The Nun’s Priest’s Tale as a Beast Fable
Many of the stories in The Canterbury Tales are re-telling of older materials, and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is no exception. The plot of this tale was well-known to Chaucer’s readers. What mattered to his readers, therefore, was not what ultimately happened to the cock, because they knew it before-hand, but how Chaucer worked his way up to the expected climax of Chanticleer’s escape. Originally the story of the cock and the fox was a simple beast-fable in which a fox induces a cock to close his eyes in order to enhance his singing and then carries him off. The cock saves himself by taunting the fox to fling a challenge at his pursuers much as Chanticleer does in The Nuns Priest’s Tale. With the years the fable became more elaborate.
In the French Roman de Renard, which Chaucer probably knew, the cock has a favourite hen called Pinte, and he dreams of the fox before the latter appears in the yard to flatter him and carry him off. There is a chase, and the cock saves himself by tricking the fox into opening his mouth to talk. The tale told by Chaucer is much more than that. The Nun’s Priests Tale is a splendid example of how a great poet was able to re-shape and refurbish the familiar medieval beast fable of a fox and a cock into a wholly new and unique work of art.
In order to make the familiar story fresh for his readers, Chaucer shifts the focus of interest from Chanticleer’s fate to Chanticleer’s dream. The greatest part of Chaucer’s poem does not strictly deal with the fable at all, it deals with dreams. Chanticleer’s dream is related and discussed at such length and with such a show of learning that it necessarily becomes the central point of interest in the story. Dreams appear with great frequency in medieval literature, and in Chaucer. As a man of wide and varied reading Chaucer was thoroughly familiar with the contemporary theories concerning the cause, nature and significance of dreams. In his introduction to his House of Fame Chaucer discusses dreams and says that he really does not understand the current theories about them.
In The Nun’s Priest Tale, Chaucer’s extensive knowledge of the subject is clearly seen in the debate about dreams. Of course, the dream was already there in the Roman de Renard. What is new in Chaucer’s poem is the artistic use Chaucer makes of the dream. Nor is the content of the dream of very great importance, for it is stated in just ten lines. The interest centres on the discussion or the debate about whether dreams are mere fancies and meaningless things, as asserted by Pertelote, or whether they have any significance as warnings of coming events, as Chanticleer forcefully argues. Pertelote represents the practical, we might say “scientific”, point of view and, with remarkable accuracy, she expresses the medieval medical opinion that certain kinds of dreams are the result of certain kinds of bodily disorders. She suggests the accepted remedy, a digestive of worms followed by laxatives in the form of a number of herbs which she enumerates. Chanticleer, on the other hand, represents the popular view supported by a number of learned writers. Whereas poor Pertelote can cite only one such authority (namely, Cato) in support of her case, Chanticleer cites a whole series of them. Chanticleer is scholarly and philosophical; a student of the supernatural; and he will have nothing to do with household prescriptions and remedies.
In addition to this, he has had more than enough of Pertelote’s garrulity and knowledge, and feels that it is high time that he spoke to establish his superiority over her. His elaborately polite: “Madame, graunt mercy of youre loore,” is a sarcasm. In the Middle Ages, scholarly reference was a male prerogative. Chanticleer, therefore, loses no time to demonstrate his learning. Dreams from Cicero, dreams of Kenelm, of Daniel and Joseph, of the king of Egypt, of Croesus, and of Andromache, together with the testimony of Macrobius—this wealth of anecdote and allusion is brought forth to overwhelm Pertelote. His argument is that, as there have been many cases of significant and prophetic dreams, his own dream must also be a portent. It is an entertaining debate, firstly because it shows us how two people in fourteenth-century England would have discussed such a subject as dreams, and secondly because the personalities of the speakers are clearly imprinted on their approach to the subject and their mode of talking about it. In other words, the trend of the debate on dreams in Chaucer’s poem is made to depend on the characters of the cock and the hen as already portrayed by Chaucer and, at the same time, the discussion is a means of developing these characters, especially Chanticleer’s, further.
