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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Nun's Priest’s Tale (continued)
Chaunticleer then expiates on the certainty of punishment overtaking the murderer. He gets so engrossed by his rhetoric that he digresses from his argument. He then tells another story about 2 men who were to set sail the next day for some distant country. As luck would have it one of the men dreamt at night that they would drown if they set sail the next day. When the man told his friend about his dream, he laughed it off and dismissed the dream as a delusion. The friend set sail according to the plan and after some distance his ship capsized and he was drowned.
Chaunticleer tells Pertelote that it is thus foolish to disregard the warnings posed by dreams. He proceeds to quote some more authorities in support. He cites the example of St. Kenelm who foresaw his own murder in a dream. He cites Macrobius’ commentary on Scipio’s dream to confirm that dreams are indeed forewarnings of future events. He also reminds Pertelote about the dreams of Joseph and Daniel of the Old Testament, Croesus, King of Lydia, and Andromache. He winds up his argument with a flourish 2and concludes that he doesn’t require any laxatives.
Sensing that he has probably been too rude to Pertelote, Chaunticleer changes the subject and praises her remarkable beauty. He then quotes a Latin phrase, "In principio / Mulier est hominis confusio" that is, "Woman is man’s whole joy and happiness". He says that his love for her makes him defy all dreams. He then gallantly struts about the barnyard amidst the adulation of his seven wives.
In the meanwhile a sly black fox named Daun Russel had crept into the yard and was hiding among the cabbage leaves waiting for the opportune moment to attack Chaunticleer. In mock-heroic tone the Nun's Priest compares Daun Russel the fox to such traitors as Iscariot, Ganelon and Sinon. The Nun's Priest bewails that Chaunticleer ignored the warning in his dream and jumped down from his perch. He then digresses into a lengthy discussion about predestination and free will.
The Nun's Priest resumes his story of a cock and describes how the fox caught Chaunticleer. Chaunticleer was delightedly watching a butterfly as it glided over the cabbage patch when he suddenly noticed the fox who was hiding there. His natural instinct bade him to flee from his arch enemy but the fox restrains him by praising his excellent voice. The fox asserts that he is Chaunticleer’s friend and had only come to hear him sing. He cunningly tells Chaunticleer that he wants to see if Chaunticleer can surpass the melodious voice of his father’s voice.
Chaunticleer was overcome with the fox’s flattery and closing his eyes burst into a song. At that very moment the fox leapt up and grabbed Chaunticleer by the neck and ran into the woods. Chaunticleer’s wives unleashed a torrent of outcry and lamentation at this tragedy. Pertelote shrieked the loudest of all. The screeching of the hens awoke the widow and her daughters who saw the fox carrying away Chaunticleer. Immediately their cries for help gathered a number of men and women who chased the fox. Even the farm animals joined in the chase. This created a hideous racket and it seemed as if the very skies were falling down.
However there was a reversal of fortune. Chaunticleer goaded the fox into hurling curses at the crowd chasing him. The foolish fox was enchanted by this suggestion and when he opened his mouth Chaunticleer broke free and flew to a high perch on a tree. The fox realizes that God sends ill luck to those who talk when they should keep quiet; while Chaunticleer realizes that fortune doesn’t favor those who shut their eyes when they are required to look. Thus the Nun's Priest ends his tale with a moral.
The Nun's Priest’s Tale is a wonderfully crafted short story and beast fable that provides an excellent example of Chaucer’s vast learning and scholarship. The tale abounds with an impressive number of diverse scholastic references ranging from the Bible to Greek philosophy and from medieval medicine to theology. Like Shakespeare, Chaucer felt no hesitancy in borrowing material for his stories from earlier writers. In ‘The Legend of Good Women’ he tells the reader that he owned sixty books, which was an impressive library in the context of the fourteenth century. The Nun's Priest’s story of the cock and the fox is based on an Aesopian fable. Chaucer probably adapted the French ‘Roman de Renard’ by Marie de France and the German ‘Reinhart Fuchs’ for his beast fable. However Chaucer has made the tale more real and interesting. He also adds the characters of the widow and her daughters and places his story in their humble farmyard.
The Nun's Priest’s Tale also speaks volumes for Chaucer’s skill as a craftsman and short story writer. Chaucer’s choice of the Nun's Priest for telling the tale is a brilliant stroke of luck. The tale is perfectly suited to its teller. The Nun's Priest is a religious man and is expected to be a man of vast learning and knowledge. His story is thus replete of learned allusions. The fable also has all the traditional ingredients of an exemplum that the Nun's Priest could preach. The reader can easily associate the Nun's Priest with the moral of his fable. The tale focuses attention upon the Nun's Priest himself and may be seen as a comment on his own position. Like Chaunticleer, the Nun's Priest too is ruled by women and evidently does not like it.
The Nun's Priest’s Tale is a mock epic and is absolutely hilarious because of the ridiculous disparity between the manner of writing and the subject matter. An epic is usually a long, narrative poem on a serious subject, narrated in a formal and elevated style. It is centered on a quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of an entire nation. The Nun's Priest’s Tale also has as its central character, a cock named Chaunticleer on whom nothing but his own life depends. Nonetheless it’s a long narrative poem and adopts various conventional features of the heroic poem. The setting of an epic is ample in scale. However Chaunticleer is owned by a widow and has a barnyard as his hall. The action of an epic involves superhuman deeds in battle such as Achilles’ feats in the Trojan War. However Chaunticleer’s plight is his being stalked and carried away by a fox, to be eaten as a meal. His journey takes him from the yard to the edge of a wood. Chaunticleer escapes by a reversal of Fortune. The fox had tricked Chaunticleer through flattery and he in turn tricks the fox. At the end of the tale both have learned survival strategies.
The Nun's Priest’s Tale also discusses two favorite Themes of Chaucer - dreams and predestination - with weighty classical, philosophical and medical allusions. Chaucer held that dreams were visions of the future and thus had metaphysical importance. This view established that God in some way already determined the future. However Pertelote explains Chaunticleer’s dream medically and does not see it as a prophecy of the things to come. She even prescribes some laxatives and digestives to the ailing cock. Chaunticleer insists that his dream is prophetic and supports his argument with references to Cato, St. Kenelm, Daniel and Joseph from the Old Testament, Andromache and Hector.
Although the Nun's Priest’s Tale is a conventional beast fable, Chaucer overcomes the restrictions of the genre by endowing his animals with human qualities. When the cock vainly swaggers in the farmyard before his adoring wives, the reader automatically associates him with a courtly lover. The lovely lady Pertelote’s mockery of her husband’s queer ideas about the prophetic importance of dreams aptly reflects wifely behavior. But at the same time the reader is not allowed to forget that this is a story of a cock and fox. Although the author highlights the human aspects of these animals, they are nevertheless creatures of the barnyard. The fact that they speak in such a learned and noble way is an indirect comment on how absurd human aspirations can be.
Chaucer also deals with problem of women’s position in society. Traditionally women were seen as the source of evil and Eve was denounced for causing the fall of mankind. The Nun's Priest obviously holds this view but dismisses it as a joke.