The rogues have gone only a short distance when they meet a strange old man who greets them humbly. This figure has attracted much discussion: some have thought him The Wandering Jew, some the Old Adam within us, some that he is Death and some that he is an allegory of Old Age. The last is the most likely but he is also an outcast from society. The first villain to address him is discourteous in his arrogance but the old man has a ready response, answering that he is old because no-one will exchange their youth for his age. His appearance adds another dimension of strangeness to the story as he knows where Death is and in this seems like an allegorical figure of “Elde” whom Death will not take and so is a “resteless kaityf” [captive prisoner]. Again we have a voice within a voice and realise that the Pardoner is a master of drama when he shows the aged man knocking at the earth and begging entrance, wasting away and longing to swap his clothes for a shroud. He wants to rest but cannot and his face is therefore “welked” [withered].
At line 450 he rebukes them for their discourtesy: at this point the main sin of the rioters is seen to be Pride and there is a warning note as the old man suggests that they might not live to be as old as he is, which is a threat to the pilgrims also. He advises that they stand up “agayns “[in front of] old people but they continue to flout every code of respectful conduct by abusing him once more. Even though he says he has to move on in the manner of someone condemned to wander, they address him as “olde cherl [wretch]” and will not let him go. Strong words enter the discourse: “reed” [advice] l. 456 and “trouthe” [promise] l. 467 are both profound terms, the first used seriously by the old man and the second more lightly by the rogue. They threaten him (suggesting that he is in league with Death to kill young people) if he will not tell them where Death is and there is a heavy note of foreboding as he sends them to meet their fate. The landscape becomes less realistic and more allegorical as he points them up a “croked wey” and describes Death as being under a particular oak tree, warning them that he/it will take no notice of their swagger. The aged man is unfailingly courteous and hopes they will find salvation by improving themselves, again a message to the pilgrims.
After the dialogue, the narrative speeds up as the roisterers run to the tree, to be distracted from their search for Death by a find of beautifully coined gold florins. They do not stop to think but relish the sight of so much wealth, Avarice now taking over from Pride and Gluttony and reminding us of the Pardoner’s main text, that undue love of worldly goods is the root of all evils. They are fascinated by the brightness of the coins and they sit down near the hoard. They are under the tree where Death was said to be and so they are on his territory and the money is a kind of metonymy for him, as greed leads to death. There is dramatic irony here as we know that Death will not have forgotten them even though they have forgotten their quest for him. At this point the Pardoner makes some slight differentiation between the three: the first is the rudest and yet the most quick-witted; the second follows the first but is slower on the uptake; the third, though youngest, is not the most innocent because he is also cunning. The Pardoner has full control of his narrative, incorporating speech with plot in seamless fashion. He is a practised orator and never loses sight of his main motive: financial gain.
The main speaker puts forward his plan, claiming that he has “wit” [intelligence] even though he may “bourde [joke] and pleye.” His persuasive line is “lightly as it cometh, so wol we spende”, a version of “easy come, easy go” but, again, ironical as death is not an easy way forward and we realise that will be their fate because of the location. The treasure is a wonderful stroke of luck in his eyes but he gives himself away when his first mention of what they might do is to take it to his house, hastily amending that to “elles unto youres” when he realises his error. It must be carried off by night as carefully and cleverly as they can: the language here pulses forward in compelling fashion and the threat of their being hanged if caught by day adds urgency. The Pardoner is masterful at small touches, particularly about the way this speaker inadvertently reveals his selfish motives (as he himself does), and the listeners must notice that the man does not offer to go into town himself to bring food and wine. The drawing of lots (pulling straws of different length from a closed fist) is an essential part of the story and authenticates it as it was a common practice.
A powerful sense of secrecy is evoked: drama and atmosphere are combined. He stresses their agreement: “By oon assent” whilst we realise by inference that he has a plan to divide them, soon made explicit when he speaks to the remaining comrade. Throughout the Tale there is skilful use of dialogue: the deftness is Chaucre’s but appears as the Pardoner’s. The plotter has a smooth, soft and confiding way of speaking here and the rhythm creeps along as he plans to divide the gold between the two, not three. He ends with a rhetorical question but the other is slow to understand though willing to agree and keep a secret. By this point they are guilty of: gluttony with its partner drunkennness; hard swearing and false swearing; dicing as a form of avarice; deceit; disloyalty – and will soon commit violence. The second roisterer is too stupid to see that he is probably being cheated also and is probably tempted by the prospect of being able to gratify his “lustes” [desires]. The Pardoner is now anxious to move forward and hastily sums up:
And thus acorded be thise shrewes [scoundrels] tweye
To sleen the thridde, as ye han herd me seye.
