After the Knight's story, the Host calls upon the Monk to tell a story that will rival the Knight's tale for nobility of purpose. But the Miller, who is very drunk, announces that he will tell a story about a carpenter. The Reeve, Oswald, objects because he was once a carpenter. Chaucer then warns the reader that this tale might be a bit vulgar, but he must tell all the stories because a prize is at stake. Thus, the Miller begins his tale.
John, an old and very jealous carpenter who is married to an 18-year-old girl named Alison, rents a room to a young astrology student named Nicholas, who can supposedly forecast the likelihood of rain showers or drought. Nicholas soon falls in love with Alison and one day grasps her around the groins and cries, "Love me all-at-once or I shall die." At first Alison resists, but the clerk soon overcomes her resistance, and together they conceive a plan whereby they will play a trick on the jealous husband.
Alison also has another admirer — Absalon, an effeminate incense swinger at the church. Very dainty and fastidious, Absalon is, in fact, so fastidious that he cannot tolerate people who expel gas in public. Although Absalon demonstrates his feelings for Alison by serenading her outside her bedroom window, she finds him a nuisance and is interested only in Nicholas, who conceives an elaborate plan to get John out of the house for the night.
Nicholas convinces John that the town is soon to be visited with a flood like the one that visited Noah in the Bible and that, to survive, he must build and fasten three boat-like tubs to the rafters and store within them provisions. John follows Nicholas' instructions, and the evening before the predicted flood, all three — John the carpenter; Alison, John's wife, and Nicholas, Alison's paramour — climb into the boats. When the carpenter sleeps, Alison and Nicholas quickly descend to Alison's bed where they spend the night making love.
Later that night, Absalon, discovering the Miller's absence, goes to Alison's window. Denied access to her room, he begs for one kiss. Afraid that the bothersome clerk will arouse the neighbors, Alison agrees to kiss him, but instead of her mouth, she extends her rear out the window. The fastidious Absalon "kissed her naked arse, most savorously." As he leaves, Absalon overhears the young lovers laughing at him.
Cured of his love sickness, Absalon borrows a red-hot poker from the blacksmith, returns to Alison's window, and tells her he has a golden ring for her: "I'll give it to you for one more kiss." But Nicholas, trying to one-better Alison's treatment of Absalon, opens the window instead and "stuck out his arse . . . buttocks and all" and farts in Absalon's face. Absalon recovers quickly and thrusts the red-hot poker up the middle of Nicholas' arse.
Nicholas shouts, "Water, help, Water, Water," startling John from his sleep. Thinking that the flood is coming, John cuts the rope that holds his boat suspended and crashes to the floor. The neighbors, hearing all the ruckus, rush in and, when they hear of John's preparations for a flood, laugh at his lunacy.
This tale is the funniest Chaucer ever wrote and has been popular with readers of humorous literature throughout the ages. Chaucer used no known source for The Miller's Tale, but in general outline, it is one of the most common earthy folk tales, or fabliaux. The story of the rich old man married to a voluptuous young girl has been and still is the source of much of the bawdy humor throughout Western literature. In Chaucer's treatment, the story is elevated to great literary heights through Chaucer's masterful use of comic incongruity and characterization, and by the incredible neatness of the tale's construction.
The tale abounds in incongruity. Some passages require a full knowledge of the medieval ages along with the traditions of that age: for example, consider the following:
And prively he caught hire by the quiente / And sayde "Ywis, but if ich have my wille, / For deerne love of thee, Lemman, I spille." / And heeld hire harde by the haunche-bone.
And crudely, he caught her by her vagina / And said "Surely, unless I have my way, / For secret love of thee, sweetheart, I perish," / And held her sensuously by the groins.
The incongruity lies in the contrast between Nicholas' actions, which are direct, bold, and vulgar, and the words he speaks, which are those of a refined courtly lover who is nobly pining away for a lady far beyond his station (an incongruity that does not come through in a modern English transliteration).
A more obvious example of incongruity is the scene between Absalon and Alison at her window. Absalon, the incense thrower, is accustomed to smells that are sweet, exotic, and sensuous. He is effeminate, delicate, fastidious, and yet he is subjected to the ultimate humiliation when Alison presents her "arse" to be kissed and Absalon does so.
