Chaucer and Hugh Hefner’s Wedding


Hugh Hefner, Crystal Harris

Hugh Hefner, Crystal Harris

Here’s a post that has been awaiting a moment when I thought this website could use a comic interlude. I’m not suggesting in any way that Hugh Hefner’s forthcoming marriage (check out Timothy Egan’s horrified response) is as newsworthy as, say, Egypt’s uprising (Monday’s post) or America’s problem with guns (yesterday’s post). But we can’t be serious all the time.

Literature often turns comic when 84-year-olds marry 24-year-olds, as Mr. Playboy plans to do with former playmate Crystal Harris.  Upon hearing the news, the first quotation that came to my mind was one by General Sternwood in The Big Sleep: “I need hardly add that any man who has lived as I have and indulges for the first time in parenthood at my age [marriage in this case] deserves all he gets.”

But the real master of such situations is Geoffrey Chaucer. If he were to hear about Mr. Hefner’s impending marriage, he would conclude that it is just a matter of time before he becomes a cuckold (or “cokewold”).

I’m thinking particularly of “The Miller’s Tale.” The obnoxious miller tells us that John the carpenter

hadde wedded newe a wif
Which that he loved more than his lif.
Of eighteteene yeer she was of age;
Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage,
For she was wilde and yong, and he was old,
And deemed himself been lik a cokewold.

In addition to being wild and young, she is said to be as slender and delicate as a weasel and as skittish and high spirited as a colt. In other words, she does not conform to the age’s feminine ideal (chaste, demure, and submissive). It’s not long, therefore, before she is hatching plots with “hende Nicholas”—“hende” meaning courteous and gracious but also salaciously suggesting “close at hand” and “good with his hands.”

At first glance, dull John seems to have nothing in common with the glamorous and much envied head of the Playboy mansion. But we now learn that Hefner himself is not all that glamorous, at least not anymore. He lives a regulated life, goes always to the same eating establishments, watches a lot of movies at home, and maintains 9 p.m. curfews. One can imagine, after the first thrill of marriage has worn off, Crystal Harris saying some variant of the line that Susan Alexander delivers about Xanadu in Citizen Kane: “a person could go crazy in this dump.”

The world wants to know whether Hefner will be sharing some version of the carpenter’s fate.

The Alison-Nicholas plot commences by Nicholas pretending to have a vision of an impending Noah’s flood. Panicked for his young wife, John constructs three large tubs for boats, which he hangs from the ceiling. Because he is worn out from the effort, he falls asleep in his, whereupon Alison and Nicholas steal off to the master bedroom, where they engage in “bisinesse of mirthe and of solas (pleasure).”

Now the story moves into a darker key. A parish clerk, the “amorous Absolon,” is also in love with Alison and comes to her window to sing romantic love songs. In return for his request for a kiss, Alison sticks out her butt. I’ll let Chaucer take over from here:

This Absolon gan wipe his mouth ful drye:
Derk was the night as pich or as the cole
And at the windowe out she pute hir hole,
And Absolon, him fil no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers,
Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
Abak he sterte, and thoughte it was amis,
For wel he wiste a woman hath no beerd.
He felt a thing al rough and longe yherd,
And saide, “Fy, allas, what have I do?”

“Teehee,” quote she, and clapte the windowe to.
And Absolon gooth forth a sory pas.

“A beerd, a beerd!” quod hende Nicholas,
“By Goddes corpus, this gooth faire and weel.”

Breathing fire, the shattered Absolon stalks off to his friend the blacksmith, who provides him with a red hot poker. The scene has undertones of anal sex as he returns to ask for another kiss.  This time it is Nicholas who is close at hand:

This Nicholas was risen for to pisse,
And thought he wolde amenden al the jape:
He sholde kisse his ers er that he scape.
And up the windowe dide he hastily,
And out his ers he putteth prively,
Over the buttok to the haunche-boon.
And therwith spak this clerk, this Absolon,
“Speek, sweete brid, I noot nought where thou art.”
This Nicholas anoon leet flee a fart
As greet as it hadde been a thonder-dent
That with the strook he was almost yblent,
And he was redy with his iren hoot,
And Nicholas amide the ers he smoot:
Of gooth the skin an hande-brede aboute;
The hote cultour brende so his toute
That for the smert he wende for to die;
As he were wood [crazy] for wo he gan to crye,
”Help! Water! Water! Help, for Goddes herte!”

