This is an essay that I wrote for a literature class on the Nun's Priests Tale.
The Nun’s Priests Tale, one of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, is the story of Chauntecleer, a rooster, who is almost eaten by a fox after ignoring a prophetic dream. The tale revolves around two central conflicts, one between Chauntecleer and his wife, Pertelote, and the other between Chauntecleer and the fox. The first is an argument, consisting of two long speeches, on the subject of whether or not dreams can foretell the future. The second is the speech that the fox delivers to Chauntecleer, trying to flatter him into letting down his guard. The content of these speeches does not affect the plot, but the simple existence of the speeches does. One of the major themes of the tale is that those who love arguing and debating feel no real need to connect their speeches and rhetoric to the real world.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale begins, after a brief description of Chauntecleer, Pertelote, and the widow who owns them, with a very long argument between Chauntecleer and Pertelote. Chauntecleer has had a dream of being eaten by a fox. He believes that it is prophetic, and Pertelote believes that it is only a superfluity of his “rede colera”, or red choleric humour. The two chickens draw out their arguments until they become redundant and it is obvious that they have already made their points, but they love talking so much that they can’t quite make themselves stop. This is shown by Pertelote’s long litany of the medical knowledge of Chaucer’s day, some of which doesn’t even apply to Chauntecleer’s circumstances, such as the fact that the “humour of malencolie” causes people to have nightmares about black bears and bulls, and that an excess of the “humours hoote” or hot humours causes a recurring fever.
Chauntecleer is even more long-winded than Pertelote. He tell two stories about people who ignore their dreams with disastrous consequences, and he refers to several well-known stories, such as the legend of Troy, and the Old Testament. Neither of the arguments are particularly well-constructed, as Pertelote simply states her opinion and repeats it with variations, while Chauntecleer’s argument relies heavily on circumstantial evidence. However, it is obvious that Chauntecleer and Pertelote feel strongly about their opinions and are willing to expound on them at length. That makes it all the more strange when, immediately after having spent a great deal of time and energy convincing Pertelote of his position, Chauntecleer simply decides that “I am so ful of joye and of solas/ That I diffye bothe sweven and dreem” and proceeds to completely ignore his dream. He tells Pertelote that he does this because she is so beautiful that she makes him forget his fear, but this can hardly be the case, as Chauntecleer certainly wasn’t inclined to forget his fears when, just a few seconds ago he told Pertelote that “I shal han of this avisioun/ Adversitee”, or that he would have problems from the dream. It is clear that Chauntecleer still harbours some anger towards Pertelote at this point, as shown by the fact that he quotes some Latin, meaning “Woman is the ruin of man” and translates it as “Womman is mannes joye and al his blis”. Perhaps Chauntecleer ignores his dream as a very subtle way of putting Pertelote in her place by demonstrating that he can be swayed by her beauty but not her arguments. Whatever the reason, however, the fact remains that it doesn’t even seem to occur to Chauntecleer that he is acting in direct opposition to all the points he has just made. If Chauntecleer’s own arguments have no bearing on his behaviour, then why does he bother to make the arguments in the first place? The answer is obvious; he enjoys making them. This fact is implicit throughout Chauntecleer’s argument, but it is especially clear when, while telling the story of a man who ignores a dream of his ship sinking, Chauntecleer is so swept away by his own story that he forgets to come up with an explanation for the
capsizing of the ship, and simply says that “Noot I nat why, ne what myschaunce it eyled,/ But casuelly the shippes botme rente”, or that he doesn’t know why,
but the ship’s bottom suddenly burst open.
The theme of loving one’s own arguments is shown even more clearly in the two conversations between Chauntecleer and the fox. The fox’s objective is to convince
Chauntecleer to crow so loudly that he will have to close his eyes, and thus won’t see the fox, who can then carry Chauntecleer off and eat him. Like Chauntecleer and Pertelote’s arguments, the fox’s speech convincing Chauntecleer to crow is much longer than is necessary. Chauntecleer certainly doesn’t need much encouragement to crow, as shown when “Nothyng ne liste hym thanne for to crowe,/ But cride anon, ‘Cok! cok!’”, which is to say that he didn’t want to crow at all, but did so anyway. Furthermore, it is hinted that Chauntecleer has a rather high opinion of himself and his crowing, as shown when he is described as being “roial, as a prince is in his halle” and when “Hym deigned nat to sette his foot to grounde” (emphasis mine). Clearly, getting Chauntecleer to crow is not a terribly difficult task, and it requires neither the long and flowery speech of praise that the fox delivers, nor the fox’s attempt to make
Chauntecleer want to outdo his father. The fox doesn’t make his speech of praise solely because he wants to eat Chauntecleer, he makes it because he loves to talk. This is shown by the fox’s lush language and overwrought similes, such as his assertion that Chauntecleer has good a voice “As any aungel hath that is in hevene”. The fox
also goes out of his way to reference “Daun Burnel the Asse” a story that the fox himself admits is “no comparisoun” to Chauntecleer.
In conclusion, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a tale of animals who love to talk. They will use any excuse to make long interesting speeches, and they don’t particularly care if their speeches have any practical effect. The Nun’s Priest himself is a nonentity, having only one line in his own prologue, in which he promises to tell a merry tale. It is clear that the Nun’s Priest prefers quietly observing the other pilgrims to talking. It could be said, considering this, that the aforesaid theme of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale refers also to the Canterbury Tales themselves. The pilgrims love to tell stories, or most of them do, and it doesn’t really matter who wins the contest as long as everyone gets entertained on the road to Canterbury.