Beast Fables, and its Role in "The Nun's Priest's Tale"
One of the most common literary themes during Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" was the concept of beast fables. These tales were important stories that gave animals human like characteristics. Although this practice was not new to writers of the Chaucerian era, it did however become immensely popular in the literature of the time. This idea of beast fables also greatly influenced later works including "Robin Hood", "Uncle Remus' Stories", and George Orwell's political satire "Animal Farm". Beast fables were a way of making a mockery of human nature, and was a literary device that showed the true feelings and motions of human like characters, without offending whoever it was the author chose to represent. This is often an insulting practice and literary device because it represents men with animals. It may also suggest that man often acts like an animal in their everyday life. Examples of this can be seen in The Nun's Priest's Tale, in Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales".
In this story, there is a male rooster named Chanticleer who is in charge of all seven hens in the henhouse. This includes the most beautiful hen Pertelote, who Chauntecleer is madly in love with. A clever fox named Don Russell is the counterpart to Chauntecleer and tricks him by telling him that he does not want to eat him, he only wants to hear him sing. When the rooster crows, the clever fox snatches Chauntecleer and runs away. The commotion caused by the seven hens causes all of the animals on the farm to go after the fox. Chauntecleer cleverly convinces Don Russell to confront the other animals. When he attempts to confront them, he loosens his grip, and Chauntecleer escapes.
This is a very common idea when it comes to beast fables. This story is very similar to the Joel Chandler Harris stories about Br'er Rabbit and Br'er fox, and the "Tar Baby" story. This is another example where the clever fox attempts to outsmart the rabbit by luring him in by a tar baby. When the rabbit, who, like Chauntecleer, believes he is the dominant rooster, attempts to go after the tar baby, he sticks to the tar baby and becomes an easy target for the fox. Br'er Rabbit, like Chauntecleer must find a way to outsmart the cunning fox. Why are these stories important ideals and concepts in literary history? Joel Chandler Harris wrote his "Uncle Remis collection of Beast fables to help represent the inhumane trials and tribulations of being a black man in the 1800's in American culture. The fox represented the white slave owners who were always out to get the rabbit. The rabbit could be represented by the black man who constantly had to outwit the cunning fox to get ahead in life.
"Reynard the Fox" was a very important medieval literary character. He appears in numerous pieces of medieval literature including Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale. He is a satirical character that emulates human society. "Though Reynard is sly, amoral, cowardly, and self-seeking, he is still a sympathetic hero." (1) He is sympathetic because he displays human-like flaws. In France, the name "renard" has actually replaced the old word for fox called "goupil".
In "The Nun's Priest Tale", the beast epic could be a representation of the separation of classes in Chaucer's time. Could it represent the difference between the upper and lower classes in Chaucerian England? One of the most telling themes of the beast fable in The Nun's Priest's tale" is how the animals could represent the men and women who are partaking on the pilgrimage to Canterbury. All the animals could represent different characters in the Canterbury Tales. Also, the absurdity of animals chasing down the fox represents the different groups of people who chose to travel together.
For example, the Knight could be compared with Chauntecleer because both are strong willed characters who are in a feud with another adversary in the text. Paloman would represent Chauntecleer. Arcite would represent his arch nemesis, Don Russell. Pertolote would represent the beautiful Emilie. All of these characters in The Nun's Priest's Tale, even though are represented in animal form, and are direct representatives to different characters heading to Canterbury on the pilgrimage.
One important aspect of beast fables is the morality issues related with beast epics. "They all tell a story, but unlike most fables, beast epics differ from fable not only in length but also in putting less emphasis on a moral." (1) Uncle Remus' tales use beast fables to tell the tale of distrust by black citizens for the white man. The beast fables used in the Canterbury Tales may have been used to possibly describe a religious attraction. For example, Chauntecleer could represent God, and Don Russell could represent the devil. They have a rivalry going in the same way the God and Satan do. Chauntecleer is an all knowing, overseeing entity, who is in charge of the seven hens and the roost. He is in fact, a God-like figure. Don Russell is a cunning, Satan-like character who is in a constant struggle to take down Chauntecleer. This story is also told by the Nun's Priest. This man has a direct relationship with God. This may have been his inspiration for telling this beast fable. Religion, may have been the underlying theme of the story, but it was not intended to be a moral to the story of the "Nun's Priest's Tale".
Beast Fables were important literary tools when attempting to tell powerful stories that describe the flaws of mankind. All of these tales were written for a purpose. This purpose may be widely and commonly debated in classrooms and lectures. Was the point of the beast fable in the Canterbury Tales religiously inspired? Was it inspired to point out Chaucer's displeasures for the upper class? No one really knows the answer to this question. The answer is actually not even that important when attempting to understand the meaning of the text. Beast fables, and their morality issues, are completely subjective. However what is not subjective is the power of the beast fable, when attempting to identify the flaws of humanity.