Trace the influence of Chaucer on “The Paradoner’s Tale”

Chaucer, like Shakespeare, has borrowed his material from the old sources and is, like him again, original. Shakespeare wrote the following Ariel’s song in The Tempest :

“Full fathom five thy father lies;  

Of his bones are coral made;  

Those are pearls that were his eyes;                                    

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change  

Into something rich and strange.”

These lines are as much true to Chaucer as they are to Shakespeare himself. In spite of the borrowings is The Pardoner’s Tale from the old tales, Chaucer’s Tale is altogether his own.

A critic observes: “Chaucer’s task here, as often in his works, was to give a new life and meaning to an old tale.” Let us first trace the probable sources from which Chaucer has profusely borrowed.

Probable Sources: The material of The Pardoner’s Tale is found in many ancient tales of India. Tibet, Arab. German, Portugal and Italy. Let us throw light on some of them.

Jatakas: The first source is to be found in the Buddhist literature, in the Jatakas. In his forty-eighth incarnation the Bodhisattva (the Buddha) was studying under a Brahmin when they were on a journey they were captured by 500 robbers. The Bodhisattva was sent to bring ransom for release. Before departing he warned the Brahmin not to use spell because if he did he and the robbers would die. But the Brahmin used the spell. The precious things rained. The robbers looted them and went away along with the Brahmin. Then they met 500 stronger robbers. The robbers offered them the Brahmin as ransom. But when the Brahmin told that his spell could not work before one year, they killed him snatched the booty from the first 500 robbers and killed them. The second 500 robbers were divided into two camps, fought against each other until only two were left with the spoil, One of them went to the village to get the rice cooked. On his returnee was suddenly killed by the other who also died from the poison which was mixed in the rice by the dead other. The Bodhisattva, returning with the ransom, saw the dead bodies and understood at once that the working of spell had caused all that destruction.

Another Version in Le Ciento ovelle Antike: There is yet another story described in the above novella which might have been a source for Chaucer’s Tale. B. A. Windeatt describes it as follows:

Another version of the story shows how easily it could be used for moralising purposes. Here it becomes part of the teachings of Christ. Christ is walking in wild country with his disciples. They see some gold coins and want to take them. But Christ refuses to let them take what would rob them of their souls. He promises that they will understand this when they come that way again. Now the story follows.

Two friends find the gold. The first returns with a mule and two leaves for his friend. The friend refuses to kills his friend when he is not looking, then gives the mule one loaf and eats the other. Both die. When Christ returns He shows His disciples, the bodies as predicted.

Another Version in Libro Di Novelle: E Di Bel Parlar Antiche Gentile: A.C. Spearing refers to this work as closest to Chaucer’s Tale. But he is doubtful whether Chaucer drew from this source. He says:

This is too late to have been Chaucer’s source and in fact we do not know where Chaucer got his version of the Tale, or how much he added to it. The mysterious Old Man whom the revellers in The Pardoner’s Tale meet and who is himself seeking death appears to be adopted from the wise man (a philosopher or hermit) who gives a warning against the treasure as a cause of death. Neither his quest for death nor that of the three revellers appears in any of the known parallels to the story, and it seems likely that the whole theme of the quest for death was added by Chaucer. The Old Man who wishes to die is not original. However, he seems to have been borrowed by Chaucer from an elegy by Claudian, and may also have been influenced by the legend of the wandering Jew who was supposed to be condemned never to die.

Some other Versions: Bryan and Dempster in their book Sources and Analogues of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales have named two Latin Miss, one dated 1400 and the other 1406 as the probable source for The Pardoner’s Tale. Then there are stories in Persian and Arabic literature in which the stories and almost in the same manner. It is not necessary. However, to find out the exact source from which Chaucer drew. It is enough to see that Chaucer borrowed the story from one or (and) other sources, but, as his genius was original, he made it all his own.

Chaucer’s Originality in the Story:

Chaucer might have taken this from one source and that from another source but the rendering of his Tale is all his own. His genius is like that of Shakespeare and he has transformed the raw material into gold by the alchemy of his art. He has taken from other sources only the bare skeleton and filled it with flash and blood. The following are the original contribution of Chaucer in the existing old story.

  1. The quest of Death by the Old Man and Three Rioters is Chaucer’s own.
  2. The Prologue and the Sermon-Interlude in the story are the creation of Chaucer. The Prologue may not have been related to the story but in one thing it is the part of the story. The motive of the tale is that money is the root of all evil and the Pardoner’s avarice is directly linked to that of the Three Rioters who kill each other because of avarice. But the Sermon-Interlude, though regarded by some critics as a digression, is perfectly interlinked and harmonised with the Tale, because it grows out of it. Dorothy Everett observes in this respect: “The story and the tirade against the sins are so closely connected with one another that one can either regard the story as an exemplum illustrating the tirade, or one can consider the story as the central point and the whole tale is organised according to rhetorical methods.”
  3. The portrayal of the Pardoner all Chaucer’s own. It is not found in any of the old tales.
  4. The morning scene, when the Three Rioters are drinking even before the Church bell rings, the whole atmosphere, the Corpse, the tavern-boy the Taverner all these are the creation of Chaucer.
  5. The most important thing about Chaucer’s originality is that he has created a drama out of the tale. That the story is told dramatically through the dialogues. The dialogues are functional and move the story ahead. The whole the story with dialogue. Suspense, melodrarma. excitement, concentration. Rapidity of movement. Dramatic monologue, dramatic irony. Reads like a drama. The dialogues between the Host and the Physician, between the Host and the Pardoner both in the beginning and the end of the story, between the Three Rioters and the Tavern Boy, between them and the Taverner and between the Rioters themselves have provided to the Tale an impersonality which is found in the plays of Shakespeare.
  6. Then there is the art of story telling which is Chaucer’s own, The Pardoner’s Tale has been regarded as one of the finest tales of Chaucer. And this has been possible because of the narrative art. Chaucer’s narrative art has infused new life in the Tale. His art has made it possible that his Tale with its rapidity, suspense. Dramatic upsurge, excitement and melodrama, arrests us and grips us.


Most of these contributions have been deftly described by B. A. Windeatt: The example of these popular versions of the same story can help us to understand what Chaucer wants to emphasise in his own tale. There are some significant differences in structure and character. Chaucer’s opening scene and the decision to kill Death produces much greater irony in the Tale. Chaucer’s revellers do not recognise the gold as Death, even though they are looking for Death and have been directed specifically to that spot in order to find Death. Chaucer’s version becomes more horribly intense. The blindness of his revellers becomes absolute, and their damnation more complete. Their madness is unforgettably represented as a kind of instant forgetfulness:

Ne lenger thanne after Deeth they soughte

Chaucer’s version of the story reflects the Pardoner’s own cynicism about the consuming greed that governs human nature.

No doubt there are medieval elements in The Pardoner’s Tale like the mystery of life and death, the Biblical allusions and the moralistic touch. But these things have been incorporated in the Tale in letter and not in spirit. The spirit of the Tale is that Renaissance. Chaucer has discarded the conventions of medievalism. He has infused new life in the old tale by his psychological portrayal of his characters, by his realistic touch to what he writes, by his dramatic description of the happenings, his mild but sharp irony which integrates the whole thing and the renaissance element which colours the philosophy and the mystery of the Tale.



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