Discuss Chaucer's handling of the fable in 'The Nun's Priest's Tale'

Question

Discuss Chaucer's handling of the fable in 'The Nun's Priest's Tale'.

The Nun's Priest's Tale

 

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Answer

The Nun's Priest's Tale is one of Chaucer's most brilliant tales, and it functions on several levels. The tale is an outstanding example of the literary style known as a bestiary (or a beast fable) in which animals behave like human beings. Consequently, this type of fable is often an insult to man or a commentary on man's foibles. To suggest that animals behave like humans is to suggest that humans often behave like animals.


This tale is told using the technique of the mock-heroic, which takes a trivial event and elevates it into something of great universal import. Alexander Pope's poem The Rape of the Lock is an excellent example a mock-heroic composition; it treats a trivial event (the theft of a lock of hair, in this case) as if it were sublime. Thus when Don Russell, the fox, runs off with Chaunticleer in his jaws, the chase that ensues involves every creature on the premises, and the entire scene is narrated in the elevated language found in the great epics where such language was used to enhance the splendid deeds of epic heroes. Chaucer uses elevated language to describe a fox catching a rooster in a barnyard — a far cry from the classic epics. The chase itself reminds one of Achilles' chasing Hector around the battlements in the Iliad. To compare the plight of Chaunticleer to that of Homer's Hector and to suggest that the chase of the fox is an epic chase similar to classical epics indicates the comic absurdity of the situation.


The mock-heroic tone is also used in other instances: when the Nun's Priest describes the capture of the Don Russell and refers to the event in terms of other prominent traitors (referring to the fox as "a new Iscariot, a second Ganelon and a false hypocrite, Greek Sinon") and when the barnyard animals discuss high philosophical and theological questions. For Lady Pertelote and Chanticleer to discuss divine foreknowledge in a high intellectual and moral tone in the context of barnyard chickens is the height of comic irony. We must also remember the cause of the discussion of divine foreknowledge: ady Pertelote thinks that Chanticleer’s dream or nightmare was the result of his constipation, and she recommends a laxative. Chanticleer’s rebuttal is a brilliant use of classical sources that comment on dreams and is a marvellously comic means of proving that he is not constipated and does not need a laxative. Throughout the mock-heroic, mankind loses much of its human dignity and is reduced to animal values.


The Nun's Priest contrasts the two human worlds of the poor and the rich in the description of the poor widow and the elegant Chanticleer. The widow's "bour and halle" (bedroom) was "ful sooty," that is black from the hearth-flame where she had eaten many a slim or slender meal. Notice the contrast: The term "bour and halle" comes from courtly verse of the time and conjures up the image of a castle. The idea of a "sooty bower" or hall is absurd: The rich would never allow such a thing. Yet soot is inevitable in a peasant's hut, and from the peasant's point of view, the cleanliness fetish of the rich may also be absurd.


The reader should be constantly aware of the ironic contrast between the barnyard and the real world, which might be another type of barnyard. That is, the "humanity" and "nobility" of the animals is ironically juxtaposed against their barnyard life. This contrast is an oblique comment on human pretensions and aspirations in view of the background, made clear when Don Russel challenges Chaunticleer to sing, and the flattery blinds Chaunticleer to the treachery. Here, the tale refers to human beings and the treachery found in the court through flattery. Chaunticleer's escape is also effected by the use of flattery. Don Russell learns that he should not babble or listen to flattery when it is better to keep quiet. And Chaunticleer has learned that flattery and pride go before a fall.


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