From his description in the ‘General Prologue’, the Miller appears to be a character of commanding physical presence, a large man who revels in such displays of strength as wrestling matches and breaking down doors “at a renning with his heed.” Chaucer describes him as being a “stout carl” and big in both brawn and bones. The Miller is distinguished as wearing a white coat with a blue hood and having “a swerd and bokelar bar by his side”.
He is said to have a huge beard, as red in colour “as any sowe or fox”, a vast mouth that’s likened to a size of a furnace, wide, black nostrils, and a conspicuous wart on the tip of his nose, crowned by a mass of hairs compared in colour to the hairs of a sow’s ears. Depicted as being a “janglere”, someone who talks constantly, and a foul-mouthed teller of disreputable tales, Chaucer goes on to account the typical trait of a miller in 14th century society. Chaucer tells of how the Miller is capable of “stelen corn” and charging three times the price, as well as having “a thombe of gold”, however, although acquainted with the usual tricks of his trade, the Miller is also said to be an able bagpipe-player, whose piping accompanies the pilgrims’ departure from London.
The fact that the description of the Miller is one of the last in the ‘General Prologue’ causes the reader to recognise that the Miller was of a low social class. As social status was everything in the 14th century, due to the reigning feudal system of the time, it can be realised that the Miller’s position towards the end of the list of pilgrims indicates his place in the lower ranks of the social hierarchy. The detailed description accounted by Chaucer provides the reader with a clear visual image of the Miller, allowing his character to become more realistic.
Specific physical qualities of the Miller, such as the wart on the end of his nose crowned by hairs, provoke elements of humour for the reader, and the personality traits depicted, such as stealing corn and charging high prices, along with his capability of winning wrestling matches, provides the reader with an accurate impression of the Miller as a person and it is in his description of the Miller that Chaucer’s humourous tone is chiefly displayed.
The Miller’s Prologue begins by Chaucer narrating the success of the Knight’s Tale, claiming that within the group of pilgrims, neither the young nor elderly could dispute its status as a noble story. The Host, Harry Bailey, who devised the story-telling competition to pass the time on the pilgrimage, announces how well he thinks things are going so far. He claims of how “unbekeled is the male”, which could be seen as a metaphor of the opening of Pandora’s box, declaring his thoughts that things are well underway. It is here that the Host invites the Monk to tell the next story of the competition, seemingly working his way through the pilgrims in order of social status.
The Knight was the most noble out of the group of pilgrims, and second to him came the Church, of which the Monk was of the highest position. It is the Host’s intention that others of the more noble pilgrims shall follow the Knight, however, it is not Chaucer’s, as the Miller, who at this point is so drunk that he can barely sit on his horse, rudely intervenes ahead of the Monk. He claims that he “kan a noble tale for the nones” with which he will rival the tale of the Knights. Due to the profile of the Miller that the reader was able to read in the ‘General Prologue’ and as well as the fact that he is drunk, it can be established that a noble tale from the Miller is unlikely and that we, the readers, are in for a tale of “sinne and harlotries”.
Harry Bailey realises the drunken state of the Miller and attempts to pacify him, as he says that a better man shall tell the next tale and things will proceed in the right order. It is at this point that the Miller becomes quite disgruntled and childishly threatens “For I wol speke, or elles go my way”. The Host relents grudgingly, “Tel on, a devel way!” and the Miller proceeds to tell the rest of the group that he’s aware of his drunkenness as he can hear it in his own voice, and therefore apologises for anything that he says which may cause offence, and that it should be put down to the “ale of Southwerk”.
It is here that the reader can identify the irony of Chaucer’s writing, as the Miller is still drunk from the night before on the ale that was supplied at the tavern, the landlord of which being Harry Bailey. As the Miller has claimed that anything he says which is not of a moral standard should be blamed on his drunkenness, the reader can note Chaucer’s use of a clever tactic as this announcement gets him off the hook. Chaucer henceforth has an alibi for writing crude parts of the story as he can say that it was not him telling the tale, but in fact the Miller. Chaucer, through the Miller, who he ironically disapproves of in his narrator’s voice, challenges the conventions of subject and values, which were exhibited in the previous tale.
Having placated the Host, the Miller then quarrels with the Reeve, after promising a tale of the cuckolding of a carpenter. The Reeve objects to the Miller’s Tale as he is of a similar trade to that of the carpenter in the tale, and so believes that the tale will project the idea that all craftsmen are cuckolds. The Miller responds by pulling the Reeve’s leg, as he says “Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold…That knowestow wel thyself, but if thou madde”. In ironically implying that most women are faithful, the Miller casts doubt on the Reeve’s marriage, whilst providing no obvious cause for offence. In the exchange of repartee which follows, the Miller comes off the better, as he suggests that he would never query his wife’s fidelity, and by doing so, calls in doubt the Reeve’s objections to his proposed tale, implying a slander, whilst seemingly being reasonable.
Having presented all of this neutrally, Chaucer now introduces his own comment in the guise of narrator, he apologises to the reader for the tale which he must tell, he asserts, out of journalistic entirety. The irony of this is of course apparent to the reader as Chaucer has written the tale and clearly takes delight in the humour of this. However, there is also a sense that the comment is not ironic as the decision to provide a range of tales requires truthful reflections of the conduct of real people.
Nearing the end of the Prologue, Chaucer makes a warning toward the reader, almost like a disclaimer, “demeth nat that I seye Of ivel entente, but for I moot reherce Hir tales alle, be they bettre or werse”, that if the reader chooses to read on, they do so at their own risk, which in turn only whets the reader’s appetite even more. It is towards the end of the Miller’s Prologue that the reader begins to feel an element of illusion, as what they are reading is fiction, yet Chaucer directly addresses them in his narration. As he implicitly addresses the reader a sense of realism is evoked and they may feel as if what they are reading really took place.