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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE MILLER'S TALE

PLOT

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.

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