Despite the Christian basis for Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, “The Pardoner’s Tale” has many mystical, pagan elements including the personification of Death and the mysterious appearance of the gold under the oak tree. These elements, prominent in lines 472-487, add another layer of intrigue to this Pardoner’s story.
Probably the most important and overlooked detail of this passage is the fact that Chaucer specifically states that the tree is an oak tree. If it was unimportant, why does he indicate it? Could it have been any other tree and had the same effect? The oak, known to Celtic lore as the King of the Forest, holds great prevalence in the mystical world as it is known as a center of magical properties in various pre-Christian religions. These religions include that of the classical Greek pantheon and Norse myth, as the oak tree often attracts lightning, the symbol of gods such as Zeus and Thor.
Of course, in Druidic myth, the oak tree is at the core of their creation lore as all living things were born of the oak’s falling leaves. In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” we see an inversion of this creation myth as Chaucer has the oak become a place of death as opposed to birth.
Also, according to lore, the spirit of an oak tree can take the form of a wise old man, which to me is cause of suspicion for the old man who sends the riotoures to the tree. While I am skeptical that the old man is the spirit of the tree itself, due to the mystical elements of the tale, I would not be surprised to discover that the old man is Death in disguise. This is not as odd a notion as it seems because Death is personified throughout the story. The florins under the tree is Death’s test. When it is said that “til [the riotoures] cam to that tree, […] ne lenger thanne after Deeth they soughte” (481-484) this is true. They no longer sought Death, because they had already found him.
Do you think this is a reasonable theory? And is the Pardoner’s inclusion of pagan elements intended to scare his listeners into faith in Christianity? What do you think is Chaucer’s intent if that is so? What other possibilities might there be for the inclusion of pagan lore?
Chaucer, Geoffrey.Â The Canterbury Tales.Â Norton Anthology of Â English Literature.Â Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9thed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2012. 321. Print.