The Nun's Priest's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What is the main theme of "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales? Discuss it with examples from the text.

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The main theme in Chaucer's "The Nun's Priest's Tale" is pride. Chanticleer is a proud rooster whose pride almost costs him his life. Pertelote is a proud hen whose pride keeps her from recognizing the warning in a dream. The fox, too, is proud, and while he catches Chanticleer by playing on the rooster's pride, he loses the bird through his own desire to boast.

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Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale" relates the adventures (and misadventures) of the proud rooster Chanticleer. The key word here is “proud,” for the main theme of the tale is pride. Chanticleer is a fine rooster, and he knows it well. His crowing is inferior to none, and he is always right on time. “His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,” and his beak is a shiny black. The noble bird struts through the barnyard like he owns the place, basking in the attention of his seven wives, including the beautiful Pertelote. Life is good for this proud rooster ... until one night, he has a dream.

It is a horrible dream, for in it, a red, dog-like creature stalks Chanticleer. He wakes with a yelp, and Pertelote asks him what is the matter. He describes the dream to her, and he is clearly shaken with fear. Chanticleer's pride takes its first hit, for Pertelote (with a good bit of pride of her own) scolds him roundly for being afraid of a mere dream. They engage in a long conversation in which Pertelote asserts that Chanticleer must have some physical illness that is causing such nightmares, and the rooster in turn relates several stories in which dreams of murder actually come true. Pride reigns on both sides as Chanticleer and Pertelote seek to out-argue each other, but the two soon make up and life returns to normal. But something is lurking nearby—something that will threaten the pride and the life of the magnificent Chanticleer.

That something is a fox, and he knows all about Chanticleer's pride. In fact, it becomes the fox's tool in his plan to catch the fine rooster. The fox approaches Chanticleer and tells him courteously that he has come to hear him sing, for the rooster has a voice "As any aungel hath that is in heven." This, of course, touches just the right spot in the bird's proud heart, and he stands up tall, stretches out his neck, closes his eyes, and lets out a crow. The fox seizes both the opportunity and the rooster.

But the fox has his own good share of pride. As he runs away with Chanticleer in his mouth and the farm dogs in hot pursuit, Chanticleer suggests to this clever fox that he boast of his victory to the silly dogs. The fox cannot resist, and he does so, but the moment he opens his mouth to boast, Chanticleer flies away and out of the fox's reach. Pride has cost the fox his dinner just like it almost cost the rooster his life.

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The main theme of the Nun's Priest's Tale, I would argue, is vanity, especially as it is related to the dangers of flattery. Chauntecleer, a large rooster, has a terrible dream one night in which he's threatened in the farmyard by a strange orange beast. One of this many hen-wives, Pertelote, implores him not to worry about it. It was just a dream, most probably brought on by something he ate. What he needs is some good, strong laxative.

But Chauntecleer's not interested. Dreams always have some meaning or other; he has this on the authority of none other than the great Cato, the famed Roman statesman and philosopher:

"Madame," quod he, "graunt mercy of youre loore. But nathelees, as touchyng daun Catoun, That hath of wysdom swich a greet renoun, Though that he bad no dremes for to drede, By God, men may in olde bookes rede Of many a man moore of auctorite Than evere Caton was, so moot I thee, That al the revers seyn of this sentence, And han wel founden by experience That dremes been significaciouns/As wel of joye as of tribulaciouns That folk enduren in this lif present.

In modern English, what Chauntecleer's saying is that according to Cato dreams always signify something, even though we shouldn't be frightened of them. Although he says he's grateful for Pertelote's offer to help him with medicine, he rather patronizingly dismisses her homespun remedies. Here, Chauntecleer is displaying intellectual vanity, privileging ancient book-learning over traditional folk medicine.

Nevertheless, Chauntecleer becomes reconciled to Pertelote and agrees to renounce the vision contained in his dream. However, one form of vanity is replaced by another. For later on, Chauntecleer is approached by a wily old fox who's been observing him and his hens, lurking among the cabbages ready to make his move. No prizes for guessing what the fox has in mind. Chauntecleer has a beautiful voice which he loves to show off by singing. The fox sees his chance and after emerging from the cabbage patch starts shamelessly flattering the proud cockerel and asking to hear his singing voice:

For trewely, ye have as myrie a stevene As any aungel hath that is in hevene.

(You really do have as merry a voice as any angel in heaven).

And on it goes until Chauntecleer, so ravished by the fox's flattery, and beating his wings with pride, stands on his toes, stretches his neck, closes his eyes, and begins to crow loudly. The fox sees his chance and pounces immediately. He grabs the poor rooster by the neck and runs away, carrying the hapless Chauntecleer on his back.

But Chauntecleer has the last laugh. He takes a leaf out of the fox's book and starts to play on his vanity. He advises the fox to brag about his taking of Chauntecleer to his pursuers, the farmyard animals and dogs who've given chase. And for good measure, he might like to curse them:

Turneth agayn, ye proude cherles alle! A verray pestilence upon yow falle! Now I am come unto the wodes syde; Maugree youre heed, the cok shal heere abyde. I wol hym ete, in feith, and that anon!

(Get lost, you peasants! A plague upon you all! Now I've reached the woods the cockerel's going to stay right here despite all your best efforts. And I'm going to eat him right away!)

The fox foolishly agrees, and opens his mouth, ready to let rip with some medieval smack-talk. Suddenly, Chauntecleer flies out of the fox's greedy mouth to the safety of a tall tree. The rooster's learned his lesson as he tells the now hungry, frustrated fox:

Thou shalt namoore thurgh thy flaterye/ Do me to synge and wynke with myn ye; For he that wynketh, whan he sholde see, Al wilfully, God lat him nevere thee!

(You won't get me to sing again through flattery. For if you close your eyes when you really should be seeing, then God will never let you prosper).

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Discuss the main theme of "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales.

The famous story of Chanticleer and Pertelote has a clear message to it, which is particularly heightened when we remember the person who is telling the tale. Chanticleer is shown to be a creature that is easily beguiled by the words of Pertelote, and in particular her rebuke about the seriousness with which he takes his dream:

"Alas!" cried she. "For, by the Lord above,

Now you have lost my heart, lost all my love.

I cannot love a coward, that I swear!"

It is his love for her that causes Chanticleer to go against his better judgement and leads to his near escape with the fox. Thus the message of this tale, apart from the danger of succumbing to flattery, perhaps can be said to concern the dangers of heeding the advice of women. This is not particularly politically correct in today's world, but we need to remember that this was an immensely popular medieval theme, focusing on Eve as the archetype of the woman as temptress. Women were viewed as "the weaker sex" and thus offered foolish and dangerous advice.

Let us think about why it is that the Nun's Priest tells the tale. His role is a servant to the Prioress. From what we have seen of her, she is depicted as rather foolish and overly sentimental. His work dictates that he must live surrounded by women who are working under her, and thus perhaps share her failings. Thus we can see this tale as a barbed attack against his mistress and also against the women by which he is surrounded.

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