Disappearing Personification

As I carefully read Chaucer’s work I found the passage about the characters’ adventure in the tale particularly interesting.

“Seeking to defeat or master Death willfully is the shortcut to an early demise.” (Granger)

Firstly, I was intrigued due to the resemblance to J.K Rowling’s “The Tale of the Three Brothers” from her short fictional book The Tales of Beedle the Bard.  This came forth in my mind because of the similarity of plot, in which three characters are seeking and/or wanting to master Death.

On a side note: after a little research online, I found an interesting article from the University of Chicago by a graduate named John Granger. According to the man known as the ‘Dean of Harry Potter Scholars’, The Canterbury Tales were “an influence on her [Rowling] last novel” (Granger). If this intrigues you I highly suggest looking at John Granger’s featured article “Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower” located here.

Secondly, I was interested in the way Chaucer used death in “The Pardoner’s Tale”.  And more specifically the way lines 471 to 493, on page 321, reinforce Chaucer’s choice to personify death.  Death is what the three “riotoures” are seeking (480). The personification of death is found in this passage, but throughout the tale as well. Multiple times “he” and “him” are used to personify death in the passage (476).   Also, death is capitalised as “Deeth” several times, levelling its meaning to a noun or something substantial (473).

Now, what I found interesting was that Chaucer chose to personify death for majority of “The Pardoner’s Tale” and then chose to remove any personification once the “florins” were found (482). In most fictional novels that I have read which personify death, an actual embodiment or figure appears as death (or as a symbol of death) at some point. But in “The Pardoner’s Tale” this does not really occur. Death as a figure is the motivation for the men to follow the old man’s directions, but the men never meet a personified figure of death, just death itself.

"Under a tree, and ther he wol abide" (475)

The reader is lead to line 484 predicting that death is a “false thief” figure  awaiting the men under an oak tree (471). But Chaucer does an interesting twist on line 484. In one line (“Ne lenger thanne after Deeth they soughte”) an important part of the tale disappears. From my analysis I noticed that death is no longer personified after line 484. Death is present, but not personified.

Is it wrong? No. In my opinion I think that it’s actually brilliant. Chaucer’s choice to use and instantaneously remove a constant piece is so meticulous and serendipitous. It shapes the way the tale concludes.

My only questions is: did Chaucer remove the personified death for his audience? Was this done to emphasise that the three men were each meeting death in their own deaths, not a figure of death? Maybe or maybe not. It may be a question only Chaucer could answer.


You can find out more about John Granger here.

Feel like reading modern comics that are based on “The Pardoner’s Tale”? Click here.

Feel like watching the movie version of “The Tale of Three Brothers”? Click here.

Works Citied:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Norton Anthology of  English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9thed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2012. 321. Print.

Granger, John. “The University of Chicago Magazine: Features.” The University of Chicago Magazine: Features. The University of Chicago Magazine, July-Aug. 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2012. <http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0908/features/ivory_tower.shtml>.

About Theresa Kenney

A busy-bee student type at the University of Calgary in the midst of an undergraduate combined degree in Political Science and English.
This entry was posted in 2: Close Reading, {G4} and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Disappearing Personification

  1. jenniferbist says:

    I enjoyed reading your post, and also your comments and connections to J.K. Rowling’s story of the “Three Brothers”–I never took notice of this similarity until I read this, and the article you provided was interesting to see where she took the idea from.
    Anyways, your noting on the personification of death itself was an interesting topic to do, and I had noticed it, yes, but I didn’t truly notice the capitalization of “Deeth”, or how this usage of it suddenly stopped after lines 484. And after this line, it appears the brothers turn away from their original goal as greed over takes them, and no more is “Deeth” spoken of until they later experience it themselves. This was an interesting fact, and it brings back the Pardoner’s original message: “Avarice is the root of evil”, as the brothers fell to that exact line. What was the purpose of this personifying, I wonder then? Perhaps to make it seem like “Deeth” did get them in the end, which is an ironic demise for the group. Do you think Chaucer, also, was making death to appear “bad” in this story, or how did he view death as, by making him a “person” and then ending the brothers lives by their own hands? Perhaps it a fitting end for the characters consumed by their greed, as was the purpose of the Pardoner’s Tale to tell a moral story. Who was “Death”, good or bad, and if it was the brothers themselves who took their own lives by breaking their bonds for gold?
    I also noticed the old man in the story as a suspicious character for the “person” of “Death”. Was he disguised as death in hiding, do you think? You said that often the characters in novels “meet” with death the figure itself, and perhaps in this story they did as well. I was wondering this slightly as I read, but it never seemed to occur to the characters in the story why there was gold randomly sitting beneath a tree, or what happened to the man they were supposedly chasing. They do seem to suspect the old man of being his “spy”, but never think on this connection further. And the old man is suspicious in himself, with his wrinkled appearance, covered up body, his “staf”, and the way he talks of death, as if he wants it but cannot obtain. I wonder what Chaucer’s purpose was then, in making these mysterious figures meet the brothers, and making us believe in death as a person? Was the figure of death really there, were they set up from the start because of their ways? Anyways, this was a good post, it made me think of some new things in the story I had not considered before.

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