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From The Canterbury Tales:
The Pardoner's Tale
Modern english adjacent to middle english

About The Canterbury Tales:
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury (England). The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury. He never finished his enormous project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. As the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales has been passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.

About The Pardoner's Introduction, Prologue and Tale:
The Pardoner describes his tools and trade in his prologue and utters a sermon about gluttony and avarice. "Greed is the root of all evil" he tells his audience repeatedly (the Latin phrase Radix malorum est Cupiditas means "Greed is the root of all evil"). Despite his hymn to abstinence and prayer, he rejects personal austerity and frugality. In fact, the Pardoner is only interested in profit and he does not even try to hide the contradiction between what he says and what he does. Note that Chaucer frequently more or less elaborates and criticizes the hypocrisy of low-ranked religious professionals, in this case a pardoner. In The Canterbury Tales the Friar mocks summoners, the Summoner mocks friars, the Wife of Bath mocks friars, the Pardoner is mocked, monks are mocked, etc. and that is all ok. High-ranked religious professionals, i.e. bishops, cardinals, the Pope, or religion itself are never criticized or mocked. That would be far too dangerous.

The Pardoner's Tale is about three frequently drinking young men who become acquainted with the killings of Death (lines 389-390). They decide to find, stop and kill Death (line 413). After leaving the tavern where they were eating and drinking, they meet an old man (line 427). The three rioters speak rudely to the old man and ask him to tell them the way to Death (line 470). The old man responds politely they could find Death nearby underneath an oak tree. The three men find the tree and underneath they find eight bushels of gold coins (lines 483-485). No sign of Death yet. Fortune has come to them but they agree that removing the treasure has to be done at night (line 505) to avoid problems (people might think they were thieves).

Two men stay close to the treasure and the third goes to town to get food and wine. The two remainers agree to kill the third man after his return from town (lines 549-550). The third man also does not want to split the treasure and puts poison in the wine he buys (lines 585-587) and carries back to the oak tree. Well, the third man is stabbed to death and after that the two others drink the poisoned wine. So the three men have found Death. And greed is the root of all evil. The bushels of gold remain where they are.

The Pardoner finishes his tale and immediately tries to sell his relics and pardons to his audience. The Host mocks the Pardoner and his apparently false relics. The Knight intervenes to restore peace and the pilgrims continue their way to Canterbury.

So what to think about The Pardoner's Tale? First lets look at it from a symbolical point of view. Some scholars argue that the old man that directs the three men to the oak tree with the gold treasure is Death itself. Well, Death is not a person, never. The three men are looking for Death and Death is merely a metaphor, nothing more. Some scholars argue that the old man is an incarnation of Jesus Christ. So a fictitious person is exchanged by another fictitious person. Yes, Jesus Christ is a fictitious person as there is not one single piece of proof of his existence. But even if one does not accept this, the idea that the old man was an incarnation of Jesus Christ is far-fetched. Why would Jesus Christ incarnate just to lead three men to Death? If we have to believe Christian theology Jesus Christ has preached forgiveness, so why should Jesus Christ direct three men to their death? Just for fun or to kill some time? Christians tend to see Jesus Christ everywhere. This is nothing more than wishful seeing, which is a species of wishful thinking. The path of symbolism is slippery so we leave the path of symbolism now. Lets try another point of view.

The theme of the Pardoner is "Greed is the root of evil" (Radix est malorum est cupiditas). Greed is what kills the three men. They could have split the treasure in equal parts and all three be rich, but all three were blinded by greed. The Pardoner attacks greed from a moral point of view. In this case, greed is the root of death. Or in other words, death is the punishment for greed. Sometimes being a little less greedy offers a better reward. Sounds plausible and feels good, doesn't it? There is more.

Lets scrutinize "sometimes being a little less greedy offers a better reward" from a rational point of view. The three men faced a dilemma that is described as the "prisoner's dilemma". A prisoner's dilemma is a situation where individual decision-makers always have an incentive to choose in a way that creates a less than optimal outcome for the individuals as a group. Prisoner's dilemmas occur in many aspects of the economy. Chaucer unknowingly gave a nice instance of the prisoner's dilemma. It took more than four centuries after him to recognize and define the prisoner's dilemma. Albert W. Tucker was the first to name it as such. William Poundstone described the game in his book Prisoner's Dilemma published in 1993. The prisoner's dilemma is a game analyzed in game theory. It is a thought experiment that challenges two completely rational agents to a dilemma: they can cooperate with their partner for mutual benefit or betray their partner for individual reward. In case of mutual betrayal the reward evaporates, or - thinking of the eight bushels of gold - remains where it is. Note that there are three men in The Pardoners'Tale but two parties or two sides betraying each other. This is the prisoner's dilemma in its purest form: two parties (individuals, groups, even countries) betraying each other ending up with no reward in the best case and death or destruction in the worst case. Yes, being a little less greedy considerably increases the chance for a better reward. This is not a Christian or moral point of view, but a rational point of view. No, it is both. To conclude, note that there are many dilemmas that seem moral dilemmas but are in fact rational dilemmas, despite the moral appearances. The prisoner's dilemma is not a modern invention. It already existed since the beginning of mankind. It only had to be recognized, which was done in the second half of the 20th century.

Some of The Canterbury Tales are terribly boring, tedious, silly, stupid or even revolting. Or revoltingly boring, tedious or stupid. Or simply unreadable. The Pardoner's Tale is funny, full of irony and sarcasm and has an intelligent plot. Yes, the reader gets some Christian teachings and some sermons, but is not drowned in them, as he is in some of the other tales. It all comes with a certain lightness. The Pardoner hardly practises what he preaches - giving an instance of religious hypocrisy or an instance of the hypocrisy of religious professionals - and is mocked for his false relics. Meanwhile the Pardoner presents a literary description of the prisoner's dilemma. Is it the first literary instance of the prisoner's dilemma? Could be, it is at least an old instance of the prisoner's dilemma.

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