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HensAndRooster19thCentury

19th century image of a rooster and hens from the collection of Boston Public Library.

"The Nun's Priest's Tale" (Middle English: "The Nonnes Preets Tale") is a short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The story is a fable which is intended to teach the lessons that it is better to remain alert and vigilant (there are times when it can be extremely dangerous to close one's eyes), there are times when it is better to remain silent and, above all, people should beware of those who flatter them.

The main character in the story is a rooster called Chauntecleer (often written as "Chanticleer" in Modern English translations). A cunning fox uses flattery to gain Chauntecleer's trust and tricks the rooster into putting himself into a vulnerable position, at which point the fox snatches him and carries him away in his mouth. Chauntecleer, however, avoids being eaten by playing a trick on the fox in turn.

The narrator of the tale is supposed to be a priest attached to a convent.

Plot

The Nun's Priest - Ellesmere Chaucer

The Nun's Priest from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The manuscript is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

The story takes place in a time long ago when animals were able to speak. A poor old woman lives with her three daughters on a very small farm. The pride of the farm is the handsome rooster Chauntecleer who never fails to crow at the correct time each day. The seven hens who live on the farm are all Chauntecleer's wives but he has a favorite, the hen called Pertelote.

One night, Chauntecleer awakes from a terrible nightmare. He tells Pertelote that he dreamt that he saw a frightening creature, like a dog with an orange coat and black tips to its ears and tail. Pertelote is unconcerned. She tells her husband that the Roman philosopher Cato said that people should pay no attention to their dreams. At the worst, Pertelote thinks that Chauntecleer's dream might indicate that he is slightly unwell, he may be constipated. She says that there are some herbs in the garden which can remedy that. Chauntecleer disagrees. He says that many other wise men took the opposite view to Cato regarding dreams and goes on to give several examples of people who had bad dreams which came true. He reminds his wife that the Biblical figures Daniel and Joseph took dreams very seriously. However, when morning comes, Chauntecleer puts all thoughts of his nightmare out of his mind.

Bruno Liljefors - Foxes

Foxes, 1885 oil painting by Bruno Liljefors.

A month later, Chauntecleer suddenly sees the same creature that he saw in his dream, a fox. Chauntecleer has never seen a fox before but is instinctively scared. The fox tells him that there is no need to be frightened. He says that he was a friend of Chauntecleer's parents who were often guests at his house. The fox says that Chauntecleer's father had a particularly fine singing voice and he is sure that the rooster has inherited his father's talent for music. The fox insists that he wants to hear Chauntecleer sing in his beautiful voice and the rooster eventually falls for his flattery. Preparing to sing, Chauntecleer stretches out his wings and closes his eyes. As soon as Chauntecleer closes his eyes, the fox grabs hold of him and runs off with the roooster in his mouth.

All of the hens begin to make an awful noise when they see the fox carrying away Chauntecleer. The old woman and her daughters notice and chase after the animal. The other farm animals join in the chase, the people and the animals all making terrible noises as they run after the fox. Chauntecleer tells the fox that he should shout at those who are chasing him, to tell them that their chase is futile and that they should stop. The fox agrees. As soon as he opens his mouth, Chauntecleer escapes and flies up into a tree.

The fox tries to coax Chauntecleer down, telling him that he meant him no harm. Chauntecleer, however, is not going to fall for the same trick twice. The rooster tells the fox that they have both been foolish, the fox for speaking when he should have kept his mouth shut and Chauntecleer for closing his eyes when he should have kept them open and for falling for the fox's flattery.

The priest concludes his tale by saying that some people might think it is nothing but a silly story about a fox, a rooster and some hens but, nevertheless, there is wisdom in the tale for those who care to look for it.

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