It is common when considering The Canterbury Tales to discuss how some tales seem designed to emphasise the themes of others. Two such tales are the Miller's Tale2 and the Knight's Tale3.
At first glance these two tales seem an incongruous pairing. The Knight's Tale is told by an eminent person, is an historical romance which barely escapes a tragic ending, and its themes are universal: the relationship of individuals to providence, fortune and free will. The Miller's Tale is told by a drunken "cherl" (MT 3182), is a farcical fabliau, and has "a plot, not themes"4. And yet, in my opinion, there is much to be gained by reading the Miller's Tale with the themes and characters of the Knight's Tale firmly in mind. The juxtaposition of the Miller's Tale to "the Knight's Tale makes its very lack of significance significant"5.
These two tales have seemingly opposite doctrines, and yet, it seems to me, both have the same object: to encourage us to survive the misfortunes and uncertainties of life as best we can. The Knight's Tale tells us to "maken vertu of necessitee"(KT 3042) while the Miller's Tale expects "every wight" to "laughen at this stryf"(MT 3849).
The Miller's Tale is designed to "quite" (MT 3127) the Knight's Tale. It certainly matches it in quality of composition, but 'repays' the other tale mainly through its use of comedy. Humour throws new light on the characters and actions of the preceeding tale.
The folly of the carpenter in the Miller's Tale is by no means the only comic device used by Chaucer to create humour, but it is central in many ways. "He is, in theory, the 'authority figure' of the tale, and it therefore opens with him; ...
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...e Chaucer: Third Edition (Oxford: OUP, 1987), The Miller's Tale. All line references to the Miller's Tale will be given in text, preceded by the initials "MT".
3. Larry Benson, The Riverside Chaucer: Third Edition (Oxford: OUP, 1987), The Knight's Tale. All line references to the Knight's Tale will be given in text, preceded by the initials "KT".
4. Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales (Oxford: OUP, 1989), p. 101.
5. Cooper, p. 101.
6. Cooper, p. 99.
7. Robert Miller, "The Miller's Tale as a Complaint," Chaucer Review, 5 (1970), p. 147-160. This from p. 150.
8. Derek Pearsall, "The Canterbury Tales II: Comedy," In Piero Boitani and Jill Mann (eds), The Cambridge Chaucer Companion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 125-142. This from, p. 131.
9. Cooper, 99.
10. Pearsall, p. 129.
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