The Cook's Prologue
Roger of Ware, the Cook, claps the Reeve on the back “for joye”. Delighted with the way Symkyn the miller had received his comeuppance in the tale, the Cook then promises a tale of his own, despite the fact that he is only a “povre man” (a poor man). The Host answers, granting Roger the next tale. But he adds “looke that it be good”, and comments on Roger’s tendency to draw the gravy out of unsold pies, and resell pies that have already been reheated twice in his shop, full of flies.
The Host’s conclusion incites Roger the Cook to tell a story “in game” (in jest, in fun).. Roger agrees, and, reminding Harry Bailly (the Host) not to be angry, particularly because his tale is about a “hostileer” (pub-owner, like the Host himself), he begins his tale.
The Cook’s Tale
Once an apprentice lived in “our city” (perhaps “Ware” in Hertfordshire – the town the Cook is from) and his craft was selling food. He was a short man, with a dark complexion and black hair – and he was an excellent dancer: so good, that people called him “Perkin Reveller” (to “revel” is to dance and have a good time).
He loved the tavern better than his shop, and, whenever there was a procession in Cheapside, he would run out of the shop to enjoy himself and dance, forgetting about work. He often stole from his master, with whom he lived until he had finished his apprenticeship. However, one day, his master sent for him, and quoting the proverb “It is better to take the rotten apple out of the bag than to have it rot all the other apples”, decided to get rid of him.
Now this jolly apprentice had his leave, and could riot all night if he so pleased – and eventually, he found board with a companion of his own sort: who loved dice, and reveling, and pleasure. This companion had a wife who, for the sake of appearances only, kept a shop – and had sex for a living. Thus – abruptly – ends the Cook’s Tale.
Thus ends the first fragment of the Canterbury Tales with a tale that breaks off before it has really gets anywhere - and the real question is whether the tale is deliberately left unfinished by Chaucer, whether he intended to return to it, or whether we have just lost some of the manuscript. There are no definite answers, unfortunately, and critics have argued for all three positions.
That said, there are a few interesting things about the tale as we have it. Firstly, Roger of Ware seems to have been a real person who lived at the same time as Chaucer. This lends a whole new aspect to the Canterbury Tales, if we consider that Chaucer might have populated his pilgrimage with real people, whom his audience might have recognized. The whole question, raised already in other tales, of reality verses fiction, takes on a deeper level when we consider that Chaucer is not the only pilgrim to have a dual existence - in the real world and within the fictional one. Might this tale be in some way a parody or a joke at the real Roger’s expense? It’s very possible, but impossible to prove.
Seth Lerer has persuasively argued that – like many other of Chaucer’s works, including “The House of Fame”, and “The Legend of Good Women” – there is a very real possibility that the Cook’s Tale might have been left deliberately unfinished. It is, Professor Lerer argues, a tale which breaks off just at the point where we understand what sort of tale it is to be – a grim, gritty tale about a prostitute and a drunken, good-for-nothing apprentice. The trajectory from the formal, fictionalized, stylish romance of the Knight’s Tale, down through the fabliaux of the Miller and Reeve hits rock-bottom with a realistic tale about a real Cook and animal copulation in exchange for money. We don’t hear the Cook’s Tale told: but we know all too well what sort of thing is to come next - and so language disintegrates completely at the end of the First Fragment. Formal language was replaced by bodily noises in the Miller’s Tale, language was replaced by action in the Reeve’s Tale, and now language stops altogether. The whole project of the Tales comes to a dead standstill.