Skill of Chaucer in his Writing of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Chaucer has borrowed his subject-matter freely from other sources like Shakespeare. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is no exception. The story of the cock and fox was very well known to his readers. Originally, the story 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 Nun’s Priest’s Tale. With the passage of time the fable became more elaborate. In the French Roman de Renard (Romance of Reynard, the Fox) 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 Priest’s Tale is a splendid example of how, a great poet was able to re-shape and refurnish the familiar medieval beast-fable of a fox and a cock into a wholly new and unique work of art.

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The familiar story told in the Roman de Renard is as follows:

“The fox lies in wait by the broken fence of a farmyard, and frightens the hens: the cock asks what they are afraid of, and being informed, is very scornful of their terrors. That their fears have impressed him, however, is evidenced by the dream Chanticleer has, in which he finds he is being carried away by a monster. His hen, Pinte, consoles him and the cock sleep’s once more. This time the fox snaps at him. but misses. Reynard does not retire but begins to cajole the bird, remarking in the beauty of the voice of Chanticleer’s late father. Our cock shows his quality, but the fox advises him to close his eyes and thus sing better. The plan succeeds, the cock is off guard, and Reynard carries him off by the neck. The whole farmyard is disturbed, the farmer is blaming his wife for carelessness in not seizing the fox, and dogs and men chase the robber. The cock, restoring to strategy advises Reynard to shout defiance at the pursuers. He attempts to do so, whereupon the bird escapes from between his jaws, flies on to a tree, and warns the fox to escape or the dogs will get him.”

It is also to be noticed that in the mock-heroic epic of Chaucer he concentrates more on the dreams than on the fable. He makes an artistic use of dreams. The discussion centers on the point 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, 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 sport, 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. Chanticleer goes on showing his learning by referring to the dreams of Cicero. of Kenelm, of Daniel and of Joseph. of the King of Egypt. of Croesus. of Andromache and of Macrobius.

There is something courtly and romantic in the style of Chaucer. There is an abundance of humour and fun in the Chaucer’s poem.

Chanticleer and Pertelote sing and flirt like any pair of 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” and other terms such as “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 a part of the comedy of the poem. A novelty of Chaucer lies in the treatment of the fable. He fuses most successfully and artistically the animal and the human. There are transitions from one level to the other. They make the poem much more delightful than the original source. But the most striking feature of the poem is its mock-heroic element.

Discuss the Nun’s Priest’s Tale as a mock heroic poem



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