The Miller's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will explore 'The Miller's Tale' from Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales.' First, we will compare and contrast the Knight's Tale with the Miller's Tale. Then, we will look at how Chaucer uses the genre of the fabliau.

Meet the Drunken Miller

Geoffrey Chaucer's second story in his famous Canterbury Tales makes you wonder whether it's intended for a high or low audience. 'The Miller's Tale' offers a plainly entertaining romp through the life, love, and travails of medieval English common folk. However, this debaucherous tale could also come across as a satire for those noblemen who have a low opinion of the common people.

Picture the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Once the Knight finishes his tale, the Host invites the Monk to tell the next tale. But the Miller interjects. He admits he has already had too much to drink, but still insists on telling the next tale. He presents a story about John the Carpenter, an older man who married a younger ingénue, Alison. Unfortunately, Alison also has competing suitors, Nicholas the scholar and Absolon the poor clerk. Together, they form a love triangle. Nicholas and Absolon compete for Alison's favor, all to the detriment of poor old John.

The Miller

Gentles and Churls

Chaucer's mixture of gentles and churls makes his Tales an important document of Medieval English society. Chaucer's gentles, or gentlemen, include the Knight and his company, and other noble characters at the head of the group. With his drunkenness and fowl humor, the Miller introduces the churl's perspective, that of the low class commoners and ordinary workers. If you were to meet the Miller on the street, you might call him churlish, the modern form of the word that means rude and surly.

Like the Knight's tale, the Miller's tale is not autobiographical. Instead of telling a story about himself, his tale of the lowly carpenter and his unfaithful wife reflects upon the Miller's social class and morals. When we compare the two tales, we can see that while they both explore themes of love and honor, the love triangle in The Miller's Tale inverts the way the Knight portrays chivalrous, honorable courtship.

One Chaucer expert explains it like this: 'The Importance of the opposition of 'churls' and 'gentles' is established by the opening cluster of tales, in which the Knight's cumbersome celebration of order is challenged by the brilliant and broadly salutary parody of the Miller.'

As opposed to meek and obedient Emilye in The Knight's Tale, Alison is described as a vivacious, fiery, and deceitful. Like the Knight's heroes Palamon and Arcite, competing in a tournament to honor the court, Nicholas and Absolon play practical jokes with the goal of shaming the other.

As justification for speaking out of turn, the Miller assures his companions that his tale will provide a good contrast to the Knight's courtly romance. In contrast, the Miller probably slurs his words and makes aside comments as they travel along the path to Canterbury. He fills his tale with humorous situations and shameful acts.

Medieval commoners celebrating

Genre and Motif

For this tale, Chaucer borrows the genre of the fabliau from the French literary tradition. A predecessor to the modern short story, these humorous tales were popular in Medieval France and England. This genre of literature addresses its themes using love triangles and bawdy situations, as you can see in 'The Miller's Tale.' They often involved situations of sexual promiscuity, bathroom humor, and obscenity. For a modern equivalent, think of the dirty joke in movies like Big Momma's House and Dumb and Dumber.

Critics are divided as to whether the fabliau tale was intended for an aristocratic or common audience. These stories can be read like satires, poking fun at the common people for the enjoyment of the aristocracy. They can also be read as purely entertaining romps. Either way, Chaucer uses the fablliau here to playfully challenge conventional interpretations of classic themes.

Fabliaux (plural of fabliau) drew on motifs to develop his themes, including stock characters and storylines, that circulated during the middle ages. Chaucer uses two distinct motifs in 'The Miller's Tale': 'The Misdirected Kiss' and 'The Second Flood'

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