The Franklin says that he will relate an old Breton Lay as best as he can.
He asks the pilgrims to excuse his homely style and speech since he is
a plain blunt man. He has no feeling for the colors of rhetoric and speech
since the only colors that he has seen are those that are used for paint
and the flowers that grow in the meadows.
There lived a noble Knight named Arveragus in Brittany who passionately loved a lady named Dorigen and undertook many great enterprises to win her. The lady's beauty was unsurpassable and she came of a very noble lineage. Arveragus thus didn't have the temerity to tell the lady of his longing and heart's desire. At last the lady compassionately agreed to accept him as her lord and husband. Arveragus was thrilled and promised to obey all her wishes. The lady was honored by the Knight's magnanimity and swore that they would always live in harmony and peace. They then got married and started living in perfect happiness.
After a year or so Arveragus decided to go to Britain to seek training in arms. He lived there for two years. In the meanwhile Dorigen who loved Arveragus more than her own life grew extremely melancholic and grief-stricken in his absence. Arveragus' absence tormented her so much that the entire world seemed meaningless to her She lost her appetite and spent the whole day in sighs and tears. Her friends comforted her in every way possible. At last Dorigen took hold of herself and started going for walks with her friends to the seacoast. However the sight of ships only served to remind her of Arveragus. She would further get terrorized at the sight of the black forbidding rocks along the coastline that had been the cause of many unfortunate deaths. Her friends realized that roaming on the coast was only a source of more misery and they thus chose other spots for their amusement.
One day in May, Dorigen went to a picnic. A Squire named Aurelius who had been secretly in love with Dorigen for the past two years was also present. He had never revealed his feelings and suffered silently. It so happened that they started talking. He finally mustered up enough courage to declare his love for her. Dorigen refused his advances resolutely. But seeing his sad countenance she jestingly added that she would consent to his love if he could remove all the rocks from the coast of Brittany to make her husband's return voyage safe. Aurelius despaired since this was an impossible task and implored her to reconsider. When she refused he went away with a heavy heart. He desperately prayed to Apollo to entreat his sister Lucina, goddess of the sea, to send such a massive tide that it would drown all the rocks on the coast of Brittany for two years. He then fainted and remained unconscious for a long time. Aurelius' brother who knew about his secret love then carried him to his bed and looked after him.
In the meanwhile Arveragus, to Dorigen's delight returned home safe and sound
and they were happily reunited. However Aurelius was torn apart by distress
and lay bed ridden for two years. Only his brother knew that he was afflicted
by the sorrow of unrequited love. At last his brother recalled his young
student days at Orleans where he had seen a book about white magic. He
rejoiced that finally a solution had been found and that expert conjurers
might be able to produce a illusion making it appear as if all the rocks
had disappeared from the coast of Brittany. Accordingly he set off with
Aurelius for Orleans and met an *(expert magician.) The magician demanded
a sum of thousand pounds for the job. Aurelius readily agreed and the
magician made the rocks disappear. Aurelius then went to meet Dorigen
at the temple and demanded that she fulfill her end of the bargain. Dorigen
who had been certain that the preposterous condition would never be met
was horrified and went home in a miserable state of mind. She wept continuously
for two days railing against fortune. When Arveragus returned home she
told him the entire story. Arveragus told her that she must honor her
promise even though it would hurt him deeply. He then sent Dorigen to
Aurelius. Aurelius was extremely moved by Arveragus's nobility and Dorigen's
love and loyalty to her husband that he released her from her obligation.
Aurelius then found that he only had five hundred pounds to give to the
magician and begged him to give him two years to pay the rest of the amount.
When the magician learned what had happened he too to acted like a gentleman
and pardoned his fees. The Franklin ends his tale with an appeal to the
pilgrims to say which character was the most generous.
The Franklin's Tale is similar to the French lays of Marie de France. The Franklin himself calls his story a lay. However scholars have not been able to trace any single source for the tale.
The Franklin's Tale is linked with The Squire's Tale. Although these two tales have been grouped together there is no thematic link between the two. What exists is only a structural similarity. The Franklin's praise of the Squire reveals his naivete. While he enthusiastically commends the Squire for his wit, eloquence and story-telling ability, he is unaware that the Squire has bungled his tale by rambling on about the same point.
The tale is set in Brittany and peopled with characters of noble birth. Moreover the characters act generously and in accordance with the highest ideals of conduct. The lovely lady Dorigen refuses to be unfaithful to her husband in his absence. Arveragus prevails upon Dorigen to honor her promise even though it would hurt him immensely. Aurelius is overwhelmed by Dorigen's love for her husband and Arveragus's supreme sacrifice and releases Dorigen from her obligation. The magician pardons his fees after learning the details of the entire episode. All the characters act nobly and in perfect accordance with gentlemanly ideals of behavior. The Franklin's teaser at the end asking the pilgrims to judge the most generous character among all cannot be answered. Many people will agree that Arveragus' decision, to make his wife agree to a promise made as a joke, was wrong. However one has to agree that it is his noble deed that lead to the noble deed of the others. The Franklin's question is on the lines of the aristocratic convention of asking a question to start a debate and reveals his aspiration to move up in society and be thought genteel'.
The Franklin's Tale however also appears to deal with the theme of marriage.
The Franklin seems to provide a compromise between the Clerk's advice
of patience and submissiveness on the part of the wife, the Wife of Bath's
demand of sovereignty over the husband, and the Squire's courtly or romantic
idea of love. The Franklin evidently does not agree with the Merchant's
view that marriage is undesirable and brings nothing but woe. The Franklin's
solution is an amalgam of all the views expressed so far on the subject
of marriage. But some critics hold that the tale does not form part of
the marriage group simply because there is no way of ascertaining that
Chaucer held the same view.