English Literature » Notes » Chaucer: “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” – Philosophy of Dreams

Chaucer: “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” – Philosophy of Dreams

Dreams are the backbone of Chaucer‘s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”. The story begins with a dream and ends up in a dream. Dreams were also present in the source fable but there the focus of attention was the fate of Chanticleer, whereas the dream had a secondary role to play. While, in “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” the dreams make the basis of the story and the fate of Chanticleer is not much important. Here, the dream is the main source through which a lot of humour flows. So, by making artistic use of dreams, Chaucer makes it the part and parcel.

The poem begins with a short description of a widow having two daughters and some humble house hold articles required for the basic necessities of life. Then, there is a long and tiresome discussion between Chanticleer and Pertelote with regard to the sanctity attached to dreams. As a result of this discussion two schools of thought develop.

Dreams are, in fact, realities.
Dreams are fantasies.

Chanticleer believes the dreams are true and they signify the coming events, whereas, Pertelote disagrees to this point of view.

Chanticleer and Pertelote give illustrations and references from the past to substantiate their points of view to prove or disprove the reality of dreams. For example, Pertelote refers to Cato who said, “Regard dreams as of no impertinence”. On the contrary, Chanticleer alludes to the writers who were of the view “dreams are true and signify the joys and troubles of our life”. He refers to two tales from the past substantiating the reality of dreams.

In the first tale two friends go to pilgrimage. On the way, they have to stay at separate lodgings. At night, one of them witnesses the friend is being murdered in his dreams and the dreams proves true in the morning.

In the second tale, a man is commended in his dreams to refrain from setting sail in the morning as the ship is going to meet a wreck on that day. This dream also comes true. Chanticleer makes several other references from the history to prove his view point.

Chaucer also makes dreams a vehicle of discussing the vital and paramount issues of life e.g. causes of dreams, an ideal man and an ideal woman, philosophical discussion on flattery, predestination, humour, irony of fate, of pleasures of life, i.e. worldly joys and pleasure are ephemeral and moral lesson.

Firstly, he philosophically discusses the causes of dreams. Pertelote is of the view that we witness horrible dreams owing to overeating and repletion and often due to constitutional disorders and imbalance of humour. She suggests chanticleer some digestive and laxatives.

During the discussion of dreams Chaucer also tells that in the eye of a woman an ideal man is brave, wise and broad-minded, who has emotional self-control, secretive, and is not cruel and miser and not foolish. Also he discusses the qualities of an ideal woman and the role of a woman in man’s life; she is “man’s joy and all his bliss”. She has to encourage man, please him, uplift him when he is frustrated and despaired and help him through thick and thin.

Through dreams Chaucer also discusses the theory of predestination. Chaucer presents three schools of thought regarding the theory of predestination.

Firstly, God foreknows everything and we are compelled and destined to act accordingly. Man is totally a bound slave of destiny. He cannot avoid it.

Secondly, God has the foreknowledge but we have given a free choice to do or not to do it.

Thirdly, God foreknows everything but his foreknowing never compels us to do a thing except by way of conditional necessity.
The dreams are also the main spring of humours. Infact when Chanticleer and Pertelote, two birds, start discussing and arguing about dreams like learned human beings, it creates humour and looks ridiculous. Had these two characters actual human beings it would not have been humorous. Chaucer artistically used dreams for creating humour.

Through dreams he also discusses the irony of fate. There are many things, which one can’t acquire unless God wishes. The fox carries the cock with a desire to eat it calmly in the jungle but at the last moment the cock escapes. It means that our fate rules us all. Our joys and pleasures vanish in a moment and fate imposes pains and sorrows upon us.
He also uses dreams to convey a moral purpose. He gives a whole account on the dangers of flattery. He proves that flattery satisfies our ego. It blinds us to the truth. It brings us to a romantic environment. First cock falls to the victim of flattery and then fox falls to the same weapon.

Thus, the whole philosophy of the poem continues through the dream. In the original tale, dream might be a part of a story but here it has illustrations, philosophy, thought, moral etc. So, Chaucer handles dream in such an artistic way that it become more powerful than a mere dream.