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River Rocks #3: "The Miller's Tale," "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and Vestal

I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. I'm dedicating more time to the craft in my retirement days.

River Rocks #3

River Rocks installments feature a tidbit each from the vast universes of literature and music. Often included, too, is a researched word, term or expression you might not have heard before.


So Much to Choose From...

That nearly immeasurable collection of media and information out there in the world is akin to a gigantic flowing river. Each rock on the bottom of that endless flow is a potential destination if only we stop, pick it up, give it a look. The River Rocks digest will lift a few of those literature and music rocks in each edition, examine them pursuing these basic objectives: awareness, admiration, appreciation, assessment, analysis, advancement, advocacy.

If you're looking for a way to winnow choices in our world’s myriad masses of all things media, River Rocks might be for you.

Drowning in options is a terrible way to die.

— Paul Angone

The River Rocks Promise

I offer the reader no guarantees, save this one: if it’s featured in River Rocks, I’ve consumed it. I’ve read it, watched it, listened to it, researched it, wrote about it previously, engaged with it in some way, shape or form. That’s the only guaranteed offer in this digest. In general terms, then, when I write about it, I've been there, done that to at least some degree. I’m a consumer but not an expert, and I can offer no more than that.

Consider this an invitation to join me, if you're so inclined. Together, let's pick up a few of the billions of media stones out there and give them a look. No RSVP required.


Literature: "The Miller's Tale"

I read Chaucer's Middle English version of "The Miller's Tale" at the library. It is, of course, included in The Canterbury Tales (written circa 1388-1400), which itself is widely considered to be "one of the best loved works in the history of English literature." Tough read, though, due to the barely-recognizable form of English it was composed in. Here, as just a brief example, is the start of "The Miller's Tale" as written in Middle English:

Whilom ther was dwellynge at Oxenford A riche gnof, that gestes heeld to bord, And of his craft he was a carpenter. With hym ther was dwellynge a poure scoler, Hadde lerned art, but al his fantasye Was turned for to lerne astrologye, And koude a certeyn of conclusiouns, To demen by interrogaciouns, If that men asked hym, in certein houres Whan that men sholde have droghte or elles shoures, Or if men asked hym what sholde bifalle Of every thyng; I may nat rekene hem alle. This clerk was cleped hende Nicholas.

Here's the same passage, as translated into American English by Gerard NeCastro, University of Maine at Machias:

A while ago there dwelt at Oxford a rich churl fellow, who took guests as boarders. He was a carpenter by trade. With him dwelt a poor scholar who had studied the liberal arts, but all his delight was turned to learning astrology. He knew how to work out certain problems; for instance, if men asked him at certain celestial hours when there should be drought or rain, or what should happen in any matter; I cannot count every one.

This clerk was named gentle Nicholas.

While through my own Middle English reading of the story at the library I was able to ascertain some parts—such as the names of the main characters, some of the highlights of significant events in the story—I found that I was truly unable to follow all the intricate details of what happened to whom and in what order. It wasn't until I found the translation of it here that I really got the full gist of it. When I did, I laughed, marveled, shook my head, guffawed, truly enjoyed the tale.

If you've not read it, I'd say you've pretty well had lots of opportunity since it's been around for a long, long time—it's medieval literature, after all—so I'm not going to hold back on the spoilers here.

Here's the tale in much shorter form (and less beautiful prose, too, I might add) than as written and interpreted into modern English:

The carpenter John had a beautiful, beguiling wife of 18 who many folks thought was far too young for him, not of his class, and so forth. John and Alison, the wife, had a fellow named Nicholas boarding in their residence. Nicholas was an attractive young lad who aspired to study astrology, who could play a couple of instruments, who was (of course) attracted to the carpenter's wife. The wife resisted, for like a nanosecond, but then acquiesced, said she'd plot and plan to have an affair with Nicholas one day in future when husband John was unawares.

Meantime, there was another man, Absalom. You know how the story goes: he, too, wanted what another man (John, the carpenter) had as his own. Absalom, though, wooed and pursued in plain view, for all the world to see, including husband John. This was a much different tack than the wily Nicholas'.

Alison spurned Absalom, though, and continued to plot for a future tryst with young Nicholas. As time went on, the plot unfolded like this: Nicholas told John, the carpenter, there would soon be a flood bigger than Noah's, that the need to build mini-arks was acute, and that he, Nicholas and Alison should all sleep in these bathtub arks the carpenter would build as they were suspended from the ceiling of John's house until arrival of the flood.

John was duly horrified, did as was suggested because Nicholas’ ability to read the stars gave him credibility in the carpenter’s eyes. So, John built the contraptions, hung them from the rafters. On the evening before the “big flood” all three of them—wife, carpenter and horny young man hell-bent on an affair—climbed into their respective tubs to wait out the terrible storm.

Alison and Nicholas, of course, snuck down from their lofty refuge retreats and consummated their long-awaited affair...only to be found out in spectacular fashion by young, jealous Absalom.

The thrilling climax, so to speak, builds to further crescendo and then rushes headlong into hilarious conclusion. And though I suggested up front I'd include spoilers along the way here (and I definitely have), I'll stop there and commend to you the reading of "The Miller's Tale" so you can enjoy the somewhat surprising ending yourself. If you've already read it, and know how it ends, I'd still recommend giving it a go.