The development of the cock’s character is thus another device by which Chaucer gives a new look to the old fable. Beside Chanticleer, his wife Pertelote pales into insignificance, while Russell the colfox plays a smaller part still. Chaucer’s description of the poor widow’s small cottage, her modest possessions and her frugal meals, provides an opening contrast which anticipates the splendours of Chanticleer’s person ruling his court of hens. By contrast with his humble surroundings, Chanticleer appears to be all the more impressive by virtue of his colours, his lordly airs, and his seven paramours. Chanticleer’s character perfectly suits his triple role as the hero of the tale, as the ruler of his roost, and as the husband of Pertelote. He is, indeed, a dazzling figure, the comb redder than fine coral, the bill black and shining like jet, the legs like azure, the plumage like burnished gold. There is even a touch of heroic militarism in the comb “batailled as it were a castel wal”. His vanity is suggested partly by the impressive list of his accomplishments (the clock-like accuracy, organ-like crowing, and general beauty), and partly by the veneration and devotion shown to him by the hens under his “governance”. It is Chanticleer’s character and his virtues (or absence of virtues), his self-assurance and boastfulness, his self-conceit, his sensuality, his love of flattery, and his sly intelligence that engage our minds in Chaucer’s poem.
“The opening description of Chanticleer, replete with instinctive passion and joy, follows immediately upon the associations of poverty and patient, passionless temperance, Style itself echoes the contrast as Chaucer begins to employ the language of the romantic mode, and what is austere or even pedestrian in the opening of the tale gives way to something courtly, perhaps, and descriptively elevated, with even a momentary flight into lyric: “My lief is faren in londe’!”
There is an abundance of humour and fun in Chaucer’s poem, and this is yet another ingredient by which Chaucer added novelty to the old fable of the cock and the fox. From one point of view, this poem is a delightful domestic comedy. Chanticleer and Pertelote sing and flirt like any pair or lovers; they argue, quarrel, and make it up again like many a human husband and wife. Chaucer’s game of dressing up the animals (the cock, the hen, and the fox) in human costumes, and then letting us peep through the disguise, is the source of much laughter. Domestic comedy is, indeed, at the heart of the poem. The love of cock and hen is played upon like a musical theme with a set of variations. Pertelote’s image of Chanticleer as a perfect husband suffers quite a shock when she discovers that he is unmanly in feeling and afraid of a mere dream. But when disaster overtakes him, she shrieks louder than anyone else.
Chanticleer too is a loving husband, and his love for her enables him to overcome his fear. He pays compliments to her on her beauty, and his tributes are reminiscent of a medieval knight’s courtship of a lady. The comic picture of the amorous cock and hen conversing with each other is strengthened by their frequent use of “Madame” and “Sire” along with more intimate terms of endearment like “dear heart”, “husband”, “fair Pertelote so dear”, and “my world’s bliss”. The manner in which Chanticleer extricates himself from the grip of the fox is also part of the comedy of the poem.
Closely connected with what has been said above, and implied in it, is another feature which contributes to the novelty that Chaucer lent to his handling of the fable: namely, the two levels the animal and the human – on which Chaucer narrates the story. There are transitions from one level to the other, and at certain points the two levels merge, resulting in our being enabled to see the animals both as animals and as human beings. This enriches the poem and adds a new dimension to the old story.
The distinctive style of Chaucer’s poem is yet another factor to mark it off from the old fable. Chaucer adopted a mode of writing which was one of the several devices by which he gave a new look to the old story. The build-up of the cock into a learned, courtly gentleman, the description of the hens of whom the fairest was Pertelote, “courteous, discreet, and debonair”; the comparison of the fox with Judas Iscariot and other notorious traitors; the repeated exclamations; passages of moralising and lengthy similes are some of the features of the style of the poem. Chaucer treats the episode of the fox’s carrying off the cock and the cock’s escape as if it were an event of great importance. The discussion on the significance of dreams and the related questions of predestination and free will in human affairs is linked with the fortunes of a mere cock, and thus becomes comic because of the context in which this discussion takes place. Similarly, the lofty sentiments expressed by the cock and the hen, their courtly manners, the comparisons drawn with famous persons and events in human history are all funny because of their trivial context. To call a cock a grim lion, for instance, is comically absurd and becomes even more so when we remember what a coward Chanticleer actually is. In short, Chaucer adopted the mock-heroic style for the writing of this poem. It is the use of elevated language in relation to insignificant matters that makes it a mock-heroic poem.