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The Priest and the Fox: Tricksters in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale
By Maia Adamina
Trickster’s Way, Vol. 4:1 (2005)
Introduction: The nefarious escapades of the trickster Reynard the Fox emerged from the beast fable genre in the twelfth-century Latin poem Ysengris, a direct antecedent of the French Roman de Renart and ancestor of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Chaucer appropriates the low comedy humour gaulois and “pithy moralizing,” typical of fabliaux, “a racy and often cynical comedy, savoring sex and violence, though not without subtler moments”, but puts his own “tongue-in-cheek” spin on the French Branch II tale of the clever fox and the duped cock.
Although the figure of Reynard is prevalent in trickster lore, the primary trickster at play in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale may be not the fox but the teller of the tale, the Nun’s Priest himself who travels the road to Canterbury. Both share trickster’s capacity for slippery rhetoric. Indeed, the Nun’s Priest crosses and re-crosses his trail of meaning as effectively as a smooth-talking fox tricks a bemused rooster into closing his eyes. His use of “ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox” are, thus, indicative of the presence of trickster.
Like Chauntecleer struggling to interpret the fox’s meaning, the Nun’s Priest’s fellow pilgrims (and by extension the reader) are entirely responsible for interpretation- the responsibility to effectively separate the “chaff” from the “fruyt.” This is a tricky proposition, however. The Nun’s Priest tests his fellow pilgrims’ ability to discern the deeper meaning of his deceptively simple and entertaining tale told as exempla. He obliquely challenges them to find the balance between the mutually dependent themes of “sentence” (the moral) and “solas” (the entertaining) in his tale and “al that written is”.
The Nun’s Priest and the fox share the trickster’s ability to challenge their listeners through doubleness of language, speaking that which is ambivalently true and/or untrue depending on the listener’s interpretation. For example, the fox tells an ambiguous truth, if he has eaten Chauntecleer’s mother and father, when he tells Chauntecleer that:
My lord youre fader – – God his soul blesse – –
And eek youre mooder, of hire gentilesse,
Han in myn hous ybeen to my greet ese.
And certes, sire, ful fayn wolde I yow plese.