale," "The Reeve's Tale" is a fabliau, a medieval genre of bawdy story, usually concerning adultery. Chaucer may have based this tale on a similar story from Boccaccio's Decameron in which two clerks have sex with the wife and daughter of the innkeeper with whom they're staying. The similarity between the two tales may be evidence of a source relationship between them. On the other hand, it could just be that both tales draw on a motif that was very common in medieval fabliau, the "cradle-trick," in which someone gets into the wrong bed because the cradle has been moved.
Finally, "The Reeve's Tale" is notable because it's the first example we have in English of a writer trying to imitate an accent other than his own. The dialect in which the two clerks speak, using regional colloquialisms and replacing the o's in many words with the letter a, is very different from the Southern English or London accent in which Chaucer normally wrote (and probably spoke). The notion that comedy might be produced by the attempt to imitate regional accents is one we still appreciate today, for which we can thank Chaucer, and specifically "The Reeve's Tale."
Why Should I Care?
Ben Hur. Gladiator. Kill Bill. Hamlet. How many of our most epic movies and stories focus on a central character's quest for revenge? In them, the avenging character's mission is portrayed as a noble goal they undertake to bring justice for their loved ones when, for some reason, the law has failed them. The story most often ends with the death of both the villain and the avenger, balance having been restored to the world after an epic battle between good and evil.
"The Reeve's Tale" focuses on revenge, too, but it's like a revenge drama cut down to dwarf size. It's a revenge drama that asks: What if you wanted payback not for the life of a loved one, but for a few pecks of stolen corn? And what if you took that payback in a night of debauchery that ends with a Three-Stooges-like farce of fisticuffs and mistaken identity? Revenge, says "The Reeve's Tale," doesn't have to be all big and epic. Everybody wishes they could "get theirs," every day.
Now, we don't know about you, but we sometimes find revenge tragedies a little disturbing. Sure, the villain probably deserves his fate, but in the process of giving it to him, the hero often ends up looking a little less noble, a little more like the villain he's trying to destroy. The same thing happens in "The Reeve's Tale." What John and Aleyn portray as simple repayment for their loss ends up just looking like excessive violence. In the end we're not quite sure whose side we're on. Even though with "The Reeve's Tale" we have a revenge drama shrunk to parody size, we still have a tale that makes us think about the very same issues as a Ben Hur or a Kill Bill. And that's a pretty darn good reason to care.