The Nun’s Priest’s Tale as a Mock Heroic Poem
A heroic poem is one that tells the story of a hero whose adventures and exploits have a great, recognized significance. It is a long narrative poem written in an elevated style. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the best-known examples of heroic poems. The hero in such a poem is often a great national figure. A mock-heroic poem is one in which the subject is mean or trivial while the style of treating the subject is elevated. The author of such a poem makes the subject look ridiculous by placing it in a framework entirely inappropriate to its nature.
Some of the famous English mock-heroic poems are Samuel Butler’s Hudibras and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Car and Fielding’s Tom Thumb also belong to the class of mock heroic writings. As Pope put it,
“The use of the grand style on little subjects is not only ludicrous, but a sort of transgression against the rules of proportion and mechanics. It is using a vast force to lift a feather.”
The subject in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is the carrying off by a fox of a cock and the cock’s escape from the fox’s clutches. Evidently it is a trivial subject because a cock and a fox can under no circumstances be regarded as having much importance or significance. But the style which Chaucer employs to deal with this subject has a certain dignity, and it is the application of this elevated style to a trivial subject which makes The Nun’s Priest’s Tale a mock-heroic poem.
What Chaucer does is to treat the story of the cock and the fox as if it were the tale of some mighty hero facing a disaster, and the means of achieving this is a grand, elegant style, such as a genuinely heroic poem would employ. The language used, the descriptions and dialogue, the similes and lofty exclamations, are sustained at this exalted level throughout the poem. But we never lose sight of the joke, for at intervals the narrator reminds us of the farmyard and the triviality of the subject, so that we recognize the grand style as having a mock-serious motive.
The mock-heroic tone is established at the very outset, with the description of Chanticleer. The author employs a series of superlatives in giving us this description. In all the land, no one was Chanticleer’s equal at crowing: his voice was merrier than the church-organ on feast days; his crowing was more reliable than the abbey-clock; he knew by instinct the beginning of each equinox; his comb was redder than fine coral, and “batailled” like a castle-wall; his black bill shone like jet; his legs and his toes were like azure; his spurs were whiter than the lily, and his colour was like burnished gold.
The diction used in this description had deliberate courtly overtones, and the colours suggest all the splendours of medieval heraldry. And yet, for all the seeming extravagance of Chanticleer’s appearance, Chaucer was describing an actual breed of fowl, one known to the experts by the name of Golden Spangled Hamburg. The cock is thus a real cock in the same way in which the poor widow’s cottage and yard are real. But he is also a “gentil cok”, a high-born, aristocratic cock, and this image of his social status is strengthened by the use of such words as “governance” and “damoysele”, and is maintained throughout the poem.
In the dialogue also the mock-heroic tone prevails. There are, firstly, the polite modes of address (“Madame”, “Sire”, “fair Pertelote so dear”, “dear heart”) used by the animals/and there are, besides, the frequent invocations to God, the earnest moralising, and the profundity of the learning displayed in appropriately mock-serious language:
“Mordre wol out, that se we day by day……
And certes in the same book I rede,
Right in the nexte chapitre after this…….
By God! I hadde levere than my sherte”
There is a joke in almost every line of Chanticleer’s long speech.
A good deal of the comedy of this poem lies in the incongruity of treating the episode of the cock, the hen, and the fox as if it were a major event of world-wide importance; and the characters have been built up accordingly. Furthermore, the poet has introduced an elaborate discussion on the significance of dreams, with a brief reference to such philosophical questions as those of predestination and free will in human affairs. In the context of dreams, Chanticleer not only tells two stories of human misfortune but also reinforces his argument with reference to Kenelm, Daniel, Joseph, the King of Egypt, the King of Lydia, and Andromache. Chanticleer calls to witness characters from history, mythology and the Bible So far as problems of predestination and free choice are concerned, the narrator (not Chanticleer) mentions such scholars as Augustine, Boethius and Bradwardin, Thus celebrities of world-wide fame find their way into a story that deals with a cock and a fox.
A philosophical discussion is introduced as having some relevance. This discussion, which would normally be weighty and thought-provoking, becomes comic here because it is linked with the adventures of a cock. Similarly, there are the noble sentiments expressed by the animals, their courtly manners, the analogies between trivial characters and trivial incidents on one hand and famous persons and well-known events in human history, which are wholly inappropriate to their context. This inappropriateness gives rise to a lot of fun. If a brave king, surrounded by his court of lords and ladies, is compared to a fierce lion, it would be an apt simile. But here a mere cock, as he struts up and down in a yard pecking at grains of corn and clucking to his hens, is called “a grim lion”. This comparison is absurd and comic, especially because Chanticleer is really a coward.
