The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales Summary

General Prologue

After a description of the spring, Chaucer the narrator introduces each of the pilgrims one by one. The form of the General Prologue is an estates satire: Chaucer is describing characters from each of the three medieval estates (church, nobility, and peasantry) with various levels of mockery.

The frame story of the General Prologue is a religious pilgrimage: all of these characters have come together to go to the cathedral at Canterbury. Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims’ physical appearance very carefully, and this description often gives much insight into each of their characters.

After Chaucer describes the pilgrims, he apologizes for any harshness or rudeness that might appear: he is simply trying to be as honest a narrator and use as clear, simple, unadorned language as possible. He then describes how the tale-telling contest begins. The Host at the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailly, proposes that instead of marching toward Canterbury in boring silence, the pilgrims tell each other amusing tales on the way there and back. The Host says that he will judge the tales and that everyone else will have to pay for the winner’s dinner upon their return. The pilgrims readily agree to this jolly plan. They draw straws to see who will tell the first tale, and the Knight––the most noble of the company––happens to draw the straw to go first.

The Knight’s Tale

The Knight is a skillful storyteller: he knows all the tricks of classical rhetoric and uses lots of flourishes in his style. Theseus brings his wife, Hippolyta, and her sister, Emelye, back to Athens. On the way, they meet weeping noblewomen, and Theseus avenges them by conquering the evil tyrant Creon. After the battle, scavengers find Arcite and Palamon, two knights who are badly wounded but still alive. Theseus takes them back to Athens and imprisons them for life. Palamon and Arcite are cousins who are sworn by the bonds of chivalry to be brother knights to the death.

One morning, Palamon looks out the window, spies the fair Emelye, and falls immediately head over heels in love. Arcite is also smitten. The two knights have sworn never to let the love a lady come between them, but this is exactly what happens. Arcite gets released on the condition that he never return to Athens, and both men pine for Emelye. Arcite sneaks back to Athens in disguise and under a changed name takes a position in Theseus’s court. Palamon drugs his jailer and makes his escape from prison. The two knights end up in the same grove, and they begin to duel for Emelye, but Theseus finds them and makes them wait for a year so they can each amass armies and stage a proper fight. The winner of the battle will win the hand of Emily.

Theseus builds a huge arena for the battle. Palamon prays to Venus that he win the hand of Emelye, and Arcite prays to Mars for victory. Emelye prays to Diana for either chastity or the love of the man who truly desires her. Each knight interprets the sign from the gods as saying that he has won, and neither is wrong. During the battle, Palamon is captured and Arcite is victorious, but just as Arcite is doing a victory lap, a fury from hell pops up and scares his horse so much that Arcite is thrown off. Gravely injured, Arcite whispers forgiveness to Palamon on his deathbed and says that if he cannot have Emelye, Palamon should have her.

Arcite dies, the kingdom mourns, and the Knight elaborately describes how he is not elaborately describing the funeral rituals. Several years later, Theseus gives a speech about how all mortals should submit to the wisdom and will of the gods, Palamon and Emelye wed, and all live happily ever after.

The Miller’s Prologue and Tale

The drunken Miller interrupts the Host’s order so that he can “quite” the Knight’s Tale, that is, respond to it directly. The Miller tells a fabliau, which is a bawdy fable that involves a lot of complicated tricks and dirty jokes. Chaucer interrupts briefly to tell the reader that if he doesn’t want to read a risqué tale, he should turn over the page.

The foolish old carpenter is devoted to his frisky young wife, Alison. Nicholas, a dashing young scholar from Oxford, woos Alison, and they devise a plan to sleep together. The vain parish clerk Absolon also wants to sleep with Alison, but she rejects his advances. Nicholas pretends that a flood twice the size of Noah’s flood is going to come and drown them all, and he convinces the carpenter that the carpenter, Alison, and Nicholas can save themselves by sleeping in tubs. Of course, this all turns into an elaborate ruse so that Alison and Nicholas can make love under the carpenter’s nose. Meanwhile, Absolon comes to the window to kiss Alison, but she sticks her rear end in his face. Enraged, Absolon gets a red-hot poker from the blacksmith. When he returns, Nicholas farts in his face, but Absolon takes revenge by branding Nicholas in the buttocks. Nicholas cries out for water, the carpenter wakes up and crashes in his tub to the ground. The tale ends with everyone laughing at the cuckolded carpenter.

The Reeve’s Prologue and Tale

The Reeve, a carpenter by craft, is furious at the Miller’s treatment of carpenters and declares that he will “quite” the Miller’s tale with another fabliau, this one not about carpenters but about silly millers.

Symkyn the miller is a fat, pug-nosed scoundrel. Two young scholars, Aleyn and John, try to stop the miller from stealing. However, Symkyn catches onto their plan and releases their horse into a field of wild mares. The scholars spend all day chasing their horse, which gives the miller plenty of time to steal grain. Aleyn and John end up spending the night at the miller’s house. The miller, his wife, his grown daughter, his infant, and the two scholars all share a bedroom. To take his revenge on the miller, Aleyn has sex with the miller’s daughter. Not to be outdone, John switches the cradle from the foot of the miller’s bed to the foot of the scholars’ bed. Mistaking the beds, the miller’s wife hops into bed with John, who has sex with her. Aleyn leaves the daughter’s bed and crawls back into what he thinks is his own bed to brag to John about his exploits, but it turns out that he brags to the miller. Chaos ensues and everybody ends up beating up the miller.

