Tag Archives: The Miller’s Tale

“John the carpenter has had a fool made out of him.”

This is a reference to the gullible and jealous husband in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” My student is right: the point of the Tale is the cleverness with which his young wife Alisoun and Alisoun’s inamorato, “hende [clever, courteous] Nicholas,” trick John into not only ignoring but also actually facilitating their tryst. There’s a lot more to the tale, some comic moments that amaze modern students (who assume scatological jokes were invented shortly after their own birth), but the subplots involve making fools out of others—the vain and randy cleric Absolom and then Nicholas himself.

If you haven’t read “The Miller’s Tale” lately, you should. If Middle English scares you, just read it with a German accent and you’ll understand almost every word. Otherwise, there are numerous modern-English translations online of this great and witty tale.

Anyway, the meaning of my student’s sentence is accurate.

But some verbs play better in the active voice: to make a fool of would be one of those. And the intrusion of “out” into the proper phrase “to make a fool of” makes the sentence even odder, because when you make something out of something else you are usually constructing it using something else that already exists. My student’s sentence would then imply that John isn’t actually a fool: Alisoun used John as raw material to make something new, a fool, out of.

Okay, to begin: Alisoun made a fool of John. But my student says Alisoun made a fool out of John.

So, similarly, thus: I am making a braided rug out of old blue jeans.

The blanket was made out of yarn she spun out of her dog’s shed undercoat.

Scarlett O’Hara made an impressive visiting gown out of the old velvet drapes.

He’s trying to make something out of nothing.

Now, if we grant my student permission to use the “out” and make John into something else, we run into more problems, because the other sentences above, similarly constructed, really cannot be made passive:

The old blue jeans have had a braided rug made out of them.

The dog’s shed undercoat has had yarn spun out of it, and the yarn has had a blanket made out of it.

The old velvet drapes have had an impressive visiting gown made out of them by Scarlett O’Hara.

Nothing has been tried to be made something out of.

These sentences are absurd because, for one thing, the raw material has no agency. A sentence such as “I have had a rug made for me out of old blue jeans” works because when I had this done, I had it done by somebody at my behest. John was made a fool of by somebody, but not at his behest, and so the “has had” works in a completely different manner because “has” means something else.

The only way my student’s statement can stand, I’m afraid, is if it means that John the carpenter hired someone to make a fool using him as raw material.

But, dupe though he was, facilitator though he proved, it was all without his intent; in fact, it was completely contrary to his intent, the jealous old cuckold.

Alisoun and Nicholas made a fool of him, sure enough. But my student has made a fool of himself with a sentence that should have adjusted its garb before venturing into the light of day.

“In ‘Beowulf’ I do not believe I heard anything about him being committed…”

While we’re on the subject of Beowulf.

Here’s a student who is up-front about having only a vague recollection of the text. “I do not believe” is, this time, not a denial of a thesis but an expression that means “hmmm, seems to me….” She treats the text as a story-telling or gossip session, too (“heard anything about”)—which is nice in a way, since we do believe the poem Beowulf was meant to be recited rather than read, and since the various legends on which it is based definitely were orally transmitted. Had my student been around in England or Denmark between, say, 500 and 1000 C.E., she certainly could have remarked that she didn’t believe she’d heard something about Beowulf. For the teacher who assigned the poem to be read, though, the phrase does not suggest conscientious behavior on the part of a student.

And what’s this about “him being committed”? Would rumors that he had been confined in a facility for the insane not have surprised her? Here we go:

“In ‘Beowulf’ I do not believe I heard anything about him being committed, but some may consider that Alison was somehow committed, but she really did not wed for love, only what was in it for her.”

As George Takei, my latest secret crush, would say, “Oh, my.”

The “Alison” in question is the winsome and lissome young wife in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale.” Yes, she’s married, but to an older and jealous husband (two out-of-proportion and therefore medievally negative traits)—who can blame her for flirting with a susceptible cleric and dallying with John’s lodger, “hende” Nicholas?

I can’t remember why my student felt that Beowulf and Alison should be discussed together. Maybe she was writing a paper about marriage in the literature of the Middle Ages…which would still raise the question of how Beowulf got in there, especially since Arthur and Guinevere were just waiting to be talked about and would, with Lancelot, have made an interesting combination with Alison, her elderly cuckoldy carpenter John, Absolon the squeamish cleric, and that irresistible hende Nicholas. But speculations are beside the point here: we have Beowulf, who doesn’t seem to have been committed, and Alison, who was “somehow committed.”

Well, the mention that Alison did not “wed for love” is the giveaway: “committed” is obviously short for “in a committed relationship.” Alison’s marriage was “somewhat committed,” but obviously not committed enough: she was only interested in “what was in it for her,” that gold-digger, and had not given John her heart along with her hand. The rest of her body was therefore up for, dare I say it, grabs. Enter hende Nicholas.

So when my student says she didn’t hear anything about Beowulf “being committed,” she means she didn’t hear any rumors that he was married, or in a committed relationship (can’t you just see theBeowulf poet trying to get that into a four-stress alliterative line with caesura? Try it!).

In a poem that celebrates the diplomacy-driven but clearly happy marriage of King Hrothgar and presents a number of other songs and back-stories involving good and bad marriages, Beowulf’s life is curiously private. All we know for sure is that when he died after his battle with the dragon he left no heirs of the body. Young Wiglaf, who in coming to Beowulf’s aid defies Beowulf’s announced determination to fight the dragon alone, is presented as the only young man in the rising generation with courage and principles of fealty like Beowulf’s; Beowulf says he has no sons to leave his armor to, and Wiglaf is the one who sits with him as he dies. Whether he had daughters, whether he had lovers, whether he had a wife, we do not know; my student is right, we don’t “hear anything” about those possibilities.

If we’re using “committed” to mean “promised, dedicated, pledged,” then certainly Beowulf was committed. Commitment was practically his middle name. He committed himself to repay his father’s debt of honor to Hrothgar by destroying Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, the monsters who had been besieging the Danes. He gave his loyalty to his own king and to the king’s heir, and then by popular demand succeeded him, to become a committed king for fifty years. He committed himself to protect his people by destroying the hoard-dragon some local drunk had awakened. In each of his battles he insisted on fighting alone, in view of the great risk (and also in view of his own reputation, at that time considered one’s earthly immortality).

But the way my student has phrased it, “committed” reeks of the loony bin. And maybe for Alison staying faithful to old John would have driven her nuts.

Does the rising generation of today use “committed” to mean “in a committed relationship”? If I hear someone say “I heard he was committed,” should I not think of mental or emotional problems but instead imagine him happy and fulfilled? If I see a smooching couple, should I walk up to them and say “You two should be committed!“? And what would my student think if she read that for a time King George III’s family had him committed?