Why So Many Miller’s Tales?

Rock mill and mill wheel

The beginning of the Industrial Revolution was the use of the wheel for something other than forward motion.

Millers don’t have a good rap in fairy and folk tales, but then they weren’t popular fellows despite their useful trade in the Middle Ages.

According to Stephen Kaplan (1984) “classical perception of the miller [is] as a blasphemous magician who compelled the free spirit of the streams and brooks to slave at the mill, who tortured it on the wheel. No wonder the mills occasionally exploded; the water spirits, in league with the realm of fire, avenged themselves. No wonder, too, that nature rebelled against the miller’s tyranny by bringing drought or floods that stopped the mill. The approbation of the wind, primal cosmic force, was a further mark of hubris, of might and cunning” (p. 287 ).

Millers are often the instigators of the tale, or the butt of it, but rarely the main character.  Today I learned that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of millers, and read a story of how a miller learned to be generous and kind by being turned into a donkey.

Several stories start off with millers. One is Rumpelstiltskin  who saves the miller’s daughter from death by spinning straw into gold, but at the cost of her first-born.  Puss In Boots is the cat given to the youngest son/apprentice of the old Miller. 

Another is the Handless Maiden, whose miller father promises the Devil whatever is behind the mill, which turns out to be the daughter. She loses her hands in escaping the Devil’s clutches, and leaves her family to find her fortune.

Another story gave me one of the threads to my current WIP, a story of the Nix of the Millpond, where a water-person makes a deal with the miller for what has just been born in the mill, which turns out to be his son.  Other stories of water beings involve the miller’s wife buying back her husband with magical golden items given to the nix.

The Rhine Maidens - Nixie - warn Seigfried

The Rhine Maidens – Nixie – warn Seigfried

The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer is about an old man, a young wife and an unfortunate choice of boarder, who sets up comedy by tricking both the miller and the man who wants to marry the daughter.

Millers were often suspected of cheating because they used a higher level of technology than the farmers who brought their grain to be milled, and because the miller was associated with the local lord who owned the land. Some millers did cheat, taking more than their share both before and after milling.   Many tales exist of the Haunted Mill, some perhaps told by the millers themselves to keep people away and to keep their trade secrets.

“The mill was a frightening place–more or less remote, regardless of it actual location, a place one never visited at night, a machine that seemed always on the brink of running out of control, a spirit that made sounds of lamentation or warming.  It’s interior was dangerous in another sense. the grinding of the stones, the vibrations that gently agitated the walls and floors, the flow of flour, and the warm ambiance of mingled spray and dust all conveyed a powerful–transforming, overpowering–sensuality.” (Kaplan, 1984, pp. 289-90)

While I write fairy tales,  I find that getting some research background on them makes my story-telling more fun with deeper detail. I hope you enjoyed this Miller’s tale.  The mill is a central location for That Darn Maven, working title of the second book of Maven Fairy Godmother.


Kaplan, S.L. (1984) Provisioning Paris: Merchants and millers in the grain and flour trade during the eighteenth century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP

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