May 3, 1997

From Gerald R. Lucas

But Seriously… Chaucer’s “Ernest Game”

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, at least from a textual standpoint, remains unfinished. At least two tales are incomplete or interrupted, the Cook’s Tale and the Squire’s Tale, the order of the tales has been debated, and some of the tales are seemingly thrown in at the last minute. And within our current deconstructionist zeitgeist, critics like Catherine Belsey suggest that readers should not seek “the unity of the work, but the multiplicity and diversity of its possible meanings, its incompleteness, the omissions which it displays but cannot describe, and above all its contradictions.”[1] So despite the obvious textual flaws and a multiplicity of meaning and interpretation, many thematic functions of The Canterbury Tales are, however, complete — at least in an Aristotelian sense in that they imitate life and its contradictions. Life rarely suggests unity intrinsically, but must have unity imposed upon it for its denizens’ comfort. We, as humans, decide that we will take the pilgrimage of life to its ultimate conclusion. We decide to impose that order on our ostensibly quixotic existences — we decide to play the game.

The Canterbury tales of Geoffrey Chaucer - Frontispiece.jpg

Our present word “game,” states Lanham, may encompass all of life or exclude almost anything.[2] Yet, the game metaphor represents a synecdoche of all human interrelations. The Oxford English Dictionary offers several apropos meanings: an amusement, delight, fun, mirth, sport; a jest as opposed to ernest; to make fun of, jest at, turn to ridicule; an object of ridicule or a laughing stock; an amusement, diversion, pastime; amorous sport or play; a diversion of the nature of a contest, played according to rules, and displaying in the result the superiority in either skill, strength, or good fortune in the victors. Humans knowingly enter into games of pretense and irony on a daily basis. Game suggests a contest with rules, weapons, and a winner. Yet, along with the players — indeed a game cannot be played alone — there are also the observers who oversee and analyse the contest, translating their interpretations of a specific game to the macrocosmic game in which they are involved. Both the players, who have an immediate stake in the game, and the observers, involved in the larger game of life, are necessary in playing the game.

Based on the OED’s criteria, amusement seems to figure prominent in the games. Amusement implies lightheartedness and jest — something diametrically opposed to the serious or earnest. Yet, the game may be highly serious, depending on the stakes. While a friendly game of chess for a pint of Guiness may be considered low-stake, the game of Christianity, where one’s soul is on the line, is definitely a game of earnest. The distinction between what one may call “game” and what one may deem “reality” may be less-lucid than first estimated. Indeed, the conception of love has been a popular game since the first human comunities; yet, popularly, many consider love a serious human endeavor. While the ultimate expression of love, like that of Christianity, might transcend the game, the initial expression of it usually consists of solely anxious, affected play.

If one only looks at our language it is replete with metaphors of the game: “sore loser,” “bases covered,” “sub-par,” “spoiled sport,” “sure thing,” “best bet,” “not playing with a full deck,” et cetera. We are all “contestents” in search of the “grand prize,” yet most will settle for the “consolation gift.” Many of these games, at least in a popular manifestation, suggests the a break from the mundane with excitement and suspense, yet ultimately only offers more trivia as the distraction.

Any playing is dictated by rules, no matter what the game. Chess has its own rules, as does every game from love, to religion, to politics. One must be aware of the rules in order to play the game. Only when the rules are followed may one stand a chance at victory. What are the Ten Commandments if they are not Hebraic rules? Are the Qur’an, The Prince, The Communist Manifesto anything but complex books of rules that help their readers and interpreters reach the final prize: the happy hunting ground, the utopia, the new Mercedes? At the end of the game there must be a prize for the victor. In the end lies comfort, peace — a transcending of the game — the ultimate goal. Christianity tells its practioners that, if they play the game according to the rules, they will be rewarded by a place in heaven. Is life, then, a game-like amusement that passes the time until we die and — hopefully — go to heaven? If this premise is accepted, then all serious human endeavors are just games that its participants use to pass the time. Therefore, the earnest is the game.

