"One Way Out" (1): Chaucer's Pardoner, Harry Bailey, the Knight, and Death
The Pardoner's prologue and tale bear a curious resemblance to the Wife of Bath's prologue and tale. Both prologues probably draw upon speeches delivered by characters from Roman de la Rose and resemble the popular homiletic genre of the "Vice's Confession." Their tellers are far more fully imagined than any of the other tellers, and readers seem encouraged to seek dramatic motives for their tales in the personal details revealed by the prologues. To my knowledge, no critic has yet noticed that both tellers suffer an apparent lapse of memory while speaking. The Wife notices her own lapse in the midst of recalling how she had deceived Jankyn with a false tale of a dream in which he has killed her, a bizarre detail which, in the context of her promise to marry him should her husband die, has prompted perennial critical suspicion that it is meant to imply guilty knowledge of Husband Four's demise which has disrupted her considerable narrative flow. (2) The Pardoner fails to notice his lapse, however, and I believe we are intended to perceive it as nearly fatal. He neglects to remember that he already has exposed his relics as frauds to the same pilgrims he then invites to reverently kiss them and to give him money for the privilege. The reason he would do this has been attributed to moral perversity, persisting in its error (Robertson), but his forgetfulness of the danger into which he has placed himself figures in a larger pattern of ignorance we see in the protagonists of his tale and in the evolving characterization of Harry Bailey: he does not know Death. His tale is about the inability to confront and to accept the fact of death, a return to the earth dramatized by the old man the rioters meet on their way to "kill" death. This fact makes the rioters, and the Pardoner, monstrous. They kill without being aware of what death is, and for this reason they must, themselves, be killed.
The Pardoner is one of the Wife's interrupters, but he is not drawn into the furious quarrel between the Summoner and Friar. Instead, he bides his time until Oure Hooste, overcome with wrath after hearing how a Roman mob hanged the false witnesses who caused Virginia's death, calls to "Thou beel amy, thou Pardoner" to "Telle us som myrthe or japes right anon" (VI: 318-19). Ironically, Harry has called for the very cure which will nearly kill him and the Pardoner. Chaucer appears to have constructed this collision as intentionally as he put together the Physician's and Pardoner's tales in the same order in every major surviving manuscript group (i.e., the one known as Group VI from the Ellesmere order).
The Pardoner's inability to know death first surfaces openly in his prologue when he says that the souls of those damned by his false pardons may go blackberrying in Hell for all he cares. His corrupted consciousness prevents him from detecting the enormity of his sin. This coincidentally enrages the murderous instincts of Harry Bailey, who has previously told the pilgrims he fears he one day will kill because of his wife's nagging (in all major tale-order groups except a- group, e.g., Ellesmere). In this instance, his ire is ironic precisely because the Pardoner's failure to realize the terrible danger he is in. He has knocked on Death's door, and we know it, but he does not.
The potentially tragic outcome, in which both the Pardoner and Oure Hoost would come to know death, is prevented by a pilgrim who knows death very well: the Knight. This man's war experience appears to enable him to detect the necessity for his intervention, and that intervention lays the specter of death's imminent arrival among the pilgrims. However, by inducing Harry Baily to kiss the Pardoner, he brings both men into direct contact with that which would have been deadly to them a moment before. The physical intimacy of touch by which they can verify (and normalize) their bodily vulnerability. Had they touched before the Knight's intervention, like the inadvertent bump which begins a bar fight, the uncontrolled contact would have brought Harry's rage into action upon the completely unprepared Pardoner. The Knight's arrangement of the legal "kiss of peace" between them socially inoculates them against the threat that they will bring death to the pilgrimage.
[I'm still working on this one. Any ideas?--a.]
1. It was while listening to the Allman Brothers' performance of "One Way Out," first recorded by Elmore James in 1960-1 and first released as a record by Sonny Boy Williamson later in 1961.
2) This thesis remains unproven and has been described by several speakers in an MLA panel as unlikely, but that leaves us with precious little to explain why she would be represented as doing it at all. "Realizing detail" can be invoked, but for a tale-teller, memory lapses seem too functionally dangerous to be induced solely to cause us to believe she exists.