The Trickster Tricked
The Reeve's Tale
One of the favorite formulas for stories in the Western world is that of the trickster attempting to play a trick on someone and the tables being turned. The Reeve's Tale and The Pardoner's Tale are fine examples of this technique.
The Reeve's Tale involves a crooked miller and two students who are determined that the miller will not be able to fool them but are fooled nonetheless. The basic human truth that Chaucer implies is that a university student is not necessarily wise in the way in the world and that a scheming miller can get the best of inexperienced youth. The distrust expressed by the miller of the college students in still a universal view. And certainly, the two students are easily robbed of their grain. The reader is secretly satisfied to see two determined students being proven wrong — they boasted that they could never be cheated. The revenge that the students take — first one student, John, bedding down with the daughter, and then in a mix-up, Alan bedding down with the Miller's wife — is highly comic.
The Reeve's Tale is an excellent variation on the old idea of the trickster (the miller, in this case) who, although he succeeds in tricking the students, gets his due when the young and virile students obtain sexual favors in the miller's own bed with the miller's wife and daughter.
The Pardoner's Tale
The Reeve's Tale presents the tricking on a highly comic level. In The Pardoner's Tale, on the other hand, the tricking is used as an exemplum, or a moral fable, embodying the concept that "The love of money is the root of all evil." To illustrate his theme, the Pardoner tells the tale of three drunks who want to find Death and slay him. Instead, they find a basket of gold. The youngest reveler is sent to fetch food, wine, and water to serve them until dark so that they can dig up the gold without being discovered. On his way to the village, the youngest reveler decides to trick the other two and puts poison into their wine. Meanwhile the two back at the tree decide to kill the youngest reveler and divide his gold between them. When the young reveler returns, he is killed, and the other two unknowingly drink the poisoned wine. Thus the three men do indeed find Death, which was their initial goal.
While The Pardoner's Tale involves tricking, it is not a comic one. Instead this tale serves to support the moral that greed is the source of all evil. The irony of this tale is that, after the Pardoner finishes his tale, he tries to trick the pilgrims into buying his worthless pardons, but he is unable to trick the more realistic pilgrims, and his life is threatened. While we laugh at the person being tricked in The Reeve's Tale, The Pardoner's Tale leaves no room for laughter.