In the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer presents his reader with a blend of unlikely yet entertaining characters that find themselves on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Chaucer then describes the different characteristics and the outward appearances of these characters at length. He probably does so in order to bring these characters to life, giving us a more vivid understanding of what kind of people they were. The Miller is one of the most vivid characters that I have encountered in Chaucer's work for he is perfectly delineated as the man he is, without including any unnecessary detail.
The Miller is described as a short and sturdy man who possesses uncanny strength. The undisputed champion of wrestling is he. He even seems hero-like at first:
The millere was a stout churl for the nones; Ful byg he was of brawn, and eek of bones. That proved wel, for over al ther he cam, At wrastlynge he wolde have alwey the ram. He was short-sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre; Norton, 545-549.
Although he is said to possess extraordinary strength, he is described in a derogatory manner as we read the passage. It seems that he is more of a brawl-initiator than a hero. The man wrestles for the ram, probably a prize awarded at such matches, clearly a peasant pastime. Even initially, it does not seem like we are dealing with a highly sophisticated person here.
Actually, the Miller does use his head! I only hope he does so in rare instances for the author mentions that "ther was no dore that he nolde heve of harre, / or breke it at a rennyng with his heed" (Norton, 550-551). There you have it. Our hero engages in heaving doors off their hinges or breaking them down with his head. But do not despair, for our Miller's ribald personality perfectly reflects his outward appearance:
Upon the cop right of his nose he hade A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys, Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys; His nosethirles blake were and wyde. Norton, 554-557.
With a face like that, I would not mind charging at doors, either. But even though our Miller is an uncouth, unmannered and disgusting lower-class citizen, he is a product and a true representation of the society he lives in.
If we look beyond the negative impressions that the Miller's behavior and appearance create in us, I am sure we can find at least some worthy attribute that will change our opinion of him. To our astonishment, Chaucer informs us that the Miller possesses a humorous and a poetic soul for he is "a janglere (chatterer) and a goliardais (teller of obscene stories)" (Norton, 562). But all and any remaining good opinion that the reader may have about the Miller is crushed by Chaucer's next lines that complete his description of our working-class hero:
He was a janglere and a Goliardais, And that was moost of synne and harlotries. Wel koude he stelen corn and tollen thries; And yet he hadde a thombe of gold, pardee. Norton, 562-565.
Our Miller does compose songs, tales and even poems. Unfortunately, they are all about sinful and immoral topics, as we see by the fabliau that he later tells to his fellow travelers. The Miller is strong, jolly and poetic, and even though he does not strike us as a positive character, he appears all too real for he is described as a fallible, uneducated, foul-mouthed laborer of the mill.
By incorporating a blend of characters that are immoral, haughty, unassuming, pretentious, pious, uneducated and so on, The Canterbury Tales creates a powerful effect on its reader. The reader finds himself among characters that are wearing their true costumes or are dressed in masquerade, for some characters appear to be what they are not. Chaucer does not polish his characters' foibles or flaws. The reader is presented with the reality of Chaucer's world, and that creates a true portrait of the people that Chaucer is surrounded by. The Miller is, in fact, described as the scum of society, but he is necessary scum. Chaucer presents us with the facts of life, and whether we may think they are disgusting or unsuitable to be presented to us in such a blunt manner, they must be told, for they remain an undisputed piece of the Middle-English pie.