The last statement seems, in itself, a contradiction. Indeed, it may be likened to Paul de Man’s discussion of the rhetorical question in his book Allegories of Reading. He suggests that a rhetorical question’s literal answer is mutually exclusive from a figurative response. De Man succinctly defines this linguistic irony: “A perfectly clear syntactical paradigm (the question) engenders a sentence that has at least two meanings, of which the one asserts and the other denies its own illocutionary meaning.”[3] While de Man seems particularly interested in a formalist approach to this problem, he also states that only through a situation’s rhetoric may the true answer be divined.[3] Yet, Chaucer’s Tales, many critics agree, are heavily ironic, displaying characters whose word does not match their deeds. The game of irony — another rhetorical device — makes interpretation, even in context, problematic. When irony begins, where does it end? A reader only has context when attempting to interpret irony. This language game, especially when employing the tropes of irony, may be playful while, ostensibly contradictory, it also may be very earnest.

Chaucer takes a comic look at the ernest game of life. His rules are ones of genre — rules that he ultimately makes up as he goes along.[4] Jacques Derridas’s law of genre may be applicable here; he states:

Indeed, Chaucer’s Tales fall within this designation, and do not. Chaucer both participates in and remains apart from his own game. He uses the frame tale genre as a basis, then includes characters that the traditional frame may not wholly contain. They represent all the strata of medieval society, yet most fall between the folds of that societal genre. They, like the frame that attempts to contain them, are impure players in a game of rhetoric. Chaucer, himself, is a participant as writer, and also as persona who records the words of the pilgrims. Yet, unless he had the medieval equivalent of a tape recorder, his own rhetoric must have filled in the gaps. Whose game is being played here?

Chaucer’s weapon is rhetoric and his subject the world which is “but a thurghfare of wo, / And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro. / Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore.”[6] The game here seems earnest, but Harry Bailey’s game passes the time on an ostensibly earnest pilgrimage. Yet the game, as the quote from the Knight’s Tale shows, is life: a life many find amusing while many take it deadly seriously. The Canterbury Tales is a game on at least two levels: literature and life. The game of tales to pass the time to Canterbury may be equated with the more cosmic game of a quest for truth. The pilgrims are participants in Chaucer’s game, while they represent all of humanity: some know the rules and some break the rules, yet all are accountable to the other players as well as to themselves. Not all will be victorious, but all are there to play.

Lanham suggests three criteria for Chaucer’s game: loving relationships, rhetoric, and combat.[2] Indeed, these types of games are the main focus of The Canterbury Tales, as they are in life. The approaches to these games differ and sometimes overlap in the pilgrims’ dialectical tales mirroring the multiplicity of interpretations of the games of talking, loving, and fighting. Yet, Chaucer uses a comic irony to reverse many of the games in the tails, suggesting that the ernest tales contain as much game as the tales that seem to be all play, yet contain as much seriousness.

The Knight begins the contest in attempting to tell the tale “of best sentence and moost solaas.”[7] The contest between Arcite and Palamon undercuts the game of courtly love, while concluding that games are necessary in this world. Theseus decides that the game must be played even though the prize is uncertain:

Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it weel that we may nat eschue,
And namely that to us alle is due.
And whoso gruccheth ought, he dooth folye,
And rebel is to hym that al may gye.
And certeinly a man hath moost honour
To dyen in his excellence and flour,
Whan he is siker of his goode name;
Thanne hath he doon his freend, ne hym, no shame.
And gladder oghte his freend been of his deeth,
Whan with honor up yolden is his breeth,
Than wan his name apalled is for age,
For all forgeten is his vassellage.
Thanne is it best, as for a worthy fame,
To dyen whan that he is best of name.[8]

The necessitee is to play the game to the best of one’s ability. The rules of honor and chivalry keep one worthy of fame. One is required to act honorable in this world, avoiding shameful behavior — only then will life mean anything before death. Both Palamon and Arcite play the game of love and chivalry, even to the point of postponing the contest until Palamon can be properly armed and strengthened: “Have heer my trouthe; tomorwe I wol nat faille / … I wol be founden as a knyght, / And bryngen harneys right ynough for thee; / … And mete and drynke this nyght wol I brynge / Ynough for thee, and clothes for thy beddynge.”[9] While both play the game to the best of their abilities, this contest of love and war can have only one victor. Yet, the victory is bittersweet and comes under the aegis of Theseus when, years after the death of Arcite, he sanctions the joining of Palamon to Emily. The interim has tamed Palamon’s ardent love for Emily; the tale ends with Theseus’s wishes being obeyed, yet maturity has calmed the once-sprightly game of youth so “That nevere was ther no word hem bitwene / Of jalousie or any oother teene.”[10]

