Near the end of the “General Prologue” to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the host establishes a kind of governance to determine how and by whom the tales will be told. Each of the pilgrims chooses a straw, and, since the Knight draws the shortest straw, he is the first pilgrim to tell a tale. When the Knight concludes his tale, the host and other pilgrims (particularly the gentlefolk) praise the Knight’s story. The host is pleased with this beginning of the tale-telling enterprise, and he suggests that the Monk should tell the next tale. In other words, the host wants to proceed in an orderly, well-governed fashion.
The Miller, however, has other ideas. He is drunk and can barely sit upon his horse – two common symbols in the middle ages of a person who is unreasonable and who does not have good control of his passions. In other words, the Miller is ungoverned and soon proves ungovernable. He shows no respect toward anyone else (another indication of his ungoverned, ungovernable nature), and he cries out in the voice of Pilate (the figure in the Bible often blamed for the death of Christ, often portrayed in medieval plays) that he, the Miller, will answer the Knight’s tale. The Miller thus displays his pride, his lack of common courtesy, his lack of respect for his superiors, and even (by referring profanely to the crucifixion) his lack of respect God and for the religious values of the time. In all these ways he shows that he is ungoverned and indeed has no desire to submit to any kind of governance – even, including, the governance of his own reason.
The Miller’s refusal to be governed by anyone or anything is especially clear when he once again refers profanely to God when he declares that he will not abide by the host’s suggestions:
“By Goddes soule,” quod he, “that wol not I,
For I wol speke or ells go my way.” (24-25; Prologue to “The Miller’s Tale”)
In these two lines he manages to use personal pronouns three times, and Chaucer gives the pronoun “I” at the end of line 24 heavy metrical emphasis. The Miller is an egotist who cares only about himself. He consistently exhibits the sin of pride – the root cause of all other sins and certainly the root cause of his own ungoverned, ungovernable attitudes and behavior. The Miller’s disruption of the orderly proceedings is funny, but obviously he is not the kind of person who should be taken as a model for any kind of orderly, civil, well-governed behavior. He is, in this respect as in so many others, the precise opposite of the Knight. He epitomizes and embodies all the forces of selfishness and arrogance that make a well-governed commonwealth impossible. No wonder, then, that the host becomes so comically frustrated with the Miller, as when the host exclaims, “Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome” (27).