The Pardoner's Tale is one of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. In the order of the Tales, it comes after The Physician's Tale and before The Shipman's Tale; it is prompted by the Host's desire to hear something positive after that depressing tale. The Pardoner initiates his Prologue—briefly accounting his methods of conning people—and then proceeds to tell a moral tale.
The tale itself is an extended exemplum. Setting out to kill Death, three young men encounter an Old Man who says that they will find him under a nearby tree. When they arrive they discover a hoard of treasure and decide to stay with it overnight to carry it away the following morning. The tale and prologue are primarily concerned with what the Pardoner says is his "theme": Radix malorum est cupiditas ("Greed is the root of [all] evils").
In the order of The Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale are preceded by The Physician's Tale. The Physician's Tale is a harrowing tale about a judge who plots with a "churl [low fellow]" to abduct a beautiful young woman; rather than allow her to be raped, her father beheads her. The invitation for the Pardoner to tell a tale comes after the Host declares his dissatisfaction with the depressing tale, and declares:
… but [unless] I have triacle [medicine],
Or elles a draughte of morste [fresh] and corny [strong] ale,
Or but I heere anon a myrie tale,
Myn herte is lost for pitee of this mayde. (lines 314–17)
The Host then asks the Pardoner to "telle us som mrythe or japes [joke, jest] right anon". However, the pilgrims—aware of pardoners' notoriety for telling lewd tales and in anticipation of hearing something objectionable—voice their desire for no ribaldry, but instead want a moral tale.
The prologue takes the form of a literary confession in the same manner as The Wife of Bath's Prologue. However, rather than an apology for his vices, the Pardoner boasts of his duping of his victims, for whom he has nothing but contempt. He says that his "theme"—biblical text for a sermon—is Radix malorum est cupiditas ("Greed is the root of [all] evils" 1 Timothy 6.10). He explains that his false credentials consist of official letters from high-ranking church officials and a superficial use of a few Latin words; then he will produce some "relics", and claim that among them is a bone which has miraculous powers when dipped into a well and a mitten for which:
He that his hand wol putte in this mitayn,
He shal have multipliyng of his greyn, (lines 373–374)
But he will warn that any person that "hath doon synne horrible" will not be able to benefit from these relics. The Pardoner says to the pilgrims that by these tricks he has acquired a considerable sum of money. He goes on to relate how he stands like a clergy at the pulpit, and preaches against avarice but to gain the congregation's money; he doesn't care for the correction of sin or for their souls. Against anyone that offends either him or other pardoners, he will "stynge hym with my tonge smerte". Although he is guilty of avarice himself, he reiterates that his theme is always Radix malorum … and that he can nonetheless preach so that others turn away from the vice and repent—though his "principal entente" is for personal gain. The Pardoner explains that he then offers many anecdotes to the "lewed [ignorant, unlearned] people". He scorns the thought of living in poverty while he preaches; he desires "moneie, wolle [wool], chese, and whete" and doesn't care whether it were from the poorest widow in the village, even should her children starve for famine. Yet, he concludes to the pilgrims, though he may be a "ful vicious man", he can tell a moral tale and proceeds.
The tale is set in Flanders at an indeterminate time, and opens with three young men drinking, gambling and blaspheming in a tavern. The Pardoner condemns each of these "tavern sins" in turn—gluttony, drinking, gambling, and swearing—with support from the scriptures, before proceeding with the tale. The rioters hear a bell signalling a burial; their friend has been killed by a "privee theef" known as Death, who has also killed a thousand others. The men set out to avenge them and kill Death. An old man they brusquely query tells them that he has asked Death to take him but has failed. He then says they can find death at the foot of an oak tree. When the men arrive at the tree, they find a large amount of gold coins and forget about their quest to kill Death. They decide to sleep at the oak tree over night, so they can take the coins in the morning. The three men draw straws to see who among them should fetch wine and food while the other two wait under the tree. The youngest of the three men draws the shortest straw and departs; while he is away, the remaining two plot to overpower and stab him upon his return. However, the one who leaves for town plots to kill the other two: he purchases rat poison and laces the wine. When he returns with the food and drink, the other two kill him and then consume the poisoned wine, dying slow and painful deaths.