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

The Wife of Bath’s long prologue is in the form of a literary confession, or a monologue in which a character freely talks about his or her faults and virtues. The Wife of Bath says that her authority to tell her tale comes from experience: since she has had five husbands, she is an expert in the realm of marriage and the relationships between men and women. The Wife of Bath also enjoys providing her own interpretations of Biblical and classical literary allusions. She gives detailed descriptions of how wives wield power and control over their husbands, which makes the Pardoner, who is about to be married, get nervous. The Wife of Bath describes her first three husbands as good but boring: they were rich old men who were putty in the palms of her hands. The fourth husband had affairs, but the Wife of Bath, a lusty young thing herself, retaliated by making his life a living hell. Jankyn, her fifth husband, is good-looking but poor, and he outrages her by reading a book about wicked wives. The Wife of Bath tears pages out of the book and punches Jankyn in the face, but he hits her back, causing her to go deaf in one ear. The Wife of Bath pretends to be dead for a little while on account of the blow, which makes Jankyn pliable to her every whim. The Friar and the Summoner interrupt the Wife of Bath, but the Host shushes them and lets her tell her tale.

The Wife of Bath sets her Tale during the days of King Arthur, when fairies, not friars, roamed England. A young, lusty knight rapes a maid, but instead of having his head chopped off, the queen gives him the chance to save his life if he can find out what women want. The knight receives different answers from every woman he asks. Finally, he meets an old woman who says that she can help him if he promises to pledge his life to her. He agrees and they return to court, where the queen is assembled with her maids. The knight tells them that women want sovereignty over their husbands, which the women agree is the correct answer. The old woman makes the knight marry her, which he does, but very reluctantly. She offers him a choice: either she can remain ugly and be faithful, or she can become beautiful but possibly unfaithful. The knight lets the old woman choose, which, again, is the right answer, as she responds by letting him have his cake and eat it too: she transforms into a beautiful and faithful woman.

The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale

Like the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the Pardoner’s Prologue is also a literary confession. Every sermon that the Pardoner gives has the same theme: “Greed is the root of all evils.” However, the Pardoner himself lives a very greedy life. He brings pardons and fake relics back from Rome and gets the gullible parishioners to make offerings to these trinkets. The Pardoner doesn’t care about saving souls: all he wants to do is get rich.

The Pardoner tells the story of three young rioters who spend their days carousing and drinking. They hear a coffin passing outside the tavern and learn that one of their friends has been stabbed by a thief named Death. The revelers pledge a bond of brotherhood among them and declare that they will slay Death.

They meet an old man wandering the earth begging Death to let him die. He points them to an old oak, where he says Death is sitting. However, when the knights arrive, there are eight enormous bushels of gold in the spot. One of the rioters says that they should wait until nightfall to transport the gold, but that one of them should go to town to get provisions so that they can wait all day. They draw straws, and the youngest goes into town. While he is gone, the two others plot to kill him upon his return so that they will each have a bigger share of the money. But the youngest reveler also plots to kill the other two so that he can have the treasure to himself. He gets a strong poison from the apothecary and spikes two bottles of wine. The youngest reveler returns and the others kill him, but then they drink the poisoned wine and die on the same spot.

Greed, the Pardoner reminds the pilgrims, is the root of all evils. The Pardoner tries to sell a fake relic to the Host, but the Host gets mad, and the Knight must step in to break up the fight.

Prologue to the Tale of Sir Thopas, The Tale of Sir Thopas, the Host’s Interruption of Chaucer

The Host asks Chaucer for a merry tale, and Chaucer replies that he can give a piece of rhyming doggerel from his childhood. The Tale of Sir Thopas is a parody of alliterative, rhyming romances popular during medieval times, and it is told in a thumping, heavily repetitive meter and rhyme scheme. Sir Thopas is a young knight who lives in the silly-sounding “Poperyng.” He is a fresh and lusty, though chaste, youth. Driven nearly mad with desire by birdsong, Sir Thopas dreams of an elf-queen whom he resolves to make his lady-love. However, Sir Olifaunt guards the elf-queen, and he and Sir Thopas must duel. Chaucer describes Sir Thopas’s clothes in great detail.

The Host interrupts Chaucer, saying that his horrible rhymes are not worth a turd. The Host begs Chaucer to say something in prose with a sensible moral, and he replies with the long and long-winded prose Tale of Melibee.

The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue

The Nun’s Priest Tale is a beast fable, meaning that the tale occurs among animals and usually contains a clear moral. However, the Nun’s Priest fable is more complex and layered than a typical beast fable, as it contains elements of courtly romance, mock epic, and contemporary political satire.

A widow and her two daughters live on a small farm, and their prized possession is Chaunticleer, a fine rooster. Chaunticleer has seven wives, of which his favorite is the lovely hen Pertelote. One night, Chaunticleer has a nightmare about a murderer. Pertelote retorts that he is a coward, cites Cato on the dismissal of dreams, and prescribes a laxative. Chaunticleer gives many literary examples of the importance of interpreting dreams correctly, but despite his instinct and all of his arguments, he ultimately follows Pertelote’s advice and ignores the dream. Chaunticleer’s rationale for following Pertelote’s advice comes from his total mistranslation of a Latin quotation.

One day in May, the fox comes into the chicken yard. At first, Chaunticleer is wary, but when the fox flatters his singing abilities, Chaunticleer forgets to be cautious, closes his eyes, and opens his mouth to sing. At that very moment, the fox grabs the cock by the throat. The hens begin to wail like Trojan woman. The widow and her daughters wake up, see the fox run off with the rooster, and everyone in the barnyard chases after the fox as though they are part of Jack Straw’s rebellion. Chaunticleer tells the fox he should turn around and taunt his tormenters. The fox agrees, and when he opens his mouth to speak, Chaunticleer makes his escape and flies to the top of a high tree. The fox attempts to sweet-talk the rooster down, but Chaunticleer has learned his lesson and will not go. The moral, says the Nun’s Priest, is to never trust flatterers. The Host immediately proceeds to flatter the Nun’s Priest.