All comedy relies, in some way, on disproportion or incongruity, and in mock-heroic writing the incongruity is between the grand style commonly associated with epic poetry and the lowly or trivial subject matter. Chaucer uses several of the conventions and techniques of epic writing in his farmyard fable! The description of Chanticleer at the beginning is deliberately inflated and grandiose, suggesting the hero’s epic romance. Deities and mythological figures are frequently invoked in the treatment of epic heroes, and this is burlesqued at the tale’s crisis, when the Nun’s Priest reflects that Chanticleer’s disaster occurs on Friday, the day sacred to Venus the goddess in whose ‘servyce Chanticleer dide al his power-moore for delit than world to multiplye.’
Heroic literature also emblazons its events and persons with a wealth of reference, literary and mythological, to other great deeds. This sort of reference abounds in the Tale, the lament of Chanticleer’s capture again being typical. Nothing less than the fall of Troy and the slaying of King Priam will do (as saith us Eneydos’), and the weeping Trojan women are compared to ‘all the hennes in the cloos, when they had seen of Chanticleer the sighte’.
The narrator (that is, the Priest) heightens the mock-heroic effect of his story by a comic use of lofty similes. True heroic poetry acquires much of its grandeur and stateliness from its use of metaphorical language. But in mock-heroic poetry, such language becomes comic because of its use in relation to the pettiness of the subject. There are several examples of this element in the present story, from the initial comparison of Chanticleer’s voice to a churchorgan, to the final suggestion that even the murderous mob which swept through the streets of London at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 under the leadership of Jack Straw, was not half as terrifying as the pursuit of the fleeing fox.
The more daring the comparison, the more mock-heroic it becomes in a low context. A fox may certainly be called a “homicide”; but to call him a new “Judas Iscariot” and compare him with other notorious traitors in human history is surely to touch the heights of extravagance. Perhaps the best example of this device is the three-fold simile in the lines which are a climax of the narrator’s last interruption between the fox’s seizing Chanticleer and the beginning of the chase. The terrified hens produce a loud clamour as they see their lord and master being carried off. Neither the fall of Troy, says the Priest, nor the conquest of Carthage, nor Nero’s burning of Rome caused such lamentation as this.
Chanticleer’s seven hens, Pertelote loudest of all, clucking in their yard, are compared to wives and mothers suffering some of the most tragic moments in history. The careful balancing of key words and phrases helps to achieve the right effect. The agony of innocent suffering is transferred, by way of the slain Roman senators’ wives, to the hens. The barn-yard becomes inflated until it can stand comparison with Rome. This kind of inflation, or false aggrandizement, is the secret of the mock-heroic technique.
Finally, there are the lofty exclamations which are found in the poem and which serve to elevate the style at appropriate moments and to add rhetorical colour. These exclamations become yet another mock-heroic device. By invoking God, Destiny, and Venus, the narrator adds yet another dimension to the story. We might call it “the dimension of importance”. The fate of a cock may be vital to himself and to his hens, and also to his owner. But it is hard to believe that the higher powers which control the world’s destiny are interested in him too. But this is just what the exclamations, mentioned above, suggest. (Such invocations are also called “apostrophes”). Friday, the day of Venus, the goddess of love, whose devoted servant the amorous Chanticleer so obviously was, is the day decreed by cruel fate to be the day of this hero’s downfall. Others, even kings, have suffered disaster on a Friday, and this places Chanticleer in their exalted company. The appeal to heavenly powers, the suggestion that they are directly involved in the cock’s fate as in the fate of kings, becomes the master stroke of Chaucer’s mock-heroic technique.
The effect of the mock-heroic technique in this poem is that of looking through a powerful magnifying glass. Every aspect of the trivial episode is enlarged far beyond its proper dimensions. The animals become not only human, but heroic. Their speeches and actions and fortunes are made to acquire an exaggerated importance. But every now and then the technique is reversed, and this produces what has been called “the candid shock effect” of bringing us back to our senses and putting the matter in the proper perspective. At the end of the story, with its final exchange of words between cock and fox, the mock-heroic game is completed, and we find ourselves back in the uncomplicated world of barn-yard and beast-fable.
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