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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

The Miller is not in the tale, but is as vivid a creation of Chaucer as characters that are. The Knight presents us with an ideal to which he probably aspires; the Miller presents us with the real everyday world. While the Knight stresses the nature of romantic love, the Miller considers love in sexual terms. Neither view alone is wholly true. Each is a corrective to the other: love embraces both of these elements. This paper will describe The Miller’s characteristics, his humor, his education level, and his habits.

Like the Wife of Bath, the Miller is a character of commanding physical presence: he is a massive man who excels in such displays of strength as wrestling matches, and breaking doors “at a renning with his heed”. He is a bearded, strong, working man. By stressing the Miller’s physical attributes, Chaucer suggests to the reader the idea of a down-to-earth man who takes pleasure in satisfying basic appetites. Though the Miller is a man of down-to-earth outlook and physical pleasure, he is a very intelligent man.

His narrative style, if less complex and conventionally sophisticated than the Knight’s, is superb in its realism, economy and control, especially of the humorous elements. The Miller is an educated man, and able to describe the paraphernalia of Nicholas’s astrological activities. This rather unexpected subtlety is indicated in the final lines of the description in the General Prologue. These are introduced by “And yet… ” showing Chaucer’s awareness of our possible surprise here.

Though acquainted with the usual tricks of his trade, the Miller has “a thombe of gold”, and is an able bagpipe-player, whose piping accompanies the pilgrims’ departure from London. An interest in music appears at many points in his tale, where music seems to have sexual representations, as in the comparison between the young men’s instruments, in Nicholas’s singing the Angelus ad virginem, but chiefly in the coincidence of his and Alison’s love-making with the singing by the “freres” of the divine office. The Miller appears to be a lover of drink, paying tribute to the “ale of Southwerk”.

He is so drunk he can barely sit on his horse, though he may be exaggerating the effect of the drink for comic reasons. The drunkenness may also account for his rude intervention ahead of the Monk, and also may excuse the tale he tells; on the other hand, he tells his tale remarkably fluently. Either he is less drunk than he would have us believe, or his tongue is less affected than his sense of balance. The Miller is as headstrong metaphorically as he is literally: he was never one to doff his hat. “Arms and blood and bones,” he swore, “I know a yarn that will even up the score, a noble one, and I’ll pay off the Knight’s tale.

He is forceful in argument, appearing here to get the better of the Knight. He is capable of irony, as when he pretends to placate “leve brother Osewold”, urging him not to mistrust his wife, as virtuous women greatly outnumbers bad ones. Unlike the foolish carpenter of his tale, he will not enquire too deeply into his wife’s fidelity. In telling his tale, the Miller makes us laugh variously at John, at Absolom, and at Nicholas, but also makes comments about different kinds of folly. He clearly takes sides, to gain his audience’s sympathy for Alison and her lover, and against John and Absolom.

In this, the reader is likely to prefer to side with Alison to her jealous, self-righteous husband, and the foolishness of the would-be-lover, Absolom. The humor gets dirty when he finagles Absolom to kiss Alison’s butt. It then reaches a climax when Absolom tries to get even. Absolom gets farted on as he brands Nicholas. The audience could be pictured rolling and laughing. If this wasn’t enough, the last laugh was on the carpenter, who was expecting a flood. Chaucer’s dismissal of the Miller, in apologizing for his lewdness, is ironic, as is that we should know how he is.

Chaucer has taken pains to ensure that we “know well” that the Miller is a more complex and sympathetic character than Chaucer here misleadingly suggests. In all, the Miller brings a sense of down-home comedy to the stories. His is one that the reader can relate to, and it brings the best of fiction and nonfiction. I believe that the Miller, being so drunk, could not have dreamt up such a story unless he had experienced such an infidelity. The Miller was not well liked, but the other members enjoyed his story. They seemed to tolerate him because of his usefulness.

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