THE NUN’S PRIEST’S TALE
This story takes place in the farmyard of a widow and her two daughters.
Here lives a cock called Chaunticleer who was a magnificent beast and was
renowned for his crowing – no other cock could match him. He watched over seven hens, the leader of which was a gracious hen named Lady Pertelote. Chaunticleer and the Lady were in love.
One day, the Lady noticed that Chaunticleer was not his usual self. He
tells her that he has had a terrible dream, that some kind of beast came into the yard and seized him. His color was similar to a fox.
The Lady scolds him for being cowardly and that dreams are nothing to be afraid of. He probably ate too many worms – that is what causes bad dreams.
The Lady quotes Cato who said that dreams have no consequence, but
Chaunticleer thinks differently. He has heard that dreams can foretell the future.
Now there was a fox named Daun Russel who had been hiding near the farmyard,
and suddenly Chaunticleer notices the fox and immediately begins to run around, but the fox calls out saying don’t be afraid, I have only come to hear your beautiful voice.
He believes that Chaunticleer’s voice is even better than his father, and he was a good crower. The vain cock shuts his eyes and bursts into song, demonstrating his prowess to the fox. The fox grasps him about the neck and makes off into the countryside.
The hens, seeing what has happened, make a terrible din that arouses the
entire household. The widow and her two daughters, plus all the farmyard animals, dogs, geese, ducks and even the bees, chase the fox.
Chaunticleer says to the fox, “Why don’t you turn round and throw them a few
insults?” The fox thinks this is a good idea and as soon as he opens his mouth Chaunticleer escapes and flies into the trees.
Arguably one of the best-composed tales in this set, it still has the
capacity to delight today as it did when it was first written.
Stories concerning animals have always been popular, and here we have all the ingredients of a good story with humor, tension and excitement. What makes this stand out is the way in which Chaucer humanizes the animals, and how he provides them with human characteristics, but you never forget that the characters are a cock, a hen and a fox.
It is appropriate that the Priest tells this tale, for like Chaunticleer who
looks after seven hens, he is the confessor to a group of Nuns.
In Medieval England, wise men were always depicted as wearing a beard, and
the Lady refers to Chaunticleer’s beard indicating that he is wise cock who lets his wisdom be eclipsed by his vanity. However, unlike other fowl, he does not panic when he is in the grip of the fox, and uses
his intelligence to escape.
We also have the absurd and humorous situation where Chaunticleer’s dilemma
is compared with Hector’s plight in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’.
Chaucer even has this songbird quoting Latin, although his translation is
not as good as it should be.