Let’s Combat a Fabliaux with…Another Fabliaux!

If we’re talking about general opinion/ reception, I agree with Dylan: the Reeve’s Tale just “stinks of bitter old man.” And, strangely, I think that’s the point. Though the Miller and his Tale were incredibly silly and no one wanted a part of it at first, the sondry folk “for the moore part…loughe and pleyde” by the end of the performance (ll.3858-3859). Basically, almost everyone got a kick out of the Miller’s fanciful fabliaux. Everyone except the Reeve, of course, who even calls himself an old stick in the mud. To that end, he compares his old age to a dying fire: “Foure gleedes han we whiche I shal devyse: / Avaunting, liyng, anger, coveitise. / These foure sparkles longen unto eelde” (ll. 3883-3885). He totally knows he’s a bitter old fart – doggonit – and he’s going to let it show.

With that being said, I think Chaucer’s purpose in letting the Reeve be so petty is to lend a degree of validation to the Miller in all his drunkenness. The Reeve makes an effort to prove himself wittier than the Miller but ends up falling into the trap anyway. In the Miller’s Prologue, what sounds like Chaucer himself warns us to “nat maken ernest of game” or – in other words – not take a joke too seriously (ll. 3186). Not to mention, the Reeve somehow thinks combating the Miller’s Fabliaux with another Fabliaux would set the record straight. Ironically, the Reeve tries his hardest to turn the tables by using the old carpenter’s name (John) from The Miller’s Tale for one of his supposedly more heroic student characters. He’s trying to make a fool of the Miller – who in this Tale is older and “wiser.” He doesn’t realize it, but since the Miller gets screwed over he’s still the old fool and his young usurping tricksters are still basically Nicholases. Perhaps the “Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype” (ll.3875) mantra isn’t entirely true after all unless “roten” is taken more literally (to be bitter and unhappy instead of just old).

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