Master of Arts (MA)
Semester of Degree Completion
Although Chaucer did not write The Canterbury Tales until after the death of Edward III, Chaucer's youth was spent in the company (albeit on the fringes) of the war-like king and his war-like sons. Surely, as the young Chaucer performed his duties and perhaps read stories or listened to the gossip spread by servants and courtiers, such as the account of Edward's having ravished a defenseless woman, impressions formed in Chaucer's mind. Perhaps such rumors as that Edward's son Lancaster had designs on his father's throne added to and solidified those impressions into opinion, and a character type was born, one which, on a superficial level, appears open and candid, inviting of trust. At a more basic level, however, this character is a master of manipulation and duplicity.
It is my contention that three characters, Arcite in The Knight's Tale and Nicholas and Absolon in The Miller's Tale, may be drawn from this model, born in part from old stories and rumors and in part from incidents which occurred in Chaucer's own lifetime. I suggest that The Knight's Tale, a tale of romance, may also be viewed as a tale of personal betrayal and treasonous intent. Similarly, The Miller's Tale, in addition to being a humorous tale of cuckoldry, also offers an account of political intrigue which leads to civil disruption. As a method of unifying the two tales and of implying their particular political themes of betrayal and treason to his target audience Chaucer identifies the men, Arcite, Absolon and Nicholas, all men of excess, by their hair.
In this way, Chaucer was able to take the Absalom archetype, common in his day, cloak it in inconspicuous forms, and use it to re-tell political events and situations to an audience who understood the implications, and who, after the laughter died down, perhaps reflected. Social activist Saul Alinski writes, "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule" (128). Politician, poet, citizen, Chaucer's ability to reduce a prince to a clerk or a king to a miller was entertaining, but perhaps Chaucer also used his art as a powerful method of motivation.
Hardin, Sharon, "Chaucer's Use of the Absalom Archetype in The Knight's Tale and in The Miller's Tale" (1996). Masters Theses. 1904.