The sense of random happenings and arbitrary choices that pervades The Canterbury Tales applies not only to the tales the Pilgrims tell but also to the situation that they are in- the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Chaucer constructs the pilgrimage so that
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sundry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweship, and pilgrims were they alle (24-6)
are gathered together, irrespective of degree or rank or social class. Chaucer’s narrator claims they are there ‘by aventure’, and of course in 14th Century terms it is random that these ‘sondry folk’ should all meet, but on another level there is nothing random about Chaucer’s decision to create these characters for the purposes of telling the tales.
In this way the sense of ‘randomness’ goes hand in hand with Chaucer’s attempts to impose some kind of realism upon the tales. In order for the situation to be convincing, there must be an absence of obvious author manipulation, and by heightening the sense of the pilgrimage and collection of pilgrims as a random occurrence, the author is pushed further away from a reader’s consciousness. Chaucer’s narrator is of course a key element of this, another obstacle further shielding the reader from Chaucer’s direct views. The apparent inability of this narrator to make negative comment on those he is describing coupled with his ‘random’ choice of which details about the pilgrims and the tales to ‘remember’ increases the plausibility of the exercise.
Derek Pearsall discusses the effect of the ‘juxtaposition of unrelated detail, a suggestion of incongruity which enhances the illusion of random recall and also creates in us a natural desire to look for the missing link which will rationalise the discontinuity.’1 The narrator’s choice in, for example, describing the Knight entirely in terms of his past achievements, the Prioress in terms of her table manners and the Guildsmen barely at all, demonstrates this. The ‘juxtaposition of unrelated detail’ is also characteristic of Chaucer, particularly in the Tales. In choosing a pilgrimage as the stage upon which his tales can be set, he is using probably the only likely situation in which all of these ‘sondry folk’ could possibly be gathered together, irrespective of degree. The order in which the tales are told are similarly independent from these, almost arbitrary in themselves, social distinctions. Although Harry Bailly makes an initial attempt at structuring the order of the tellers,
Now telleth ye, sir Monk, if that ye konne,
Something to quite with the Knyghtes tale. (3118-9)
the drunken Miller soon does away with any notions of degree:
…’By armes and by blood and bones
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes Tale.
Reactions to The Knight’s Tale and The Miller’s Tale bear out the premise that we have a ‘natural desire to look for the missing link which will rationalise the discontinuity’. Despite their differences, the broad themes of the two tales are the same: both involve two young men competing for the same woman. The way this theme is treated is of course wildly different between the tales, but in both there is the sense of random choices, whether on the part of ‘fate’ or of Chaucer. This is clearly a conscious decision on the part of Chaucer as his alteration of the original source for The Knight’s Tale demonstrates. Whereas in the original source Palamon and Arcite were readily distinguishable, Chaucer renders them almost identical:
Two yonge knyghtes liggynge by and by Both in oon armes… (1011-2)
Of course there are insignificant details: Palamon sees Emelye a moment before Arcite; Arcite fought like the ‘crueel tigre’, Palamon ‘the wood leon’; Palamon chooses to worship Venus, Arcite Mars. But ultimately these are inconsequential. For the reader, there is nothing to single out one or the other as being more worthy of Emelye’s love, and therefore any decision will necessarily be a random one. Pearsall says:
As the story moves to its climax, the impression is created…that the equalityof Palamon and Arcite in desert and merit is an impasse which only a trick of fortune will circumvent.2
Not only do we find it difficult to predict who will succeed in their conquest of Emelye, we also find it difficult to care. As Pearsall says, the outcome of the story ‘is not event tragically noble but bleakly capricious.’ This is perhaps as much to do with the characterisation of Emelye as with that of the two knights. We learn almost nothing of her character outside of the stock romantic heroine- ‘fressh’, ‘as an aungel’, ‘fairer was to sene/ Than is the lylie’. There is an interesting relation in the tales between randomness, and the fact that the vast majority of characters in The Canterbury Tales, from the pilgrims to the people within the stories, are basically types, operating within a very narrow frame of behaviour. In the pilgrims this is demonstrated by the fact that they are generally identified only by their profession.
Indeed, this is the point: much of the humour comes from the shared knowledge between author and reader about what is expected of people of the profession to which the pilgrim belongs. The Tales themselves also show this. In The Miller’s Tale for example, we can see from the outset that John is a stereotypical jealous old husband with Alison the adulterous young wife and Nicholas the lecherous young man. It is not difficult to predict what will occur. The same is true of Januarie, May and Damian in The Merchant’s Tale. In some ways then, what happens in The Tales is not at all random: the tales follow a set pattern. This interplay of randomness with predictability is particularly interesting as Chaucer plays with our expectations.
