Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Worth of a Tale

Though I can see why each of our three selections from the Canterbury Tales might be considered controversial, especially during Chaucer’s time, they seem to span the spectrum. The Miller’s tale proves the crudest, as well as the most ridiculous (“But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers”). The Franklin’s Tale is questionable in a more meaningful way, because it features a relationship where a man and woman are equal (“Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee … And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal”) as well as magic (“This is to seye, to maken illusioun, By swich an apparence or jogelrye”) and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is relatively harmless, save the talking animals and slight obscenity.

What I find most interesting, however, is not the tales themselves, but the fact that each tale is about as sophisticated as its narrator. The Miller, a drunkard of low status, tells a tale that has no moral, features characters with no morals, and that functions primarily as a joke. The Franklin, a free man of slightly higher status, tells a tale that is thought provoking. Lastly, the Nun’s Priest, a clergyman, tells a tale that is somewhat absurd, but conveys a distinct moral at the end. This pattern seems to imply that the worth of a story has much to do with the worth of its narrator – yet who determines this “worth?” Is it fair to dismiss one tale as less significant than another simply because the teller is of a lower social class? Surely the Franklin’s tale has as much value as the Nun’s Priest’s and surely, despite its crudity, the Miller’s tale contributes something of value – whether it simply be that of entertainment. Indeed, one cannot claim that the Miller’s tale is less entertaining than the other two.

To clarify, I’m not attempting to argue that the Miller’s tale is particularly intelligent – I’m simply pointing out that sometimes lessons are learned in the least likely places and that we, as readers, should always be open-minded. For example, while tutoring at Guilford, I’ve been working with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. Though I like to think myself more intelligent than them considering my significant age advantage, I am frequently surprised (and humbled) by their stories. Even something as simple as the re-telling of a classic shows me something new. One of the questions I asked during a quizzing session had to do with the Chronicles of Narnia series. The boy I was quizzing went far beyond simply telling me who wrote it (the original question), to summarize it and expound on its Christian symbolism. Needless to say, I was impressed. Clearly this boy had just as much to teach me as I did him. Where I might have brushed an 8th grade sibling aside, deeming his ramblings unimportant, because I was this boy’s tutor I had to sit still long enough to listen. And that was enough.

I believe this open-mindedness is something that Chaucer valued: why else would he have let the Miller continue with his story? Though crude, the Miller's tale is not without value. Thus, perhaps the most important question that needs to be addressed is this: are we, like the “Hooste,” silencing one person’s story in favor of “Som better man [to] telle us first another?” Are we, in our intolerance, losing out on valuable knowledge?

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