Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The Canterbury Tales and Chaucer’s long narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde (1382) are his two most important works by far, and the individual tales of the former, although often read separately, are best understood as part of an intricately planned, though incomplete, whole—indeed one of the most ambitious poetic works in Western literature. In the central fiction of the pilgrimage, the tales are meant to provide both instruction and pleasure to the pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury. The host has promised the teller of the best tale a free supper after their return. Some of the tales, such as the relentlessly doctrinal “Parson’s Tale,” are mainly instructive but of limited entertainment value, while others, like the bawdy “Miller’s Tale” of the violation of a carpenter’s marriage by a parish clerk and an all-too-willing wife, provide much robust entertainment but not a great deal of improving message.
Had the pilgrims completed their round trip, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” no doubt would have contended strongly for the prize, for it is one of the tales combining a pleasing proportion of both entertaining and instructive elements and has justly become a favorite among Chaucer’s readers. From its initial description of the plain-living, hardworking woman farmer whose values contrast so sharply with the aristocratic, self-indulgent prioress whom the priest serves as spiritual adviser, the humor is good-naturedly, sometimes slyly, satirical. Among its other targets are the rhetorical excesses of writers of Chaucer’s time, exemplified by Chanticleer and the narrator; the genre of de casibus tragedy, much overworked by the immediately preceding teller; and the medieval habit of frequent and lengthy citations from authoritative ancient texts, in this instance two sets embodying wildly contradictory theories of the significance of dreams.
Above all, Chaucer’s mock-epic characterization of Chanticleer exemplifies a familiar biblical text, which is probably more honored in the breach than the observance: Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” It was by pride that Chanticleer fell into captivity, and it was by the fox’s fall into pride that the rooster was able to escape. It was this type of fall, emblematic of the Fall of Adam and Eve in Eden, rather than the often unmotivated falls of de casibus tragedy, against which the priest is warning the pilgrims and, by extension, Chaucer is cautioning his readers.