You Can’t Beat Death: A Lesson From Chaucer

We were reading “The Pardoner’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Brit Lit the other day.  It’s a story about three foolish (and slightly intoxicated) young men who decide to set out on a journey to kill Death, since they were tired of him stealing their friends.  Soon after their quest begins, they stumble upon a pile of gold.  Worried about accusations of theft if they were to lug a bulging sack of coins into town in the daylight, they elect one member of the gang to procure enough food for the group to hold them over until a cover of darkness would hide their suspicious actions.  While the third fellow is gone, the other two do some complex math and figure out that splitting the gold two ways is more profitable than splitting it three ways.  The third fellow, on his way into town, comes to a similar conclusion.  He buys a little arsenic with which to infuse the wine for his companions, while they decide that knifing him will be the quickest means to a heftier payday.  The fellow returns, bearing food and poison.  His greedy companions stab him.  They decide to celebrate their victory over food and drink–which includes the jug of poisoned wine.  At the story’s end, all three lie dead.  They had looked for Death, and they had surely found him.

At the end of this story, one of my students was laughing heartily.  “What’s so funny?” I asked.

“They thought,” he replied, chuckling, snorting, “Those stupid dudes thought they could kill Death.  Why would you think you could defeat Death?”

I looked back at my student.  I thought about teenagers who drove at reckless speeds down the interstate.  Who did hard drugs. Who texted while driving.  Who thought drinking and driving was no big deal.  Who thought the only thrills in life came through foolish risks.

My voice felt suddenly choked and my eyes stung and it was hard to speak.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

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