As for characterization, the presentation of Alison is filled with details that identify her as some innocent and joyful natural creature — the weasel's suppleness, the softness of a wether's wool (a wether is an older lamb), the singing of a swallow on a barn, and so on. The same joyful nature underlies her response to Absalon's horror after her trick: "'Tehee!' quod she, and clapte the wyndow to." There is such innocent joy in her vulgar trick.
The neatness of the tale goes far beyond the comic inevitability of its plot. In the medieval view, Noah's flood came about because men had become carnal; they fell into promiscuity and perversion. The same sins bring on the comic catastrophe in The Miller's Tale. Again, in The Miller's Tale, each character's vocation is comically relevant. Carpentry is relevant first because it justifies old John's building the tubs (arks) and, second, because the carpenters' guild normally staged the Noah plays in the medieval mystery cycles. Furthermore, the carpenter's name, John, refers to the Apocalypse (or revelations) of St. John.
Nicholas' vocation — scholarship and astrology — neatly fits because it justifies his trick on the carpenter. Astrology, in the strict orthodox view, however, is a heinous sin because it is an attempt to know more than man should know and, therefore, usurps God's business. Nicholas' name, like John's, is also significant. In this tale, Nicholas is the boarder at the carpenter's house; in the medieval plays, St. Nicholas was the mysterious guest who thwarted the evil intentions of the host and returned good for evil. Nicholas of The Miller's Tale, however, gives evil for good.
Absalon's name is that of King David's beloved and beautiful but disloyal son, and Absalon's vocation as an incense-swinger is also comically relevant. As noted earlier, Absalon is a man "squeamish of farting," one who perfumes his breath and person to make himself attractive — the incongruity of a man scenting his breath as a prelude to kissing a woman's "arse" is comically inappropriate even though it defies analysis.
A popular modern way of approaching or interpreting the story is in terms of eschatology (a concern for heavenly matters and the afterlife) and scatology (a preoccupation with excrement or the obscenities of this world). In general, one of the particular aims or theological struggles of the medieval man was to live through this earthly life of temptations and to survive its pitfalls in the hope of heavenly rewards.
On the one hand, we have Nicholas, a student of astrology whose study leads him to a contemplation of ethereal matters through interpreting the stars and heavenly matters. However, at the same time, he is engrossed with Alison's "quiente" and her "haunche-bone," and how the two of them can deceive Alison's husband. The deceit involves heavenly or eschatological matters: They convince John that the heavenly stars have revealed a new flood forthcoming, and, as Noah's family was the only family to be saved, old John is to build miniature arks for the three of them. This action alone would be comical to Chaucer's audience because the Carpenter's Guild often presented Noah as a bumbling sort of buffoon ridiculed by his neighbors for abandoning his fields, neglecting his duties, and wasting his time on building an unnecessary boat. Likewise, John in the tale is ridiculed by his neighbors.
Once completed, the arks are tied to the rafters — that is, they are suspended between heaven and earth — and while John is asleep in his heavenly bound ark, Alison and Nicholas descend to their earthly meeting. The scatology then enters the scene when the two lovers play the trick on Absalon and fart in his face. Then in a repetition, when Absalon returns for another kiss, Nicholas presents his arse to be kissed. Burned, his cries for water cause old John to release his heavenly bound ark, only to crash back to earthly matters.
The reader should remember that one story is sometimes told in relationship to another story. Here at the beginning of the tales, we see this relationship most clearly. The Knight's Tale and The Miller's Tale involve a three-way love triangle. In both tales, two men are seeking the love (or possession) of the same woman. In both tales, the woman remains the more-or-less passive bystander while the men struggle for her. Furthermore, the two tales deal with justice and injustice or getting what one deserves. In spite of his jealousy and precaution, the carpenter's wife "thus was swyver (screwed)," he has a broken arm from the fall, and he is now the laughing stock of the entire town. The scheming scholar, Nicholas, is outfoxed by the clerk and ends up with a severely burned "arse," and the fussy, effeminate incense swinger is befouled by kissing the rear end of a woman he once idolized. For Absalon, then, to go from idolization (eschatology) to arse-kissing (scatology) is a complete journey.