In correct rhetoric, it was acceptable to lengthen or shorten a narrative by conventional means and here the Pardoner is economising. There is a carefully handled mix of realism and allegory in the Pardoner’s treatment of the borrowed story as the voices of the rogues are credibly defined and yet their actions direct them towards seeking death although, ironically, they have forgotten the search for Death.
The youngest’s inner thoughts are also convincingly depicted: “he rolleth up and down” [turned over in his mind] the beauty of the florins as he plots to have them all to himself. The devil suggests to him the method and tempts him to buy poison, appropriately as the young man is living a sinful life and deserves damnation: we notice that he will not repent and so is sure to meet a dreadful and sudden death. His account to the apothecary is too full of reasons for needing poison not to raise suspicion but is psychologically accurate for someone plotting a crime. It also shows the Pardoner’s awareness of the facts of country life; he is sufficiently knowledgeable to carry on his trade of convincing people to trust him. The poison is very powerful and a bit the size of a grain of wheat will kill someone instantly within a mile walked at an ordinary pace. Even the voice of the minor character of the apothecary is established and the Pardoner has shown skill at narrative in the introduction of his main three rogues along with several subsidiary players. He has controlled the atmosphere by describing Elde, manipulated the drama by recounting violent possibilities and promoted tense conflict and hostility between the roisterers. We are now sure that they will meet their doom on realistic and allegorical levels and wait eagerly to see how it will happen. The pace has quickened also.
We are reminded that the poisoner is damned as he runs to obtain bottles, two for poison and one to refresh himself with drink as he steals the money. The Pardoner once more abbreviates his narrative: “What nedeth it to sermone [speak] of it moore?”and dismisses this man quite abruptly: the ending is laconic as the two murder him and drink the poison. “Par cas” can mean “by chance” or “by fate” and here it seems to mean both as chance operates on the realistic level and fate on the allegorical. It is as though the Pardoner is suddenly overcome by the desire to make money and must finish his tale in a hurry: he makes a learned reference to Avicenna’s Book of the Canon [rule] in Medicine to give an impression of the dire effects of poisoning without having to describe them himself. Now comes the application of the exemplum with its overdone use of apostrophe: “O cursed synne of alle cursednesse …”, referring to greed, the most wicked sin of all but throwing in as many others as come to mind. He is now addressing his audience full on as he asks how mankind can be so ungrateful to Christ as to deal in such wrongs. At this point he fails to ask for their contrition which is an essential part of the process of forgiveness and moves straight on to selling salvation. The pilgrims can offer money to obtain redemption or, as he quickly realises they may not have much ready cash available, they can give silver brooches, spoons, rings or other goods. His own avarice is blatant as he hypocritically accuses others of it. Pardon cannot be bought for ready money without other due processes. He will enter their names on his prayer roll and grant Absolution which, we have noted earlier, he was not allowed to do. Attempting to sound sincere, he promises an impossible return to innocence. and hopes that Christ, their souls’ physician will absolve them
With astonishing effrontery, he pretends to have suddenly remembered the relics and pardons on his bag, capitalising, he hopes, on the change of register in his voice to cajoling and apparent friendliness after hectoring and threatening. It is difficult to believe that he can seriously hope to sell them after his revelation of trickery but his overweening Pride and Avarice compel him to do so. Having shown himself a man incapable of giving pardon, he tries to persuade them to buy at frequent intervals, in case of accidents en route, and claims that they are fortunate to have an effective pardoner in their company. Riskily, he approaches the Host first because he is the most sinful: it is barely credible that he could imagine the man responding to open insult and the command: “Unbokele anon thy purse!” The Pardoner’s lust for money is as potent as that of the rogues in the Tale: he cannot bear to think of it in someone else’s possession. Perhaps he thinks that, if the Host does buy, the rest will follow his example.
Harry Bailly is more than a match for him and abuses him roundly in filthy language after claiming that he will go straight to Christ for salvation if he needs it. Accusing the Pardoner of being ready to offer his soiled trousers as a saintly relic to be kissed, he threatens to castrate him and enshine – we notice the abuse of religious language here – his “coilons” [testicles] in “an hogges toord” [turd]. The Pardoner is furious and silenced: all his hope of gain has gone and he has been humiliated. In the end his knowledge of human psychology has let him down and he has wasted a carefully planned opportunity. The Knight intervenes and there is a comic and barely credible reconciliation: it is hard to imagine the Pardoner being “glad and myrie of cheere” [countenance] after that, though the Host has clearly enjoyed his own outburst. It looks as though they now set forth again on their journey, having stopped to listen to the Preamble and Tale in front of the ale-house. The overall structure of the work needs them to be united and in progress.