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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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The Nun's Priest's Tale interweaves many threads from other tales, leading many to believe that this is the story that most accurately shows Chaucer's own beliefs about humanity and its place in the grand scheme of things.

By calling attention to the start of the world "when God first made man" (line 368), and remembering that the story takes place when animals could speak, Chaucer makes it sound like Chanticleer and his hens are close in time to the Fall and have a clearer vision than we have of where we all stand in God's grand design. We are again reminded of fortune: Chanticleer has a "sorrowful cas" (accident, a word Chaucer never uses lightly), and we are reminded of the biblical teaching that "worldly joy is soon gone" (lines 384- 386). This comes right after Chanticleer's announcement of contentment, warning us that only the higher pleasures of God are outside fortune's wheel. We're also reminded that the tone of the whole "romantic" tale is tongue-in-cheek when the narrator says the tale is just as "true" as the legend of Lancelot that women are so fond of. (Is this another slight against women?)

The fox's attack has been "forecast" (line 397) through Chanticleer's dream from God's "high imagination," and all the ideas presented so far now get put to the test of action. The narrator raises the whole idea of destiny and man's freedom as the catastrophe approaches, but in an exaggerated, humorous way. He brings up "simple" versus "conditional" necessity, an important argument with medieval scholars: does man live by "simple necessity," which means everything is predetermined, or by "conditional necessity," in which God knows everything but allows men freedom of choice?

Instead of answering, he puts the question in perspective by reminding us that this is a tale about a cock and a hen. Is this saying that philosophy is useless, and that the wisest of us know no more than barnyard animals? Some point to the confusion the narrator shows in the philosophical passage as evidence for this view. Others think it's just the Nun's Priest's way of avoiding responsibility for the philosophical explanation and for the attack on women that follows. (Is it Chaucer or the priest who decides to take back the offensive comments that women's advice is what caused the Fall?) The escape line (line 442) that he means these comments only as a joke might mean the narrator is part of the whole comedy of the tale, or that he's trying to make a fast getaway.

As the fox approaches, Chanticleer sings like a mermaid" (line 450), which in the Middle Ages symbolized the ancient Sirens whose sweet songs lured men to their doom. This is a reference to the fact that Chanticleer's voice will soon do him in. He's about to learn the difference between believing something (that his dream spelled evil to come) and acting on that belief, which he hasn't done. Because this is a tale with a Christian moral, he must deal with the trials and tribulations arising from his action (or lack of it) before he can reach a happy ending.


When he sees the fox, he feels an instinct to flee, because it is in the natural order for an animal to run from its enemy. This instinctive knowledge flies in the face of all the learned knowledge we've been shown, and shows the divine order as it really is-all things according to their nature.

Chanticleer falls prey not only to the fox but to the sin of pride, emphasized by the fox's use of Devil (saying he's not a "fiend," line 466) and angel (saying that Chanticleer sings as merrily as one, line 472), which refers to Satan's fall from grace. On another level, it's possible that the fox's use of flattery and deceit to win Chanticleer parallels the rooster's use of the same tactics to woo his wife. His crowing (which also means "boasting") also becomes ironic when we realize that the fox is praising Chanticleer's "wisdom and discretion" (line 498), which the bird certainly is not displaying at this moment. He's literally blinded by flattery because he's closed his eyes to sing.

The exclamation of complaint that follows is hilarious, attaching such heroic importance to the abduction of a rooster: "Alas, that Chanticleer flew from the beams!" Venus is implored to save her noble servant (like Palamon in the Knight's Tale and like the Wife of Bath who also loves "more for delight than to multiply the world," line 524). The passage might also serve to ridicule the learned works and show how useless they are when it comes to keeping men (or roosters) from the consequences of their own stupidity.

The chase scene that follows starts with a joke of the hens' laments being worse than when the Romans burned Carthage and Nero burned Rome. This could serve to point up Chanticleer's inflated sense of his own importance, or just to make the hens again appear more human. The scene also brings the spectator right into the mess-out "ran Colle our dog" (line 563).

There's no longer any control or reasoned argument, just chaos. There's even a reference to a wider uproar, the Peasants Revolt headed by Jack Straw (line 574), when many people feared for their lives because of rioting in the streets. Like the animals in the poem, there was good reason to fear that heaven would fall.

Suddenly the priest tells us, "See how Fortune suddenly turns around the hope and pride of their enemy!" (lines 583-584). Chanticleer has flattered his wife, then the fox wins him by flattery, now he uses flattery to win his freedom back; a nicely completed circle of fortune. The whole idea of running off at the mouth-referring to Chanticleer's use of the dream "knowledge" that is true but that he ignores-also gets pegged when the fox says misfortune will come to those who blab when they should shut up (lines 613-615).

Chanticleer sees the truth through this self-awareness, learning from his mistakes. The sins of pride and self-satisfaction are solved by self- knowledge. And, in case we're tempted just to write off the whole tale as a "folly" (trifle) about a fox, a rooster, and a hen, the Nun's Priest reminds us we should "Take the moral, good people." We should accept what applies to us (take the "fruit" and leave the "chaff," line 623) and become better people for it.

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