English 201: English Literature to 1700
The best beginning procedure is always to read the assignment all the way through, keeping track of characters, so that you know what's happening. If possible, read the whole work first. Try to get the big picture of the book (or section, or chapter) before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to read the work closely with these questions in mind. (In the discussion below, page and line numbers in parentheses refer to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 1  unless otherwise indicated.)
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First, read the description of the Nun's Priest in The General Prologue, lines 163-164, p. 219. How much do we learn about the Nun's Priest? Also, be sure to read the introduction to The Nun's Priest's Tale on p. 296, noting especially the description of The Monk's Tale, which comes just before The Nun's Priest's Tale.
What do we learn about the "poore widwe" and where she lives (lines 1-29)? What is her standard of living? What is the tone of the passage? What is one thing she doesn't suffer from (line 17)? Would you call the language here fancy of plain?
Who is Chanticleer (lines 29-61)? What advanced astronomical knowledge does Chanticleer possess (lines 35-38)? Is the language used in this description similar to or different from the language in the first 29 lines? (See especially lines 45-55; this is closer to the language of courtly love than to the language of the barnyard.)
Who is Pertelote (lines 46-55). What is her relation to Chanticleer (line 47)? How old was she when he fell in love with her (line 53)? Is there anything wrong with this? Why or why not? What song does Chanticleer sing (lines 56-61)? Read that lyric now (page 352). Is it an appropriate song for Chanticleer to sing?
What happened one morning (lines 62-87)? Be sure you remember the details of the dream (lines 78-85) for future reference.
How does Pertelote react (lines 88-149)? Does she believe in dreams? What effect does his dream have on her (lines 90-102)? Do lines 93-95 sound familiar? (The Nun's Priest's Tale contains a large number of echoes of earlier tales.) Is there anything ironic about line 100? What does she blame the dream on (lines 103-119)? What authority does she cite (lines 120-121)? What diagnosis does she offer, and what remedies does she suggest (lines 122-146)? (This is pretty good, sophisticated medical advice for the time.) How does the tone change when she tells him how to take his medicine (lines146-147)? Are we surprised to be brought back to the reality of the barnyard?
How does Chanticleer begin his response to her (lines 150-163)? (To keep the action of the tale clear, note that his response continues to line 351.) Where is he going to get his arguments (lines 154-156)? Notice throughout his speech the emphasis on "auctoritee" and "auctors." His "authors" are his "authorities."
What is his first example about (lines 165-229)? What point does he say this example makes (lines 230-243)? What is his second example about (lines 244-284)? (Note a very early appearance of a modernism in line 277.) What point does he say this example makes (lines 285-289)? What other examples does he give (lines 290-330)? How does he end his discussion (lines 331-351)? How good is his translation of the Latin in line 344? Now that he is happy again, what does he want to do to celebrate, and why can't he do it (lines 347-349)?
What happens when they go into the yard (lines 352-366)? Does Chanticleer get his wish? Are we now in the high style of their speeches or in the low style of the barnyard?
What is the style of lines 367-394? What do lines 367-370 actually say? ("It's May 3." May 3, interestingly, shows up frequently in Chaucer, for what reason no one is sure.) How different is the tone of this section from the opening of The General Prologue? What happens when Chanticleer is celebrating (lines 383-385)? Line 385 is a moral taken from Boethius' sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most influential books in the Middle Ages. Who is speaking in lines 384-394? What is the point of lines 391-392?
Who enters the scene at line 395? What is the tone of lines 395-404? What happens to the tone in lines 405-430? Here come the authorities again, and the high style of aristocratic medieval lament. How serious is the narrator here? How does the narrator change this tone at line 432? But that lowering doesn't last long; we're back in high style, with lots of variations, in lines 433-446. (Compare lines 445-446 with lines 59-78 of The Miller's Tale, page 237.)
And so back to the action. What are Chanticleer and the others doing in lines 447-452? What does Chanticleer see (lines 453-455)? How does he respond (lines 456-461)? Is this an appropriate response?
What does the fox say to Chanticleer (lines 462-501)? Notice even the fox has authorities to cite (as in lines 474 and 492). What story can we piece together from this passage about Chanticleer's mother and father? What request does the fox have (lines 500-501)?
Does Chanticleer know what is going on (lines 502-504)? What should clue him in that isn't working? Should the fox look familiar? Amid the narrator's condemnation of courtly flatterers, what happens next (lines 505-517)? How does the narrator respond (lines 518-539)? Is this tone, taken from the highest level of medieval lament, as for a dead king, appropriate here? Does the narrator know what he is doing?
What happens when the hens take up the lamentation (lines 540-554)? What should we actually be hearing according to the literal meaning of the story? What happens next (lines 555-581)? Take the time to enjoy this wonderful description of pure noise! Even the bees join in the chase! And notice lines 574-576: this is almost the only reference in all of Chaucer's work to the Rising of 1381. For more on this important event, see page 10 of the Introduction and a description and some documents in the Norton Topics Online (http://www.wwnorton.com/nael). Look at the material on the Rising of 1381 in the first topic of the Medieval section, Medieval Estates and Orders.
But fortune turns! What does Chanticleer say to the fox (who is of course carrying him in his mouth)? (See lines 582-593.) What does the fox do, and how does this change the story (lines 594-597)? How does the fox respond (lines 598-605)? Can Chanticleer be fooled twice (lines 606-612)?
What always comes at the end of one of Aesop's Fables? Do we have the same thing here? Notice Chanticleer's moral (lines 611-612). But that's not all! Then we get the fox's moral (lines 613-615). Then comes the narrator's moral (lines 616-620), followed by St. Paul's moral (lines 621-622) and the narrator's application of that moral (line 623). Compare lines 799-800 of The General Prologue for the Host's sense of what the tales should be and lines 59-78 of The Miller's Prologue (page 237) for what the narrator of The Canterbury Tales has to say about morality.
For some other authors' versions of beast fables, see the fables by Marie de France on pages 140-141 and Robert Henryson's "highly original" retelling of The Nun's Priest's Tale on pages 439-445.
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