In The Knight’s Tale however, Chaucer implies that perhaps the fates of Palamon and Arcite are not just random, but due to the influence of some kind of higher forces. There is a definite sense of a lack of free will in the tale, but whether this stems from the movements of the planets or the actions of classical deities, or whether it has to do with this sense of the characters as stereotypes acting out previously dictated modes of behaviour is difficult to tell. The characters themselves make frequent references to ‘Fortunes wheel’ and the ‘crueel goddes’:
‘Thanked be Fortune and hire false wheel’ (925)
‘Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee.
Some wikke aspect or disposicioun
Of Saturn, by som consellacioun… (1086-8)
‘O crueel goddes that governe
This world with byndyng of youre word eterne…
What is mankynde moore unto you holde
Than is the sheep that rouketh in the folde?’ (1303-8)
Pearsall refers to Salter as having analysed in detail the ‘images of suffering and menace’ that pervade the tale and ‘increase a sense that the world is such where man is at the mercy of intelligible powers outside himself’.3
This reference to mankind as a sheep in a fold may conjure Christian symbolism, but in fact the atmosphere of the tale is overwhelmingly pagan, despite its teller’s service to God. Derek Brewer refers to the pagan surface of the story being supported by an underlying structure of scientific ‘truth’ whereby the Gods represent planets which really do influence people’s lives. Once again, there is a contradiction within the tale where the characters speak of their lives being influenced by the random turning of Fortune’s wheel or dice: ‘Wel hath Fortune yturned thee the dys’ (1238) yet also speak of the decisions of the gods and movements of planets, which are surely predestined and therefore not random.
Either way, Palamon’s ultimate success and Arcite’s death does not particularly move an audience, as a direct result of the way in which they are deliberately undifferentiated. It is almost as if we are put in the position of the gods or the planets, or of fortune spinning her wheel- their closeness to stock types and their lack of distinct personalities (and in fact, what we do learn of ‘their personality’ is not particularly ingratiating) lead us to see them almost as pawns in the larger scheme of The Canterbury Tales as a whole, and the narrator’s lack of judgement forces us into making judgements of our own.
Alison’s triumph in The Miller’s Tale is not quite the same however. The ‘randomness’ lies in the fact that it is Nicholas rather than Alison who receives Absolon’s retribution. But Nicholas and Alison are not indistinguishable, nor do they act independently. Nicholas imitates Alison and is paid for his lack of originality. Derek Pearsall contends that Alison’s triumph is not random at all, but obvious given that:
‘she behaves throughout in accordance with her nature as an animal, without pretence or affectation. She understands the world in which she lives, the world of fabliau, of appetite and survival, and she lives according to its rules.’
Nicholas’s downfall lies in the way that he tries to play Alison’s trick a second time and he ‘shows himself less than smart, less than his true animal self, and he pays the price. Perhaps his wits are dulled by sexual euphoria: these are dangerous moments for the fabliau hero.’5
The point about Nicholas’s wits ‘dulled by sexual euphoria’ seems to me to be close to the truth of why he is punished rather than Alison. He attempts to go one better ‘And thoghte he wolde amenden al the jape’ (3799) and in his arrogance he is punished.
The fact that the characters in The Miller’s Tale are to a large extent just stereotypes may also explain why there is less of a sense of arbitrariness in Alison’s triumph. In The Reeve’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale and The Shipman’s Tale jealous husbands have the wool pulled over their eyes by unfaithful wives who escape unscathed, which seems to be the precedent in these fabliaux. So while it is definitely unfair that Alison ultimately goes unpunished, it is perhaps not completely random.
Another aspect to consider is Chaucer’s shifts between fantasy and realism. We have already seen how the ‘random recall’ of the narrator increases the realistic sense of the pilgrimage. However, there are several practical details such as, as one critic has pointed out, the fact the pilgrims never stop for the night anywhere or have meals. Even the practicalities of how everyone could hear each tale is ignored. Chaucer doesn’t deal with every small detail, unlike, for example, Bocaccio in his Decameron. Similarly, in the description of the Knight in the General Prologue, his conquests seem initially convincing but it is soon clear that they are just not feasible. In the same way he moves between describing the pilgrims as embodiments of their profession to revealing small personal details that mark them as individuals.
Interestingly, the fact that there is an element of randomness to the outcomes of these characters’ lives can add to both the real and the fictional sides of their characterisation. As purely fictional types with little to distinguish them, the randomness of what happens to them simply furthers our apathetic attitude to them, such as is the case with Palamon and Arcite. But in the case of Alison and Nicholas where one co-conspirator is punished and the other escapes, we are reminded that in literary worlds, as in the real one, life isn’t always fair.