The Canterbury Tales

Reality versus Illusion: Alchemy in The Canterbury Tales

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer portrays the actual practice of alchemy to be a ruse. In the Canon Yeoman’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale, transformation is merely an illusion when one attempts to go against the forces of nature. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, an old lady transforms into a beautiful young wife only through magical forces. The principle of alchemy, however, becomes a reality in these three tales when individuals themselves change. The only transformation humans are capable of exerting must come from within.

In the Canon Yeoman’s Tale, the audience is immediately made aware through the yeoman’s warning that alchemists are false, deceiving liars for their practices. The yeoman begins his tale by discussing the debt he is in for taking part in this sinful occupation. As Frank Schleicher writes, “He reveals the truth about his former employer and the Canon rides away ‘for verray sorwe and shame’" (63). Alchemy is a “slidynge science” because alchemists take the gold of pilgrims and turn it into nothing. The placing of the gold in the pot only creates an illusion that the gold is purified. The easily fabricated illusion therefore introduces the complication that nothing is what it seems to be.

The yeoman’s...

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