The Canterbury tales of Geoffrey Chaucer - There came a Knight upon a Steed of Brass.jpg

Like a good game, the Knight’s move is countered, “I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale,”[11] by the drunk Miller. The Miller cautions the observers not to “maken ernest of game.”[12] as he begins his ribald tale of lower-class lovers. The Miller presents by a world where the rules have changed: the Knight’s morals and codes do not apply here. This tale seems to present a world that should not be taken as seriously as the Knight’s, but the results are just as earnest. Utilizing a façade of bawdy humor, the Miller suggests that his tale is just for fun. Indeed the Miller succeeds in answering the Knight: “Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf, / For al his kepyng and his jalousye, / And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye, / And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.”[13] Paralleling The Knight’s Tale, he reverses the outcome of the love triangle: the three seemingly get what they deserve and/or desire. However, the troubling aspect of this otherwise playful tale is the treatment of the “sely carpenter.” John is a kind man, full of love for his young wife and compassion for an ailing Nicholas. His heartfelt compassion, albeit innocent and naive, earns him a betrayal by his lodger, a cuckold’s horns from his wife, and disrespect from the townspeople who “turned al his harm unto a jape.”[14] This man, one who ostensibly played the game by the rules, is rewarded by perfidy. In this world of no rules, John becomes the joke, as does January in The Merchant’s Tale, whose game is strikingly similar.

Another tale addressing the game of love is The Franklin’s Tale. Here the game is the impetus of the tale and precipitates an earnest lesson. With “grisly rokkes blake” on her mind, Dorigen lightens the mood with Aurelius and shows her love for her absent husband, Arveragus:

But after that in pley thus said she:
“Aurelie,” quod she, “by heighe God above,
Yet wolde I graunte yow to been youre love,
Syn I yow se so pitously complayne.
Looke what day that endelong Britayne
Ye remoeve alle the rokkes, stoon by stoon,
That hey ne lette ship ne boot to goon —
I seye, whan ye han maad the coost so clene
Of rokkes that ther nys no stoon ysene,
Thanne wil I love yow best of any man;
Have heer my trouthe, in al that evere I kan.”[15]

Dorigen’s “pley” becomes earnest when Aurelius succeeds in his assigned task, even though she explicitly condemns the rules of the courtly love game: “What deyntee sholde a man han in his lyf / For to go love another mannes wyf.”{{sfn|Chaucer|1987|loc=FranT 1003-4"" Yet the game of troth that both Dorigen and Arveragus take seriously (“Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe”) compels her to keep her word, even though it was made in jest. Aurelius, too, counts on the rules of troth to get him what he desires, yet does not count on his own magnanimity changing his mind at the thought of the couple’s honesty. Here, the game of chivalry, in a squire’s emulation of a knight, teaches a lesson to all involved; Aurelius is even released from his debt to the magician. The Franklin’s Tale demonstrates a game of human interaction that produces ennobling results from a bit of “pley.”

The Wife of Bath’s game is not so ennobling. She is a player whose weapons are dissembling and rhetoric and whose prize is sovereignty, or what she calls love. The game she plays is one of her own creation, so she plays it with the most proficiency:

A wys womman wol bisye hire evere in oon
To gete hire love, ye, ther as she hath noon.
But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
And sith they hadde me yeven al hir lond,
What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese,
But it were for my profit and myn ese?[16]

She has overturned the rules of men and created her own game where she is the master: “After thy text, ne after thy rubriche, / I wol nat wirche as muchel as a gnat.”[17] Yet those who play her game find themselves in her hell, robbed of their fortunes and their lives: “Thou liknest eek wommenes love to helle, / To bareyne lond, where water may nat dwelle.”[18] Those who do show obeisance to her mastery, like the knight in her tale and her fifth husband, are shown mercy, yet live as slaves to their wives’ desire:

