The Ale of Southwerk
We've just heard the Knight's Tale, that gorgeous romance. We're in the hush that follows the realization that we've just heard the best thing that's ever been done in its kind -- if nothing else of Chaucer's had survived, he still would be known as the man who wrote "al the love of Palamon and Arcyte / Of Thebes," the culmination of the chivalric romance. We're thinking: what now? No one could top this. Not Chaucer himself could top this. There's nowhere to go but down.
The Host invites the Monk to tell his tale, as the next in precedence to the Knight. We're settling down to be edified -- you get edified a lot, in medieval literature, and we knew it was coming sooner or later -- and then something wonderful happens. The drunken Miller shoves himself forward and insists on telling his own story.
The Millere, that fordronken was al pale,
So that unnethe upon his hors he sat,
He nolde avalen neither hood ne hat,
Ne abyde no man for his curteisie,
But in Pilates voys he gan to crie,
And swoor, "By armes, and by blood and bones,
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale."
Oure Hooste saugh that he was dronke of ale,
And seyde, "Abyd, Robyn, my leeve brother;
Som bettre man shal telle us first another.
Abyd, and lat us werken thriftily."
"By goddes soule," quod he, "that wol nat I;
For I wol speke, or elles go my wey."
Oure Hoost answerde, "tel on, a devel wey!
Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome."
"Now herkneth," quod the Millere, "alle and some!
But first I make a protestacioun
That I am dronke, I knowe it by my soun;
And therfore if that I mysspeke or seye,
Wyte it the ale of southwerk, I you preye."
Anyone can see that this is wonderful. And Chaucer does go on to top himself, by giving us the best fabliau (dirty story in verse) extant, which also happens to be a rich and loving parody of the Knight's Tale. But the most wonderful thing of all -- which may be hidden from modern readers, who have been accustomed to such things all their lives -- is what has happened in between the two tales. A character, in the modern sense, has arisen: I would say that the Miller is in fact the first character in literature. He erupts from the page; he can't be contained. He will speak. And he speaks in utterly natural, colloquial English, which also happens to be perfect iambic pentameter. In these few lines Chaucer has made both Shakespeare and the novel possible. The persona that gets up and walks away with the story is something we know well -- Chaucer's audience had never heard such a thing. So far as I know the world had never heard such a thing.