The Nun's Priest's Tale

The General Prologue says that the Prioress was accompanied by "preestes thre" (line 164) but that would upset the total number of pilgrims. Since only one "Nun's Priest" is mentioned later, those words may have been added without much thought by someone other than Chaucer, to complete a defective line in Chaucer's text, for example. There is no portrait of priest or priests in the General Prologue and this has complicated responses to the Tale, since the other tales have very commonly been interpreted in the light of the portraits, in so called "dramatic readings".

The Nun's Priest's Tale is introduced in what is known as Fragment VII by a linking text after the Knight has brought the list of tragic stories comprising the Monk's Tale to an abrupt end. The Host invites the Monk to tell some other kind of Tale but he refuses. So the Host turns to the Nun's Priest, whom he calls "Sir John" but this was a name commonly applied to priests, and asks for "swich thyng as may oure hertes glade".

The ensuing Tale is one of the most popular and most intriguing stories in the whole Canterbury Tales. At its heart is a version of a well-known variety of beast fable, popular in the Middle Ages, where a fox tricks a cockrel into singing with his eyes shut, then grabs him; the cockrel in turn tricks the fox into speaking, and escapes. Such fables are usually not very long and their message is clear, while the Nun's Priest's version is embedded in a complex variety of expansions and developments which complicate both the telling and the interpretation of the Tale.

Many of the passages by which the Tale is expanded are marked by lofty rhetoric and use exempla, or references to science, or philosophy in ways quite out of keeping with the basic beast- fable conventions. Digressions become increasingly frequent and fragmentary as the Tale reaches its climax, and the final "moral" of the Tale is not clearly stated.

The main difficulty comes when we try to offer an explanation for all this. In other Tales, the assumed "personality" of the Narrator can often be invoked, as with the Wife of Bath's Tale. In the present case, though, the Nun's Priest is unknown and undefined. Instead, the Tale has to be seen in the light of some of the overall themes and narrative strategies of the Canterbury Tales.

It may well be one of the last Tales to have been composed. It shows a great mastery of the ways in which narrative breaks down and fails when it is attempting to entertain readers/listeners and give them solaas as well as sentence. One of the main complicating features is the Tale's use of stylistic parody. At several points the main characters, Chauntecleer and Pertelote, are described in terms better suited to the high-born characters of courtly romance. At the climax, the Narrative employs a variety of exclamations and literary references that would be better suited to a heroic story of high significance.

The Tale mirrors its own difficulty in finding an interpretation in the lengthy disputation between Pertelote and Chauntecleer as to the possibility of finding truth and meaning in a dream. One of the fundamental tensions within the Canterbury Tales comes from the apparent impossibility of telling the truth by narratives that are often essentially fictional. Some narrators tell "true stories" of saints' lives, in an attempt to avoid this trap, while the last Parson's "Tale" rejects narrative altogether and expresses the truth in the form of a moral and theological treatise about sin and forgiveness.

Another of Chaucer's main interests, the Boethian themes of Fortune, Fate, Freedom and Providence, are reflected at the heart of the Tale, as Chauntecleer is confronted with the fox he was warned about in his dream, a dream he had insisted was a true warning of coming disaster. When the announced disaster comes, he is so engrossed in sexual pleasure that he seems to have forgotten the warnings entirely. Morality demands that he pay the price of his negligence; yet he suddenly turns the tables on the Fox with his quick thinking, which owes nothing to the dream- vision. His escape is a tribute to his native intelligence, nothing more.