The Miller’s Tale is not supposed to follow the Knight’s Tale, for the Monk, who is next to the Knight in the social order, should go next. But the drunken Miller cuts in, insisting that he will tell a tale first or else leave the group. The Reeve tells him to shut up, but the Miller insists. A well-meaning but stupid carpenter named John has a lodger, a poor scholar named Nicholas. Nicholas buries himself in astrology books, likes to play music and mess around with women, and lives off his friends. John, meanwhile, has a young wife, only eighteen, named Alison, of whom he’s extremely jealous.
Not surprisingly, Nicholas starts to make a pass at Alison one day while John is away. She protests only a little before agreeing that if Nicholas can find a way to keep John from finding out, she’ll sleep with him. Don’t worry, says Nicholas, a clerk can surely fool a carpenter. Meanwhile, a parish clerk named Absalom, who is as particular as Nicholas about his appearance and his appeal to women, sees Alison at church and decides to woo her. He sings under the bedroom window that night, waking up John in the bargain. He tries everything he can think of, but Alison is so infatuated with Nicholas that she pays no attention.
Nicholas comes up with a plan that will let him and Alison spend all night together. He stays in his room for days, until John gets worried and breaks down the door. Nicholas warns him, in confidence, that he has seen a terrible omen in his astrology books. There will be a flood that will make Noah’s flood look like a drizzle. In order to be saved, Nicholas tells John that he must get three large tubs and hang them from the roof until the flood reaches that high; then they can cut the ropes and float away. But you must not sleep with your wife that night, Nicholas warns, because there must be no sin between you.
Gullible John believes every word. On the appointed night he strings up the boats and falls asleep in one of them. Needless to say, Nicholas and Alison live it up. But Absalom, having heard that John is out of town, hightails it to the house and stands under the window again, begging for a kiss. As a joke, Alison agrees, and under cover of night she sticks her rear end out the window for Absalom to kiss. He gets furious and his love for Alison evaporates. He runs to a blacksmith and takes a hot iron back to the house, calling to Alison that he wants to give her a gold ring.
This time Nicholas decides to put his rear end out the window to be kissed. “Speak, dear,” says Absalom, since it’s too dark to see. Nicholas farts. He gets a hot poker where it hurts, and shrieks, “Help! Water! ” The cry wakes up John, who thinks the cry of “Water! ” means the flood has begun. He cuts the rope and crashes to the ground, fainting and breaking his arm in the process. The tale ends with John the laughingstock of the town, Nicholas amply repaid for his deceit, and Alison having gotten the “plumbing” she desired. NICHOLAS is the sliest character in Chaucerian literature.
He is “hende,” a word that means “nice” and “pleasant,” but also carries hints of “sly” and “handy,” in other words, ready for action. He knows all about love, sexual pursuits, and astrology. He’s amazingly creative, devising a complicated scheme to sleep with Alison and to make John believe his wild story. NOTE: Chaucer’s emphasis on the creativity of rogues in his tales is something brand new to the Middle Ages. Before this it was unheard of to grant anything like cunning to any evil character except the Devil himself. Chaucer’s audience would recognize his name from plays about St.
Nicholas, who is the mysterious guest at the home of evil hosts. Here, it’s the other way around. ALISON is charming. Some think she’s not terribly bright, while others see Chaucer’s portrait of her as a wholehearted endorsement of youth. Her description is filled with animal and nature images: her body is graceful as a weasel’s, she’s softer than sheep’s wool, and better to look at than a pear tree. (Remember this image. In the Merchant’s Tale the pear tree becomes a symbol of adultery. ) She’s skittish as a colt, and the apron around her loins is white as morning milk.
That sounds sweet and pure, but her eyes are wanton under her plucked eyebrows. The Miller calls her by flowers’ names–a primrose and a “piggesnye,” which also means “pig’s eye. ” So the suggestion of pastoral innocence is offset by a sense of natural instincts and unthinking passion. ABSALOM is a real dandy, as anxious as Nicholas to hop into bed with pretty women. But where Nicholas is a man of action, taking what he wants, Absalom does things the polite way, singing songs under Alison’s window and following proper ceremony.
He’s immensely particular about his appearance and his scent, which could explain why he’s squeamish about farting. Chaucer’s description is more appropriate to a romance heroine than to a man, with his prettily curled hair and rosy complexion. He’s not “hende” like Nicholas, he’s “jolly,” which could explain why he’s useless in getting anywhere with Alison. Because he’s so exact about his clothes, some see him as a typical small-town lover boy, without intelligence. But he’s not unlikable. When you’re in love, it’s sometimes hard to think of anything but the object of your desire.
JOHN is someone we don’t really see, in the sense that he’s not physically described. There’s a reason for this: he stays in the background while Nicholas, Alison, and Absalom fill the stage. Yet John, even though he’s stupid, is a nice guy. He’s truly concerned about Nicholas when the schemer is in his “fit,” and his first thought is for Alison when he hears the end of the world is at hand. Significantly, his name reminds us of St. John, whose gospel describes the next “flood,” or Doomsday. The irony to Chaucer is that the carpenter’s knowledge is not true, as opposed to the knowledge revealed in the Bible.