The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

One April, a group of pilgrims gathers at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, to embark on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. After dinner, Harry Bailly, the host, proposes a storytelling competition on the journey. The host will judge, and the winner will receive a dinner at the Tabard Inn. The following morning, as the pilgrims depart, they draw lots to begin. The Knight draws the shortest lot and tells his tale.

In “The Knight’s Tale,” Duke Theseus returns to Athens victorious over the Amazons with their queen, Hippolyta, as his wife and with her sister Emily. They encounter women mourning because the Theban king, Creon, refuses burial for their husbands, who were killed besieging Thebes. Duke Theseus then conquers Thebes. He captures two knights, Palamon and Arcite, and imprisons them.

One May morning, both Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emily when they see her walking in the garden. Duke Perotheus, a friend of Duke Theseus, negotiates Arcite’s release on the condition that he never return to Athens. Arcite longs for Emily, however, so he disguises himself as a squire, calls himself Philostratus, and serves at the court of Duke Theseus. Meanwhile, Palamon escapes by sedating his jailer.

By chance, Palamon and Arcite meet in the woods outside Athens. Duke Theseus finds them as they battle over Emily. He decrees that Palamon and Arcite should return in a year to wage a tournament for Emily. Palamon and Arcite gather with their knights at the new stadium built by Duke Theseus. Palamon is defeated, but Arcite is mortally injured while riding in victory around the stadium. After mourning Arcite, Duke Theseus arrange for the marriage of Palamon and Emily.

After commending the Knight’s story, Harry Bailly asks the Monk to continue, but Robin, the drunken Miller, insists on telling his bawdy tale next. In “The Miller’s Tale,” John, an older carpenter who is married to Alison, a pretty young woman, is afraid of her attractiveness to other men. Nicholas, a student who boards in their house, proposes a tryst with Alison. Absalom, a parish clerk, also tries to court her. Nicholas contrives a plan to deceive the carpenter. He convinces the carpenter of an impending flood and instructs John to provide tubs and provisions for them. At night, when they retire to their tubs in the attic to await the deluge, the carpenter falls asleep and Nicholas steals away with Alison to her bedroom.

Meanwhile, Absalom woos Alison outside her room. In the darkness, he asks for a kiss. She sticks her backside out the window. He kisses her backside. Realizing that he has been duped, Absalom obtains a red-hot iron. Absalom returns and asks for another kiss. Nicholas, amazed at Absalom’s foolishness and wishing to participate in the jest, sticks his backside out the window while Alison says it is she, and Absalom brands Nicholas with the iron. Nicholas’s screams of pain awaken the carpenter, who falls to the ground and breaks his arm. Nicholas and Alison convince the neighbors that the carpenter is delusional about the flood.

Next, the Reeve, the Cook, and the Man of Law tell their stories. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” a reaction to “The Miller’s Tale,” Oswald the Reeve tells about a dishonest miller who robs two clerks. They retaliate against him by getting him drunk and taking advantage of his wife and daughter. “The Cook’s Tale,” a fragment of about fifty lines, tells of a young man done out of his inheritance by a wicked older brother. In “The Man of Law’s Tale,” Constance, daughter of a Roman emperor, marries first a sultan of Syria who is killed and then a king. Both mothers-in-law cause her to be accused of treachery, but ultimately she is reunited with her second husband.

The wife of Bath next offers her tale. She prefaces the story with a discourse on marriage, based on her experiences with five husbands. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” a knight in King Arthur’s court...

(The entire section is 5,594 words.)