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Old Tuesday, May 31, 2005
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Post Chaucer: "Nun's Priest's Tale" - A mock epic

According to Aristotle:

“An epic is the tragedy of a conspicuous man, who is involved in adventures events and meets a tragic fall on account of some error of judgment i.e. Hamartia which throws him from prosperity into adversity; his death is not essential.”

So, the subject matter of an epic is grand and that’s why it is written in bombastic language in heroic couplets. Its style, too, is grand. On the contrary, a mock-epic is a satire of an epic. It shows us that even a trivial event can also be treated on epical scope.

A mock-epic is a literary parody of heroic style. It imitates serious characters and grave events in a comic manner. The subject matter is trivial and unfit for an epic but the subject is clothed in the conventional epic style. For example, in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” the ordinary event of taking away of a cock is compared and contrasted with famous and grave historical events of the past.

Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a mock-epic. The tale is ordinary and common. There is a widow, having two daughters. She has cattle and sheep as is usual with the villagers. She has a cock and many hens. Once, a cock is carried away by a fox but later escapes. Though the subject is trivial, yet this trivial subject has been exalted because fowls have been invested with the qualities of learned human begins. The cock and the hen behave, talk, argue and conduct like extraordinary human beings. We find the cock and the hen having learned and philosophical discussion on dreams which later includes some vital issues of human life. This is not at all a fanciful discussion; it is substantially learned. They also make historical references and illustrations to substantiate their respective points of view. We hardly believe that they are fowls. We are always reminded of two philosophers. Both stick to their own points of view on the reality of dreams and the discussion ends in no conclusion. So an animal fable has been elevated to the level of a philosophical poem, having deep thoughts and ideas. The cock is raised to the status of a hero and, thus the tale becomes a mock-epic.

Chaucer’s style in the poem is grand. He employs bombastic words for a trivial subject. For example, Chanticleer is called a gentle cock and his crowing is sweeter than that of any other cock. Pertelote, likewise, has the best colouring on her throat and she is called “a fair damsel”. She is courteous, discreet, gracious and companionable. So the description of the cock and the hen is sufficiently comic.

Humour is one of the essential prerequisite of a mock-epic and this tale is full of humour. Most of the comedy is introduced through the incongruity and disproportion between grand style and trivial subject. The trivial events have been enlarged to look lofty and grand. For example, the fox has been called “The False Murderer” and the false dissembler and has been compared to various notorious rascals of the past – Judas, Iscariot, Simon, Gauclon, etc. Likewise, the ordinary event of the taking away of the cock has been equated with well-known, historical events of the past e.g. the capture of Troy, the murder of King Priam etc. The outcry and lamentation raised by Pertelote at the event is louder than the hue and cry raised by Hasdrubal’s wife at his painful death. The sorrowful cries of the hens have been identified with the woeful lamentation, uttered by the senators’ wives when their husbands were burnt alive by Nero. On the taking away of the cock whole village – human beings as well animals – madly run after the fox and there is a stale of chaos as if it is the day of judgment whereas the carrying away of the cock by the fox is not a grave event. The awful noise produced at that time has been compared with the uproar created by the members of the Peasant’s Revolt. The chase of the fox is described in an inflated tone.

As essential prerequisites of an epic as well as mock-epic is the moral. There can be no mock-epic without moral. In “Nuns Priest’s Tale” moral is explicit as well as implicit. Though this story, Chaucer wanted to discuss important and vital issues of life, such as flattery predestination, the qualities of a good man and a good woman, the nature of dreams and irony of fate etc.

In short, we can say that “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is a parody of an epic in which all the leading epic features and conventions are brought in connection with a very trifling theme.
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