Chaucer "Miller's Tale"

An Analysis

Term Paper, 2006

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0




I. The general prologue (general statement and content)

II. The Miller’s Prologue (generally and content)

III. Content of the Miller’s Tale (content)

IV. The fife iambic pentameter (what is it, how does Chaucer use it)

V. Rhyme (how Chaucer rhymes, examples from the tale)

VI. Pronunciation (how to read Chaucer)

VII. Rhythm (couplets, enjambements, caesura)

VIII. Chaucer’s language (the influence of London, colloquial phrases, style)

IX. versification (examine the iambic pentameter 3765-3854)


In this paper I will show some special aspects of the Miller’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. The goal is to show how Chaucer used the iambic pentameter and why he does not constantly stick to it. Therefore I start with an introduction of the content, that includes the general prologue, the prologue to the tale and the tale itself. After that I want to look at the rhyme, the pronunciation, the fife iambic pentameter, the language Chaucer is using and finally have a closer look on the last section of the tale.

I. The general prologue

The first time the Miller is intruded in the Canterbury Tales is during the general prologue. In that prologue the Miller is described as a forceful, aggressive man, a “jangerle and a golidardeys”. The use of these words implies that he also is “a clever loudmouth”.[1] It is said that the Miller is a very strong man, who even won a prize for his strength. He has a red beard, a wart on the bridge of his nose, cavernous black nostrils and he carries a sword and a round shield. It is also said that he is a bad story teller. The reader is also told that the Miller is quite a rich man but that he still steals corn. In conclusion the imagery in which he is described is animal – his hair is compared with that of beasts which are cunning and treacherous, his broad, big nostrils suggest an ape, and his mouth utters nothing but coarseness.

II. The Miller’s Prologue

The Miller’s Tale is set directly after the Knight’s Tale. It is “organized to parallel and echo this tale, structurally, thematically and in verbal detail”.[2]

There is a Prologue to each tale and Chaucer uses those links to comment on the story. In the way he is praising one pilgrim or demanding a story from the other, he is keeping the reader in touch with “the unsophisticated terms of everyday life, and brings as contrast to the literary style adopted by some pilgrims a rough-textured idiom of spoken English”[3]. In the prologue the narrating poet seems to be very embarrassed to add such a tale to the collection. This disclaiming of responsibility is a joke typical for Chaucer. But it has its serious aspects. One reason why “The Miller’s Tale” might require an apologetic preface is that it deliberately affronts the code of manners and the courtly standards respected throughout “The Knight’s Tale”.[4] This is especially shown in line 3125 (“By armes and by blood and bones”). This sort of swearing, “dismembering” Christ’s body, “was the worst swearing the middle ages knew, and the heavy alliteration and stressing accentuate its power”.[5]

III. Content of the Miller’s Tale

The Miller’s Tale is set in a university town and one of the main characters is a scholar. The heroine of the Tale is the eighteen-year-old Alison. Her husband John, “a stock figure of ridicule in taking a wife so much younger than himself, forfeits more sympathy by attempting herself to a lover of her own age and spirit she invites no moral censure”[6]. Chaucer presents a woman of no social importance who is distinguished by the sheer vitality of her being. The last character in this tale is Absolon, a church clerk. People like this (tradesmen, students, minor religious figures and country wives) were traditional figures of fun in the late-medieval court literature.[7]

One major theme in the tale is the belief in prediction and foreknowledge. Chaucer often expresses his ideas in religious as well as purely human terms and this is expressed in this Tale.[8]

First of all the tale is a funny story. It is basically a fabliau, a short story built round an extended trick. “It is characterized by a fair amount of raw sex and knockabout violence, all set in a context of tradesmen, minor clerics and students”[9]. Chaucer calls this story a “cherles tale”.[10]

The plot consists of two interlocking tricks. In the beginning of the tale the first trick is played on the Carpenter John by his wife and their lodger, a student called Nicholas. Because Nicholas desperately wants to have sex with Alison and he almost starts to cry she agrees and both of them persuade the carpenter that a second Noah’s flood is on the way. To avoid drowning they explained to the carpenter that they all should sleep in tubs in the loft. John believes the story and agrees to the new sleeping place. But when he is asleep, Alison and Nicholas promptly sneak down stairs to have sex.

When Absolon enters the story the second trick is played on him. Absolon like Nicholas wants to have Alison. In the night when Alison and Nicholas are making love Absolon “comes round to woo her beneath the window, singing songs and asking for a kiss”.[11] When Alison realizes what Absolon wants she sticks her backside out of the window and Absolon kisses it. Absolon first thinks everything is fine but finally finds out what he had kissed. Therefore he decides to take revenge. He borrows a red-hot plough iron from a blacksmith and returns to the window asking for another kiss. But this time it is not Alison sticking out her backside but Nicholas who wanted to try the trick by himself. When Absolon presses the hot iron on Nicholas backside Nicholas gets heavily burned. “Both tricks are motivated by the common interest: who is going to win Alison”[12]. Therefore you could say that love is the controlling idea in the tale.

IV. The fife iambic pentameter

Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale is written in heroic or decasyllabic couplets. There are normally ten syllables in one line. The lines themselves rhyme in pairs. The ten syllables in a line are divided into five groups of two syllables, known as feet. In most lines an unaccented syllable begins the foot, followed by an accented one, for example “A riche gnof that gestes heeld to bord”(3188)[13]. But the elemental structure of Chaucers five-stress iambic line is that which remained his staple.

These lines are called iambic, “because their prevailing metrical pattern is a series of iambs; but in Chaucer’s language there is, owing to the syllabic endings, a large proportion of words which are natural trochees (shoures soote, tender croppes…)” This together with the feminine rimes, often produces the effect of trochaic rhythm and makes a kind of counterpoint to the iambic metrical scheme”[14].

Sometimes the lines do not consist of the ten syllables. The line could for example lack a light syllable after the second stressed syllable, giving a “broken-backed” effect. That line may be called “Lydgatian”.[15] In that cases Chaucer sometimes seems to have omitted the unstressed syllable after the caesural pause.[16] If there are lines that do not have an initial light syllable at all, they are called “headless”. Still there are “sometimes more light syllables as actually required. In that case a light syllable may precede a natural pause”.[17]


[1] Knight 1973, p.30.

[2] Aers 1986, p.82.

[3] Winny 1971,p.3.

[4] Winny 1971, p.2.

[5] Knight 1973 S.30.

[6] Winny 1971, p.10.

[7] Peck/Coyle 1988, p.87.

[8] Peck/Coyle 1988, p.81.

[9] Peck/Coyle 1988, p.79.

[10] Peck/Coyle 1988, p.79.

[11] Peck/Coyle 1988, p.80.

[12] Peck/Coyle 1988, p.81.

[13] Handyside 1982, p.81.

[14] Baum 1961, p.26.

[15] Burgess 1988, p.Xl.

[16] Burgess 1988, p.Xl.

[17] Burgess 1988, p.Xl.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Chaucer "Miller's Tale"
An Analysis
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Amerikanistik und Anglistik)
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Chaucer, Miller, Tale, Analysis
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Anica Petrovic-Wriedt (Author), 2006, Chaucer "Miller's Tale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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