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The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | The Friar's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

After hearing the Wife of Bath's tale, the Friar says their stories should steer clear of theological topics. He says he will tell a story about a summoner, noting how unpopular summoners are. The Summoner promises to "pay him back" later with a story about a friar.

The Friar begins: There once was a scheming summoner who used his position to extort money from people. One day, as he is out riding, planning to get some money from an innocent widow based on a trumped-up charge, he meets a young yeoman. He tells the yeoman that he is a bailiff, and the yeoman says he is as well! Based on their shared occupation, they swear to be "brothers to their dying day." Then the summoner asks the yeoman about himself. The yeoman says he has to extort money from people to make a living. The summoner agrees he must do the same. Then the yeoman reveals that he is a fiend from Hell who has chosen to appear in a human shape. The summoner says that, even though the yeoman is a fiend, their partnership stands.

The two come upon a farmer with a cart stuck in the mud. The farmer, frustrated, says, "The devil take all," and the summoner thinks this means that the fiend can take all the man's belongings. However, the fiend says that the farmer didn't really mean the words. They travel on to the house of the innocent widow. The summoner lies, telling the woman that there is a charge against her but that, if she pays him, she won't have to answer for it. She replies that she does not have enough money. When he persists in harassing her, she curses him, saying, may the "blackest devil out of Hell/Carry you off." The fiend asks her if she is sincere, and she says she is. So he takes the summoner off to Hell.

Analysis

As in other tales, a strong connection between the story and the storyteller exists in the Friar's Tale. This story includes also the now-familiar plot device of "the trickster tricked." Yet it is ominous in tone and has elements similar to the Pardoner's story of the three young men whose own sins eventually cause their downfall. Avarice, or greed, is the main sin for which the three young men of the Pardoner's tale and the summoner of this tale are condemned. The summoner is willing to make any deal that furthers his chances at a profit, and this lack of morals leads him to Hell. Because the story is a condemnation of summoners in general, it is strange that the Friar tries to extend the moral of the story to the entire pilgrim company: "The lion's always on the watch for prey/To kill the innocent, if so he may." The summoner in the story is far from an innocent victim of the devil.

The connection between the story and storyteller in this tale is also of interest. In the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, the Friar is described as "an easy man in penance-giving/Where he could hope to make a decent living." Although his methods of extracting money from people are more charming than those of his story's summoner, both still represent men of the church who use their position for profit. In telling a story about the sin of avarice, the Friar preaches, unwittingly, against himself.

The relationship between the summoner and the fiend is brotherly, and the summoner agrees to continue in brotherhood with the fiend even after he finds out his true nature. This is in sharp contrast to other similar "brotherhoods" and partnerships in the tales—Palamon and Arcita forsake their brotherhood for their rivalry for a woman in the Knight's tale, the three young men of the Pardoner's tale turn on one another, Sir John and the rich merchant are "like brothers" yet Sir John seduces the merchant's wife in the Shipman's tale, and so on.

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