He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,
To han the governance of hous and lond,
And of his tonge, and of his hond also;
And made him brenne his book anon right tho.[19]

His language is burned with his book; she now has control of his “tonge” and “hand.” He no longer has a voice (or “hous” and “lond”) — the rules of his game have been obliterated in her game of control:

And whan that I hadde geten unto me,
By maistrie, all the soveraynetee,
And that he sayde, ‘Myn owene trewe wyf,
Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lyf;
Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat” —
After that day we hadden never debaat.[20]

Only after she has complete control over all of his “estaat,” i.e. his body and mind, does the Wife cease “debaat.” Her victory is complete control over her husbands and their earthly and intellectual property. Thus the Wife’s game is a stalemate even before one elects to play. The only rule is complete relinquishment of personality, mind and body, to the Wife’s tyrannical control. She has rewritten the game of love in her favor, but it is a one-sided affair that takes no account of the opposition. Like a jingoistic warlord, the Wife takes no prisoners, offers no concessions, and does not stop until she wins total dominance.

While the Wife’s game may seem stacked in her favor, it represents only one of many games of control in The Canterbury Tales. Another manipulator takes the form of the Pardoner. He, too, uses rhetoric to achieve his goal of money and power — a goal that has seemingly replaced his passion for sex (one of the Wife’s passions) with a desire for monetary mastery:

Myne handes and my tonge goon so yerne
That it is joye to se my bisynesse.
Of avarice and of swich cursednesse
Is al my prechyng, for to make hem free
To yeven hir pen, and namely unto me.
For myn entente is nat but for to wynne,
And nothyng for correccioun of synne.[21]

A sexual energy possesses the Pardoner as he confesses and describes his penetrating “bisynesse.” Unlike the Wife, however, the Pardoner attempts to control groups of “lewed peple” at a time, and not just one intimate person. Yes, the Wife’s game betrays a destructive propensity, but the Pardoner’s game increases the scope to include the “povereste page” and “wydwe in a village,” even though “Al sholde hir children sterve for famyne.”[22] The Pardoner himself obeys no rules but his own, while his tale provides an exemplum of societal transgressors like himself. He, however, is blind to his own sermon, and to the rules of Harry Bailey’s game.[23] Lanham suggests that when the Pardoner attempts to dupe the pilgrims, he crosses the established boundary between the game and reality.[23] That is, the Pardoner, playing by his own rules, becomes blind, not only to his own tale, but to the rules of the Host’s game and those of the commonly practiced game of Christianity. The Host’s vituperation, in essence, castrates the erring Pardoner: “This Pardoner answerde nat a word; / So wrooth he was, no word ne wolde he seye.”[24] Unlike the Wife’s game which did not attempt to directly impinge upon the rules of the company, the Pardoner’s game crossed the line, and so he is penalized.

The Canterbury tales of Geoffrey Chaucer - Therewith he brought us out of Town.jpg

One of the most earnest games in The Canterbury Tales, discussed implicitly until this point, is Christianity. Perversions of this game — the Friar, the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Monk, the Prioress — present interesting tales and personalities, but the orthodox game precipitates one of the largest contentions in the Tales. Much debate concerning both The Parson’s Tale and the Retraction have entered the playing field of literary criticism. The former is not a tale at all, but a sermon outlining the rules of Christianity, i.e. how to achieve the grand prix: entrance to the Celestial City. This tale upsets critics because it does not fit within the rules of the Host’s (or Chaucer the humanist’s) game. Yet the Parson’s game seems to usurp the rules of the game and suggests the larger, more ernest context of the Tales: the pilgrimage. Indeed, the Host’s game would not have taken place had it not been for the reason of the company’s gathering for their pilgrimage to Canterbury. By illustrating the distractions of this life in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Parson attempts to sell his game to the pilgrimage (a game most of them seem to accept in some way or another anyway) and to the readers of the Tales. A medieval audience might have accepted The Parson’s Tale as the final expression of the tales, but the rules of our contemporary audience have changed. If The Parson’s Tale disrupts the aesthetics of the Tales, or if it, along with the retraction, betray Chaucer as less of a humanist than one would like to believe, then Chaucer has done his job, and we have fallen for his game. He has presented a multiplicity of games abounding in contradiction that have no easy answer. Christianity might have been the answer in the latter half of the fifteenth century, but the beauty of The Canterbury Tales is that of a polyphonic expression, and that we all, as participants of a larger game, have a choice.

