“‘Bob and wheel’ is used in ‘The Miller’s Tale.’ It is almost like a small boat.”

When I lament that students don’t see language as pictures in their mind’s eye, I am forgetting this lovely gem. This student went astray by a combination of sloppy exam preparation, inattentive reading, and a chain of associations that started with a little mental picture.

For those of you who haven’t studied Gawain and the Green Knight lately, I will note that “bob and wheel” refers to a rhyme-and-rhythm pattern distinct to that poem: a stanza of unrhymed 4-stress lines concluding with a 1-stress line followed by four 3-stress lines (more or less iambic) that rhyme  b a b a, if you count the short line as an “a.”

For example, here’s part of one stanza, including the bob and wheel:

Then the first course came with a clamor of trumpets
whose banners billowed bright to the eye,
while kettledrums rolled and the cry of the pipes
wakened a wild, warbling music
whose touch made the heart tremble and skip.
Delicious dishes were rushed in, fine delicacies
fresh and plentiful, piled so high on so many platters
they had problems finding places to set down
their silver bowls of steaming soup: no spot
was clear.
Each lord dug in with pleasure,
and grabbed at what lay near:
twelve platters piled past measure,
bright wine, and foaming beer.

Besides the fun of the “wild, warbling music,” “delicious dishes,” and “bright wine and foaming beer,” the poet offers us the jaunty charm of that stanza closer. And that closer is called the “bob and wheel”—the one-stress line is the bob and the quatrain the wheel. It hangs there at the end of the stanza—the layout in our textbook makes it even more obvious—and an attentive (or even semi-attentive) reader can’t help but notice it. The textbook’s introductory material explains “bob and wheel,” and so do I.

So I thought it would be a nice little objective question: “What is a bob and wheel, and in what work read this semester is it used?”

Many students left the question entirely blank, so I have to give this student a tip of the hat (but no credit) for his effort.

Now, where did his notion come from? The reference to “The Miller’s Tale” suggests another source of confusion for many of my students, who take Chaucer’s clear image of three tubs suspended from the rafters of the carpenter’s house (the carpenter thinks that when Noah’s flood comes again he and his wife and his lodger can creep into the tubs and, when the waters rise to the level of the tubs, cut the ropes suspending them and float free) and for some reason or other think that the carpenter has put three little boats (always so handy in the medieval household) on top of the roof.  Thus the three flood refugees would have to clamber outside and onto the roof in order to get into the boats, instead of using the little ladders the carpenter has provided in the tubs. Students forget the ropes entirely, which must give them some pause when the carpenter mistakenly cuts the ropes on his tub and falls straight down to the ground, breaking his arm—but they never ask for clarification. I know this “boats” theory from several papers courageously written despite confusion.

How would little boats in “The Miller’s Tale” infect the phrase “bob and wheel”? Well, I don’t know about you, but I certainly have associated wheels with ships ever since I saw Peter Pan. How does one steer a ship? With a WHEEL, so large, so ornamental, so omnipresent in nautical decor and seafaring movies. (The “bob” goes, as they say asea, by the board.)

Bob and WHEEL.

Ship’s WHEEL.

The BOAT in “The Miller’s Tale.”

And there you have it.

Luckily no automobiles appear in British Literature Before 1660, or we might have had little cars in Gawain.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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