The relationship between tellers and tale is distinctly significant in "The Pardoner's Tale." The Pardoner is an enigmatic character, portrayed as grotesque in the General Prologue and apparently aware of his own sin—it is not clear why he tells the pilgrims about his own sin in the prologue prior to his tale—yet his preaching is correct and the results of his methods, despite their corruption, are good. Mention by him of a "draughte of corny strong ale" may suggest that he is being so open because he is drunk. The Pardoner's confession is similar in its revelation of details to the prologue by the Wife of Bath, who gives away details about herself in her prologue. Both prologues are heavily influenced by the Romance of the Rose, particularly the Fals Semblaunt episode.
The Pardoner is also described as a good speaker in his portrait in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which is reflected in the quality of the narrative attributed to him. The critic A. C. Spearing has written that "much of the individual coloring of the actual tale is drawn from its teller." This is true of many of the tales and their tellers, but the Pardoner's motives are woven even more tightly into his tale than most.
The Old Man who appears before the rioters has been the subject of considerable debate. He has been considered as "Death in person", the Wandering Jew, Old Age itself, and Death's messenger. These views have been refuted by W. J. B. Owen who points out that "He is seeking Death; and that Death or his messenger should seek death is contrary to all the logic of allegory"; instead he considers that he is simply an old man.
The religious climate at the time that Chaucer wrote this piece was pre-Reformation. Therefore, the Sacraments were still largely considered, as explained by St. Augustine, “outward and visible signs of an inward and invisible grace.” The suggestion that outward appearances are reliable indicators of internal character was not considered radical or improper among contemporary audiences. Indeed, the vivid depiction of the Pardoner's hair, those locks “yellow as wax But smoothe as a strike (hank) of flex (flax),” does little to improve the reader's opinion of his moral character.
Chaucer develops his description and analysis of the Pardoner throughout the Pardoner's Tale using suggestive analogies that provide the reader with the perception of a man of extreme sexual and spiritual poverty, willingly admitting that he abuses his authority and sells fake relics. The Pardoner's tale matches the unctuous nature of the Pardoner in many ways. Eugene Vance illustrates one parallel effectively fostered by Chaucer's sexual innuendoes. He writes: “The kneeling posture to which the Pardoner summons the pilgrims would place their noses right before his deficient crotch.”
In addition, Vance expands upon this comparison, identifying a sexual innuendo implicit in the Pardoner's many relics. “The pardoner conspires to set himself up as a moveable shrine endowed with relics unsurpassed by those of anyone else in England.” Yet, of course, the relics are all fakes, creating a suggestion of both the Pardoner's impotence and his spiritual ill-worth.
Though the Pardoner preaches against greed, the irony of the character is based in the Pardoner's hypocritical actions. He admits extortion of the poor, pocketing of indulgences, and failure to abide by teachings against jealousy and avarice. He also admits quite openly that he tricks the most guilty sinners into buying his spurious relics and does not really care what happens to the souls of those he has swindled.
The Pardoner is also deceptive in how he carries out his job. Instead of selling genuine relics, the bones he carries belong to pigs, not departed saints. The cross he carries appears to be studded with precious stones that are, in fact, bits of common metal. This irony could be an indication to Chaucer's dislike for religious profit—a pervasive late medieval theme hinging on anti-clericalism. Chaucer's use of subtle literary techniques, such as satire, seem to convey this message.
However, the Pardoner might also be seen as a reinforcement of the Apostolic Authority of the priesthood, which, according to the Catholic Church, functions fully even when the one possessing that authority is in a state of mortal sin, which in this case is supported by how the corrupt Pardoner is able to tell a morally intact tale and turn others from his same sin. Thomas Aquinas, an influential theologian of the late medieval period, had a philosophy concerning how God was able to work through evil people and deeds to accomplish good ends. Chaucer may have also been referencing a doctrine of St. Augustine of Hippo concerning the Donatist heresy of fourth and fifth century Northern Africa in which Augustine argued that a priest's ability to perform valid sacraments was not invalidated by his own sin. Thus, it is possible that with the Pardoner, Chaucer was criticising the administrative and economic practices of the Church while simultaneously affirming his support for its religious authority and dogma.
In the General Prologue of the Tales, the Pardoner is introduced with these lines:
The last three lines indicate that the narrator thought the Pardoner to be either a eunuch ("geldyng") or a homosexual.The Road to Canterbury: A Game of Pilgrims, Pardoners and the Seven Deadly Sins is a board game in which players play as the Pardoner from The Canterbury Tales.
The 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a novelisation of this tale, which was later made into the 1948 film of the same name.
Rudyard Kipling in "The King's Ankus", a story in The Second Jungle Book.
The Tale of the Three Brothers, a story featured in the Harry Potter universe, is partially based on The Pardoner's Tale.