__________________________________________________________ The Miller and The Reeve: Tales of Two “Churls”
BY YEONG MIN KIM October 9, 2008 Following the completion of the noble, stately, and dignified Knight’s Tale, the inebriated Miller rudely interrupts the Host and attempts to “quite1” the Knight’s Tale with a churlish story that reveals risqué and bawdy content. As a result, the Miller’s impatient action triggers a system of storytelling that breaches social decorum and is progressed by the various participants acting and reacting against one another’s tales. Just as the Miller responded to the Knight’s Tale in his drunken state, the Reeve or “Osewald” (3860) follows suit by echoing the Miller’s action and emotionally reacting against the mocking overtone of the Miller’s Tale. The Reeve’s reaction to the Miller’s tale, however, is fueled by a desire to punish or “quite” the Miller by means of directing the tale against the Miller himself, which results in a tale that is ampler in vulgarity, violence, and moral corruption. The Reeve’s enragement- largely brought on by the Miller’s insult to his craftsman profession in the Miller’s story of the old, cuckolded carpenter- is clearly evidenced in the beginning of his prologue. The Reeve vows to “quite” (3864) the miller with a tale of the “bleryng of a proud milleres ye2” (3865), and declares to somewhat make a fool of him, as it is permissible to repel force with force (3911-3912). Finally, Osewald, towards the end of his prologue, states, “I shal hym quite anoon; Right in his cherles termes wol I speke” (3916-3917). With this, the Reeve reveals his determination to present the pilgrims with an equally, if not more, churlish tale that would counter the Millers Tale. In its style and setting, the Reeve's tale runs parallel to the Miller's, as both are classic examples of the “fabliaux.” The “fabliaux,” according to the Riverside Chaucer, is often a short, salacious tale 1 2
Quite: Requite; seek retaliation. bleryng of a proud milleres ye: deluding, tricking a proud miller.
about town-dwelling non-aristocratic characters, and its plot typically involves stories of deception to acquire money or goods, to get sexual gratification, or to get revenge. Told in a low style, vulgarity abounds, thereby legitimizing the fabliaux’s label as the so –called “medieval equivalent of a dirty joke.” However, the critical difference lies in the fact that the tone of the Reeve’s Tale is more violent and malevolent, and its climax more deliberately set out to outdo and outshine that of the Miller’s Tale. Responding to the Miller’s portrayal of the “sely” (3423), ignorant, and foolish carpenter John, the Reeve employs a similar character named Symkyn, who has amusingly inherited most of the Miller’s qualities noted in the General Prologue. Symkyn, in addition to being inscribed as a “millere” (3925), is a quarrelsome bully (3936) and knows how to play the bagpipe3. (3927). He is also is described as “proud” (3926), “deynous” (3941), and “sly” (3940), as well as being a “theef” (3939) who is “usuant for to stele” (3940). Indeed, the character of Symkyn- clearly a humorous caricature of the Miller himself- seems more corrupt and morally degenerate than the Miller’s hapless yet relatively harmless carpenter. The Reeve also creates a parallel figures for Alisoun, the elderly carpenter’s “wylde and yong” (3225) wife. Being “fair” (3233), “gent” (3234), and “small” (3234), the ever-desirable Alisoun contrasts with Symkyn’s absurdly pretentious wife who is “digne” (3964) and “ful of hoker and of bisemare” (3965). Also, the pompous pair have a twenty-year-old unmarried daughter Malyne, a “thikke and wel ygrowen” (3973) “wench” (4194) equipped with a “kamus nose” (3974) and “buttokes brode” (3975), who seems to be the antithesis of Alisoun, the perpetual object of desire. The Reeve’s effort to surpass the Miller’s Tale is further highlighted by the presence of the two young scholars from the “greet college” (3989) at “Cantebregge” (3990), Oxenford’s (3187) perennial rival and counterpart. As the “Oxenford” educated Nicholas in the Miller’s Tale could not resist an opportunity to test his erudite wits against the lesser intellect of the carpenter, Aleyn and John, the two “yonge povre scolers” (4002), attempt to dupe the loathsome Symkyn. Symkyn, however, being a more cunning character than the “sely” (3423) carpenter John, sees through their plans and reassures himself
Refer to the General Prologue, line 565: “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne.”
that the `the gretteste clerkes been noght wisest men' (4054), and that “of al hir art counte I noght a tare" (4056). The inharmonic dynamic between Nicolas and carpenter John, and the Cambridge clerks and miller Symkyn underscores the almost comedic rivalry between the intellectuals and the locals, the educated and the uneducated. The climax of the Reeve’s Tale certainly surpasses the Miller’s Tale with its obscenity and even lower moral tone. In the Miller’s Tale, John the carpenter is tricked and cuckolded by the “hende” (3272) Nicholas, and thus regarded by his community as “wood4” (3846). In the Reeve’s tale, however, the miller Symkyn not only loses the fidelity of his wife to the cunning John, but also fails to protect his daughter Malyne’s virginity from the lustful Aleyn. The Reeve’s intention to ridicule the brutish Miller is evident when Symkyn, like his counterpart, is outrageously drunk on the eventful night. “Wel hath this millere vernysshed his heed; Ful pale he was for dronken, and nat reed” (4149-4150). Furthermore, the miller’s inferior sexual expertise is mocked with hilarious success: “And on this goode wyf he leith on soore. So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore; He priketh harde and depe as he were mad” (4229-4231). In the end, the miller is left with nothing but a sullied wife, ravaged daughter, and a sore skull. The Miller’s Tale seems a paltry, slap-stick comedy when compared to the Reeve’s significantly darker and morally repugnant tale. In an effort to out-tell and out-shine the miller’s tale, the Reeve weaves his story with more villainous and treacherous material. Villainy and character flaws are more deeply explored while rape, adultery, and violence abound. According the Host, however, both the Miller and the Reeve are “cherles” (3169): “The Millere is a cherl; ye knowe wel this. So was the Reve…” (3182-3183). Thus, a cherl’s tale would be told in a cherl’s manner (3169). Both stories, in that aspect, cannot escape the vulgar and churlish content that is essential to the fabliaux. And therefore, “whoso list it nat yheere, Turne over the leef and chese another tal; For he shal fynde ynowe, grete, and smale, Of storial thyng that toucheth gentillesse, and eek moralitee, and hoolyness” (3176-3180).