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THE TALES: SUMMARIES/CHARACTERS AND NOTES
The General Prologue (continued)
The peerless Pardoner had just come from Rome and loudly sang "Come to me, love, hither!" The Summoner sang with him. The Pardoner had waxy yellow hair, which hung sleekly like a hank of flax and he was clean shaven. He spread out what little hair he had, thinly over his shoulders. He rode in the new fashion without his hood and only wore a little cap. He had hare-like glaring eyes and a small goat-like voice. His bag was stuffed with pardons that he had brought from Rome. Chaucer thinks that the Pardoner is a eunuch. Nobody could surpass the Pardoner in his profession. He carried fake relics with him to cheat poor believing people out of their money. Thus with false flattery and tricks he outwitted the parson and the parishioners. But Chaucer says that the Pardoner was a noble ecclesiastic who could read a parable well. However he was best at singing at the offertory since he knew that he must sweeten his tongue and preach to extract the maximum amount of money.
The Pardoner is a personification of unmitigated evil. He is the most corrupt among the clergymen. He is aware of his own villainy and in the Prologue to his Tale candidly acknowledges his hypocrisy. He has come straight from Rome and has made the selling of indulgences a commercial enterprise. He rides along with the Summoner, his partner in crime, singing a bawdy love song. His thin goat-like voice and lack of facial hair suggests that he is a eunuch. This is confirmed later when the Host taunts him after he has finished telling his story.
The Host named Harry Bailey, was a handsome man and fit to serve as the master of ceremonies. He was a big man with protruding eyes. He was frank in his speech, wise and well schooled. He was a merry man and well liked among the pilgrims.
These are the 29 pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. That evening after the Host had served an excellent dinner and made everybody feel comfortable, he proposes a scheme to make the journey a pleasant one. It was a common form of entertainment to tell stories during the journey therefore the Host suggests that each pilgrim should narrate two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more while returning. The person who tells the best tale - i.e. the tale that has the greatest moral as well as entertainment value - would be treated to a magnificent supper at the expense of the others. The Host offers to ride along to make the journey more enjoyable and to be the judge for what was best for the group. All the pilgrims gladly accepted the Host as the guide for their journey and immediately retire to bed.
They set out early at dawn the next morning and when they reached the Well of St. Thomas the Host told the group to draw straws so as to decide who would tell the first tale. By luck the Knight drew the shortest straw and agreed to tell the first tale. The General Prologue ends here and the Knight’s tale begins.
The pilgrims described in the ‘General Prologue’ can be broadly divided into two types: the good and the bad. Thus he has drawn idealized portraits of the Knight, the Squire, the Yeoman, the Clerk, the Parson, and the Plowman. This goodness is antithetically balanced by his portrayal of the ‘bad’ or evil characters and this includes the Friar, the Summoner, and the Pardoner. Then there are the neutral objective portraits of the Merchant, the Sergeant at Law, the Franklin, the Sea captain, the Wife of Bath and the guild men.
The fact that the pilgrims are called by their professional titles rather than personal names implies that Chaucer was portraying the stereotypes of the various trades and occupations. By his brilliant use of the device of pilgrimage as the narrative framework, Chaucer was able to represent a microcosm of fourteenth century life in England.