Her mouth was sweet as honeyed ale or mead, or a hoard of apples laid in the hay or heather. She was skittish as a jolly colt, tall as a mast, and upright as a bolt.

— Geoffrey Chaucer

I do this for two reasons, really: 1) the ending is quite comical, as is the whole tale, honestly—when I told it to my wife, we laughed and chuckled for quite a time; 2) the prose is spectacular. Quite simply, it is a fine piece of literature. Any fans of good writing will enjoy the 20-30 minutes it'll take to blast through this great story. I truly marveled at the descriptive, evocative language throughout, particularly in the description of each of the major characters as they were introduced. For a story told by a drunken Miller at a dinner party, it is impressive in every sense.

Indeed, it is so impressive, I'd be surprised if reading "The Miller's Tale" doesn't inspire you to read the entirety of The Canterbury Tales. It has inspired me to do so.

Song: "A Whiter Shade of Pale," by Procol Harum

Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics for "A Whiter Shade of Pale," claims he did not have "The Miller's Tale" in mind when he wrote the words to the song. Still, there are those out there (Wikipedia included, though they still have the infamous "citation needed" caveat after their claim) who do not believe when he says he never read Chaucer's works. Neither, says Reid, was he referencing them in any conscious way when he was penning the 1967 masterpiece.

I call it a masterpiece not just because I absolutely love the song, but also for some of these reasons:

1) At the time of final authorship lawsuit settlement in mid-2009, the record had sold more than 10 million copies. By any objective standard, that's an incredible number.

2) In that same year, the song was named "the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK.”

3) The song has been covered by so many artists, I can't list them all in this article. Nor will I include nearly as many of those covers here as I'd like to—there are so many! For example, when I search on Apple Music for "A Whiter Shade of Pale," I get more than 100 hits returned. It’s true that they're not all unique returns, but this still is an indicator of how very loved the song is by so many artists. With all this to choose from, it is hard for me to pick an absolute favorite (outside of the original, of course, because it is the one and only favorite).

Still, I don't want to cop out completely, so I will say that one of my very favorite covers of the song was done by Willie and Waylon. It was included on Willie’s 1982 album Always on My Mind. The legendary country duo’s rendition took a slightly different tack with the lyric: they mention the “mirror” telling a tale instead of the miller. This changeup evokes for me a slightly different feeling from the original and from the multiple other pure copy cat covers.

At the end of the day, here's what needs to be said about this wonderful classic song with the psychedlic lyrics and the haunting, JS Bach-inspired organ strung all throughout: it's a much loved, perhaps overanalyzed song. I'll not analyze it further here, but simply acknowledge that it's loved by me, and it's probably already loved by you. Either way, though, it practically begged to be part of this week's edition of River Rocks because the main topic was "The Miller's Tale."

And so it was that later

As the miller told his tale

That her face, at first just ghostly

Turned a whiter shade of pale

— "A Whiter Shade of Pale," by Procol Harum

Willie and Waylon - A Favorite Version of "A Whiter Shade of Pale"

A Word You May Not Have Heard



Vestal has four different, but related, definitions:

1: vestal virgin, one of the priestesses (originally four, subsequently six) who had charge of the sacred fire in the temple of Vesta at Rome

2: Of fire, etc.: Of or pertaining to Vesta

3. Resembling a priestess of Vesta in respect of chastity; chaste, pure, virgin

4. Pertaining to, characteristic of, a vestal virgin or virgins; marked by chastity or purity

The vestal virgins, 16 of them, are invoked in "A Whiter Shade of Pale," of course. That there are so many of them, and that they are leaving for the coast for some unexplained reason, is one of the great mysteries of the song.

The Latin word "vestal" is itself easier to explain: Vesta was a Roman female divinity, the daughter of Saturn, and the goddess of the hearth and household. Vesta is also, these days, the name given to a massive asteroid located in the belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Vestal Used in a Sentence:

According to Plutarch she urged her husband to take vigorous action against Catiline, who had compromised her half-sister Fabia, a vestal virgin; also to give evidence against Clodius, being jealous of his sister Clodia."

"Souza sets out to reacquaint us with that vanished world, where norms obtained and men were men and words had meaning—where the sun rose on the shrines of our ancestors and six virgins ceaselessly guarded the vestal flame."
— Katy Waldman, Slate Magazine, 3 Aug. 2017

"The daughter was not only in her father's power to be given in marriage, but he might dedicate her to the service of some god as a vestal or a hierodule; or give her as a concubine.

Full image of asteroid Vesta taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft

Full image of asteroid Vesta taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft


1 : of or relating to the Roman goddess Vesta

2a : of or relating to a vestal virgin

2b : chaste


Until Next Time


That's it for this week's River Rocks. Next edition I'll have a movie to discuss instead of a book, and I'll also include one of my all-time favorite workout songs. Meantime, here's a link to the original Procol Harum classic. Enjoy!

"A Whiter Shade of Pale," by Procol Harum

© 2021 greg cain

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