Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales consists of a General Prologue and a collection of twenty-four tales, two of which are fragments, told by a group of thirty pilgrims, including Chaucer the Pilgrim himself, on their journey from Southwark, directly outside London, to Canterbury in order to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Chaucer uses the frame narrative technique in The Canterbury Tales, a story within a story. The outer frame’s pilgrimage sets the scene for the inner frame’s tales.
Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses satirical elements in the General Prologue character descriptions and the characters’ tales to reveal character faults through wit and ridicule with hope for reform along their journey. He is sure to include pilgrims from each social class during the Medieval Era with the exception of royalty and the serfs. Although the narrative concludes with twenty-four tales, Chaucer intended to have each pilgrim recite two on the way to the shrine and two on the way back, totaling one hundred twenty tales.
Each pilgrim’s tale acts as part of a competition that Harry Bailly, the Host of the pilgrimage, establishes to prevent boredom among the pilgrims on their long journey. The pilgrim who tells the most entertaining and most moral tale will win a dinner, courtesy of the losers, upon their return to their meeting place, his Tabard Inn. The Pardoner, an immoral peasant but clergyman, tells an unexpected moral exemplum, teaching the lesson that one’s love of money is the root of one’s evil.
Chaucer’s ability to match a tale to its teller is one of irony in the Pardoner’s case. The Pardoner is the least moral pilgrim teaching the most moral tale. Geoffrey Chaucer first introduces the Pardoner with long, greasy, thin, shoulder-length hair “as yellow as wax” (GP 21) and with a chin “smoother than ever chin was left by a barber” (21). He wears no hood for fun, his eyes bulge out of his head like those of a hare, and he has a voice so high that it is compared to that of a goat (21).
The narrator is able to conclude that “this man is either . castrated or homosexual” (Rossignol 1). His characteristics are not typical for those of a clergyman in Medieval society. The way in which the Pardoner is described defies the accepted rules for clerical attire. The Pardoner is a dishonest “noble ecclesiast” (Chaucer, GP 22) in the Church. However, despite these improper characteristics, Chaucer unenthusiastically admits that “the man is also an excellent speaker . . . and that he is also an excellent singer” (Rossignol 1). His talents are necessary in order for him to make a living.
A Pardoner is someone who travels about the countryside selling official church pardons” (1). Yet this Pardoner also tends to trade counterfeit relics, clothes, bones, or other items belonging to departed saints with the audience of his stories to make deceitful money. Although the Pardoner is able to “win silver from the crowd” (Chaucer, GP 22) for every story he tells, his audience knows of his endless schemes for money and fame. This Pardoner ironically relates to the stereotypical pardoner of Medieval society. Pardoners were properly conducted, altruistic members of the clergy.
The Pardoner Geoffrey Chaucer introduces to the reader, however, is a “conman” (Brosamer 1), full of lies and deceptions. He spends his time slyly stripping people of their money for fake religious relics. Thus, Geoffrey Chaucer uses the Pardoner’s greed and selfishness as a satirical element of irony in the Pardoner’s Tale, which tells of “three rioters who go out seeking to slay Death, and are themselves slain by their own greed,” (Rossignol 1), the same greed that motivates the Pardoner in his profession. After getting a drink, the Pardoner begins to tell the group of pilgrims his Prologue.
Although he promises to tell the group a moral story, the fears from the pilgrims of a potentially uncensored tale by the drunken man quickly circulate. The Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale is simply about his own life, explaining that he makes his living by going from town to town with tales of “the kind that it [the mind] can repeat and hold” (Chaucer 115) and phony relics. In short, the Pardoner enlightens the pilgrims of his truly fraudulent self and livelihood. He admits that the sole reason for his work is to earn money, not to correct the sins of his congregations.
Although he knows his work is fraud, he admits that if he can charm a crowd with a captivating tale, the people will believe in his practice and make their offerings to the relics, which the Pardoner can quickly pocket. The Pardoner’s Prologue also further develops his character presented in Chaucer’s General Prologue. “The Pardoner in his prologue displays impressive self-awareness and he congratulates himself for his criminally vicious characteristics” (Bloom 1). Unlike the general religious and respectful pardoner during this Medieval time, Chaucer’s Pardoner is aware of his fraudulent character but does nothing to change it.
The Pardoner’s Prologue is one of confession without guilt in that he reveals his character and the way his mind works. He admits that he takes no step toward hiding his intentions from his congregation. “He not only outlines the manner in which he dupes people of their money but he does so in front of his next set of intended victims” (Rossignol 7). Throughout the his Prologue, the Pardoner mentions many times the theme of every sermon he tells: “Radix malorum est Cupiditas” (Chaucer 115), greed is the root of all evil.
The pilgrims are faced with a theme of irony as the Pardoner mentions his general theme and lesson. The Pardoner himself struggles with his greed being the root of his evil. His everlasting greed for money to make himself a livelihood overtakes his moral character. As a result of his constant theme and lesson, the Pardoner’s tales are considered exemplum tales. The theme of each of the Pardoner’s sermons is a theme with which the Pardoner himself is struggling. The Pardoner’s Tale, in brief, tells the story of how the greed within humanity leading to death.
Three rioters in a bar personify death and hope to kill it. An unidentified Old Man directs the rioters to an old tree, where they find a large pile of gold. As each man plots for his own personal success, disregarding the others by developing a plan to keep the entire pile of gold to himself, the rioters each find themselves caught up in everlasting and destructive greed. All of the men die, following the Pardoner’s consistent lesson of Radix malorum est Cupiditas, Greed is the root of all Evil. The audience learns of the transition that men undergo in order to satisfy their greed.
The innocent man turns into the enemy. “For this young man was utterly content / To kill them both and never to repent” (Chaucer 119). The love of money is the root of evil and death in The Pardoner’s Tale. The irony in the Pardoner’s Tale occurs between the Tale and its teller. The Pardoner’s Tale has the most moral plot but is being told by the least moral pilgrim. The irony of his lecture is that these are sins, like gambling and drinking and swearing, that the Pardoner himself is guilty of” (Hacht 18).
The Pardoner applies his moral issues to produce captivating stories to recite to his congregations. His moral and pure tales make the people of his audience feel remorseful for their personal greed, resulting in their extravagant offerings for the Pardoner to keep secretly. He is an incredibly hypocritical man in that he states that greediness is the root of all evil, but he then acts in a greedy manner himself as he sells pardons to people in hope to get into Heaven but keeps the money nstead of giving it to the Church and declaring the process a profession.
Because of this Tale to teller relationship, the pilgrims are left with a great problem: “Should we trust, or believe in, or even listen to the tale of an untrustworthy teller? ” (Rossignol 7). The Pardoner chooses to steal from his audience despite his understanding of his immoral actions. Even though the Pardoner had previously informed his fellow travelers that his relics are fake, his storytelling habits take over, and he pulls his relics out in hope of offerings from the group of pilgrims.
He offers the chance to kiss the relics first to the Host, pointing out that the sin in the Host’s life is clearly the greatest of all the pilgrims. “And I advise our Host here to begin. / The most enveloped of you all in sin” (Chaucer 120). The Host, annoyed, threatens to cut off the Pardoner’s testicles and make relics of them, which makes the Pardoner turn quiet and outraged until the Knight intercedes and forces the two men to “make up. ” This boldness after all of his hypocrisy underscores the moral depths to which the Pardoner has fallen.