Ultimately, we choose to involve ourselves in Chaucer’s game. We are the spectators who willing engage the players. We give each pilgrim a chance to tell her/his story while we observe the conflict, yet it is up to us to award the final prize. Each reader must judge the tales against his/her own tale, and modify accordingly. Many who play the game are rewarded; those who do not are punished, or begin their own games, and Chaucer presents the reader with many games that reflect the people who play them. The reader, finally, must ask her/himself which game is individually the best choice for him/her. Chaucer makes his choice in the Retraction, but he does not choose for his reader. Critics might have difficulty with Chaucer’s retraction (Chaucer is not playing their game after all), but whatever Chaucer’s opinion, the reader is still presented with the Tales and the ability to play her/his own ernest game. We, as humans, are not alone on our pilgrimages, but each must finally choose to play his/her own game in order to be victorious. Finally, if all of this is just too serious for us, if Chaucer’s pilgrims offend our delicate sensibilities, we can content ourselves with the knowledge that The Canterbury Tales is just a literary game.


  1. Belsey 1994, p. 365.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lanham 1967, p. 8.
  3. 3.0 3.1 De Man 1979, p. 10.
  4. Lanham 1967, p. 6.
  5. Derrida 1980, p. 55.
  6. Chaucer 1987, KT 2847-9.
  7. Chaucer 1987, GP 798.
  8. Chaucer 1987, KT 3041–56.
  9. Chaucer 1987, KT 1610-16.
  10. Chaucer 1987, KT 3105-6.
  11. Chaucer 1987, MilT 3127.
  12. Chaucer 1987, MilT 3186.
  13. Chaucer 1987, MilT 3850-3.
  14. Chaucer 1987, MilT 3842.
  15. Chaucer 1987, FranT 989–98.
  16. Chaucer 1987, WBT 209-14.
  17. Chaucer 1987, WBT 346-7.
  18. Chaucer 1987, WBT 371-2.
  19. Chaucer 1987, WBT 813-16.
  20. Chaucer 1987, WBT 817-22.
  21. Chaucer 1987, PardT 398-404.
  22. Chaucer 1987, PardT 449-51.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Lanham 1967, p. 11.
  24. Chaucer 1987, PardT 956-7.

Works Cited

  • Belsey, Catherine (1994). "Deconstructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text". In Con Davis, Robert; Schleifer, Ronald. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies (Third ed.). New York: Longman. pp. 354–70.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey (1987). The Riverside Chaucer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • De Man, Paul (1979). Allegories of Reading. Boston: Yale University Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques (1980). "The Law of Genre" (PDF). Glyph (7): 51–77.
  • Lanham, Richard A. (1967). "Game, Play, and High Seriousness in Chaucer's Poetry". English Studies. 48 (1): 1–24.

Works Consulted

  • Gerhard, Joseph (1970). "Chaucerian 'Game' — 'Earnest' and the 'Argument of Herbergage' in The Canterbury Tales". The Chaucer Review. 5 (2): 83–96.
  • Josipovici, G. D. (1965). "Fiction and Game in The Canterbury Tales". Critical Quarterly. 7 (2): 185–97.
  • Owen, Charles A. (1959). "The Crucial Passages in Five of The Canterbury Tales: A Study in Irony and Symbol". In Wagenknecht, Edward. Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 251–70.
  • Ramsay, Vance (1979). "Modes of Irony in The Canterbury Tales". In Rowland, Beryl. Companion to Chaucer Studies. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 291–312.
  • Wood, Chauncey (1972). "Chaucer and 'Sir Thopas': Irony and Concupiscence". Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 14 (3): 389–403.