At this point the carpenter wakes up—remember him?—and hearing the cries for water, thinks the flood has arrived. He therefore cuts the ropes, comes crashing to the ground, breaks his arm, and passes out. Then Nicholas and Alison convince everyone that he has been having delusions about Noah’s flood, and the whole town shows up to laugh at him. The miller concludes:

Thus swived was the carpenters wif
For al his keeping and his jalousye,
And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye,
And Nicholas is scalded in the toute:
This tale is doon, and God save al the route!”

Am I being too cynical about Hefner’s marriage? After all, his twitter announcement, reported by People Magazine, sounded joyous and romantic. “When I gave Crystal the ring,” he twitted—or is it tweeted?—“she burst into tears. This is the happiest Christmas weekend in memory.”

Then again, my inner miller rises up at moments like this. In The Canterbury Tales, the miller tells his story right after the knight, who has recounted a tale of high romance and true love which all the pilgrims agree is “a noble storye/And worthy for to drawn to memorye.” But noble and worthy though it may be, it also lacks a vivid sense of life, which the tale of Allison and Nicholas has in abundance. The miller, who is drunk, shoves his way into the Canterbury storytelling and there’s no keeping him silent.

I won’t be so ungracious as to wish the Hefners a miller-esque explosion in their marriage. But if it occurs, it may be because nature rebels at a 60-year age differential, however romantic Hefner claims the marriage to be. He of all people should understand the ability of “dirty” sex to pull the rug out from under  Absolon’s sugary love songs. After all, that’s how he made his millions.

Note – I realized after I published this post that I wrote a similar post a while back (you can read it here) about how “The Miller’s Tale” is an example of healthy blasphemy.  There’s a fair amount of repetition but I look at a different dimension of the story: how John, Alison, and Nicholas are an inversion of Joseph, Mary, and the Holy Ghost.

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  1. Posted February 4, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    The truth is, Robin, that I DON’T want to know what happens next. I have NO interest in this poor old fool. Can’t blame the girl (for that is all she is) for maybe trying to score some big time money. But jeez, there must be easier ways to earn a buck. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head. Don’t care what Hefner tweeted.
    Thankfully, not all men get this desperate in their old age (though a great many of them do) – so desperate that they are willing to pull the wool over their own faltering eyes. (Didn’t work in Chaucer’s time, doesn’t work in ours.) Whatever happened to dignity? Or, for that matter, common sense?

    I wonder what Chaucer would have made of viagra.

    An aside: Robin I liked your comment on my Norman Rockwell post. In turn I posted a rather lengthy response (got carried away, I suppose) and was wondering if you’d seen it.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted February 4, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I was being sarcastic when I said that the world wants to know, Yvette (as I’m sure you knew). In reality, I share your incuriosity. Shaking one’s head is a good response. Chaucer would have had a comic field day with viagra. In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” his revelers want to have it out with death–which Hefner does as well, I suspect–but of course death wins.

    I very much liked your response to my response. I think I’ll take you up on your idea of a post on European-born American directors who take on the American facade. And let me put in a plug hear for your gorgeous website–a feast for the eyes, with wonderful book covers and illustrations and movie posters–which one can get to by clicking on “In so many words” on the blogroll in this website’s righthand column.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Hell, an Inner Emptiness that Can’t Be Filled on February 28, 2011 at 6:14 am

    […] means (I told them, drawing on an earlier conversation about Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” in which we talked about Hugh Hefner’s recent marriage), […]

  2. By Chaucer Predicts Hugh Hefner Debacle on June 23, 2011 at 1:02 am

    […] past February, as a comic interlude, I applied Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” to the announced engagement of  84-year-old Hugh Hefner with 24-year-old Playboy bunny Crystal […]


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