The Miller's Tale
As explained in the General Introduction, the manuscripts show that Chaucer intended the opening of the CT to have the order GP, KT, MT, RT, CT (but the Cook's Tale remained a mere fragment). The Miller's Tale must therefore not be studied alone, but be put in relation with the tales that precede and follow it. The Knight gets to tell the first tale, in theory because he is socially the highest in rank but in fact because he drew the lucky straw (Chaucer's joke, perhaps). The Knight's tale is the most elevated in tone of all the tales, being the condensation of a heroic tale of epic nature by Boccaccio (not named by Chaucer) related to Statius's Thebaid, set in ancient Athens, with love for a woman provoking a tragic conflict between two cousins who are sworn brothers-in-arms. The Knight's Tale includes Boethian elements which give it extra, at least seemingly philosophical dimensions.
There is a clear breach of social decorum when, after this, the drunken Miller prevents the (evidently also rather high- class) Monk from telling his tale and insists on presenting his tale instead. Similarly literary decorum is challenged by the Miller's Tale, with its low-class setting and figures, its explicit sexual immorality, and its complete lack of philosophical or moralizing elements.
The tale told by the Miller is a story centered on two men, Nicholas and Absolon, who are both attempting to establish a sexual relationship with Alison, the pretty young wife of an older carpenter, John. While Absolon uses old-fashioned romantic methods, dressing in elegant clothes and serenading her with songs at her window, Nicholas tricks John into believing that a second Great Flood is coming, forcing him to spend the night suspended in a tub hanging in the roof of the house while he enjoys himself in bed with Alison. In the dark, Alison plays a cruel trick on Absolon, who in fury prepares a red-hot revenge which leaves Nicholas with a burned bottom. As a consequence, John crashes to the floor and breaks his arm.
The Miller's Tale is a 'good story' in its witty construction and unexpected conclusion. When it is finished, the Reeve (who is a carpenter) imposes his tale, not in terms of 'a better tale' but as a means of 'quitting' (repaying) the Miller for making fun of a carpenter in his tale. The Reeve's tale is directed against a miller, and the tale's climax is an expression of the Reeve's desire to see the Miller punished. In a dark room, two students from Cambridge enjoy sexual relations with a miller's wife and daughter, after which the miller gets beaten over the head by his wife by mistake.
In its setting and style, the Reeve's tale is parallel to the Miller's, but its tone is more violent and its climax deliberately sets out to outdo the Miller's Tale's by having two men 'swiving' women who are not their wives. The paralellism is heightened by having the Miller's tale set in Oxford and the Reeve's in Cambridge.
These two tales belong to the category generally known as 'fabliau'. The name simply means 'little fable' and is a modern, not a medieval designation of this kind of story, which is usually sexual or scatalogical in subject and set among comparatively low-class people, often working in the Church. There are almost no fabliaux in medieval English literature; the great majority are found in late 12th or early 13th-century French literature, but there is no clear direct link between these and Chaucer's. Instead we should perhaps look at the similar tales found in Boccaccio's Decameron. Critics have long debated, without agreement, whether Chaucer knew the Decameron. He certainly showed great similarities to Boccaccio in literary tastes.
Until the work of Per Nykrog (1957) critics tended to dismiss the fabliaux as immoral and rather disgusting 'popular' stories of no literary interest, as opposed to the 'admirable' literature produced in the courts. It is now clear that the fabliaux were written by the same writers who wrote 'courtly' literature and were enjoyed by the same audiences, courtly and clerical. It is not certain if Chaucer is adopting tales he had heard elsewhere, or if he composed these from his familiarity with others of a similar kind.
Explicit in Bocaccio's Decameron is a delight in stories where people deliberately ignore the demands of church-taught morality and set out to satisfy their sexual desires by exercising their wits to overcome obstacles. The high-class audience in the Decameron express approval when a handsome young man succeeds in having sex with another less attractive man's wife. For them, morality says that beautiful people deserve one another, no matter who they are married to, since mutually happy sexual union is a good thing. This 'morality' is implicitly that of Chaucer's two tales, where the young people who have successful sexual unions are not punished for them, Nicholas's burned bottom being a mistake.
The fabliaux traditionally divide the world into winners and loosers; husbands, especially older men with younger wives, are regularly duped, beaten, wounded, mocked, while the young enjoy themselves. In this, the Reeve's tale with its obvious delight at the way the miller gets beaten on the head by his wife and mocked by the students he had tried to rob, is almost closer to the norm than the Miller's tale.
One main characteristic of the Miller's tale is the humanity with which its figures are depicted. John the carpenter's only crime is to have married a girl noticeably younger than himself. Unlike most such husbands, he is not suspicious or jealous; he sincerely loves his Alison. When Nicholas tells him that the world is going to be drowned, his first reaction is, 'Alas, my wife!' with no thought for himself. When Nicholas suggests hanging three tubs in the roof so that they can all float to safety in the flood, it is John who exhausts himself doing the work.
The other characters each have their personalities vividly depicted in mostly visual terms. Alison is compared to frisky young animals, while Absolon's dress and his behavior in the church where he works are tellingly described. Many of the French fabliaux and the similar tales in the Decameron have clerks or even priests as their main characters, either making fun of them when unable to control their sexual desires or admiring their skill in finding a solution to their natural frustrations.
The Miller's Tale is told with particular skill in a voice that has no relationship with that of the drunken Miller. We are told quite soon that Nicholas is known to be an expert at weather-forecasting; we do not at the time realize why this is a significant detail. The narrator keeps the audience uninformed about Nicholas's plan, as he shuts himself in his room then reluctantly tells John about the coming flood. Once the plan has worked, and John is sound asleep in his trough, the story focuses entirely on the three young people's adventures. When Nicholas, burned, shouts out "Water!" John awakes, thinks the flood has come, and cuts the rope. The readers are taken completely by surprise at the sudden linking of two quite different strands by that single word.
Nothing in the tale or its immediate framework serves to remind readers that they are expected to evaluate the Miller's tale in terms of 'sentence and solas'. Yet the framework's story- telling contest invites us to do just that, and if we fail to note the great division in our responses to such a tale we shall be missing much.
Many people enjoy the story as one of the finest examples of 'bawdy comedy' ever written; most critics give it a grade of A+ for 'solas'. Yet in terms of 'sentence' or moral propriety, the more we think, the harder it becomes to find any justification for the tale. Most readers are only too naturally ready to join the crowd of neighbors at the end who stand laughing at John as he lies there on the floor, his arm broken, cuckolded, and duped. It is only on second or third thoughts that we remember that he was up in the roof because he believed himself to be making heroic efforts to save his wife and his boarder from certain death. Such a tale might be thought to derserve a grade of D- for 'sentence'.