The Versatility of Chaucer
The Versatility of Chaucer
The controversy surrounding the distinction between “Chaucer the poet” and “Chaucer the pilgrim,” consists of intriguing and persuasive arguments on both fronts. Regardless of the resolution of this conflict, the ability and craftsmanship of “Chaucer the poet” reflect the experiences and knowledge of “Chaucer the man,” a man who began life at a relatively low station and eventually rose to the position of a gentleman in a court of royalty. This ascent proves essential in the composition of The Canterbury Tales, since the tales, as well as the subtle criticisms within, imply an author with a working knowledge of a wide range of social interactions.
The extent of this range becomes clear after a reading of “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale.” When the narrator describes the scene following the conclusion of the Knight’s tale, he presents the reader with an image of a drunken Miller, barely able to remain seated atop his horse, who imposes his story in place of the Monk’s. Although the Host asks the Monk for a tale to rival that of the Knight, the Miller interrupts with his boast, “I can a noble tale for the nones” (p. 101). Despite the Host’s admonition that “Som bettre man shal telle us first another” (p. 101), the Miller proceeds with his raunchy tale. Although The Canterbury Tales are written from the point of view of a rather lowly, naive, and somewhat foolish narrator, the skill and craftsmanship of the author are readily apparent throughout the work. The striking contrast between the content of the prologue in reference to the Knight and the Miller’s tale depicts an author that has a firm grasp on a much greater variety of topics than his narrator.
In the portion of the General Prologue concerning the Knight, the narrator, “Chaucer the pilgrim,” describes a great deal of the Knight’s character and achievements in such a manner as to betray the authors true knowledge of the subject. While the narrator seems to be a rather naive and foolish pilgrim, his understanding of the Knight reflects the mind of the author. The narrator’s comprehension of the battles in which the Knight fought and the details of those battles, such as the alliance of convenience with the “lord of Palatye” (p. 82), display a depth of knowledge that only “Chaucer the man” could have. Thus, the author clearly draws from his own knowledge, which is obviously greater than that of the narrator, to create the fictional work. It becomes apparent that the distinction between the author and the man is very slim, if at all existent. The “Miller’s Prologue and Tale” serves as a testament to this fact.
According to the note in the text, the tale is of the “fabliau” genre. This primarily French genre centers around bourgeois or lower-class characters involved in an obscene plot. Although the genre is primarily French, the note maintains that Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” is the “best-told in any language” (p. 101). The content in the tale is outrageous in its obscenity, but very well crafted. The character and quality of this tale again reveals the range of knowledge that the author utilizes in writing The Canterbury Tales.
The wealth of knowledge displayed by the author, “Chaucer the poet,” can only be the result of the experiences of “Chaucer the man.” Clearly, in order to create a work of fiction such as The Canterbury Tales, the contents of which include such a wide array of not only stories, but story-tellers, “Chaucer the poet” must draw from his experiences among differing classes and levels of society.