Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Sir Thopas"

Genre: the prologue continues the Hoost's role as tale-instigator, calling upon bashful pilgrims to undertake their "behest"; the tale is a tail-rhyme romance, but parodically exaggerated until the genre's worst faults destroy it.

Form: the prologue is written in the same rime royal stanzas of the "Prioress' Tale," though the Hoost's bantering description of the "elvyssh" Chaucer contrasts weirdly with the previous tale's pious sentimentality.  The tale, itself, is written in six -line stanzas consisting of two three line groups, each of which contains two four-stress lines and a three-stress line, the whole stanza rhyming aabaab or aabccb.   This looseness of form is typical of tail-rhyme romances, which usually are identified as being more like "folk literature" than products of high-court culture, though this obviously raises questions about "central authorities vs. marginal cultures" that post-colonialist theory likes to study.  See RC 917 for the note about the scribes' apparently thinking this so unusual in Chaucer's work that they bracketed the stanzas to clearly delineate them.  Most tail-rhyme stanzas have only one "bobbed" (shortened) line, but by doubling the bobs Chaucer increases the hippity-hop gallop of the form to a frantic pace.

Source: thank heavens for English literature there is no "source" for this tale.  There are many analogues" (RC 917 and Sources and Analogues, on reserve), some rather pleasant.  According to Loomis, Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton, Lybeaus Desconus, Sir Launfal, Perceval of Gales, Sir Eglamour, and Thomas of Erceldoune contain the closest verbal parallels.

Characters: the gallant Sir Thopas (Topaz), a Flemish knight; his noble steed, much vexed by the constant pricking of Sir T's spurs (VII.774-7), an "elf-queene" who appears to him in a dream; a "greet geaunt" named Olifaunt; Sir Thopas' "merye men" and "mynstrales / And geestours" (VII.845-6); a future foe, another giant but with three heads this time; and "oure Hoost" who breaks in to put "Sir Thopas" out of its misery.

Summary: After the Prioress's heart-rending evocation of the little martyr's funeral, Harry, apparently seeking to break the deadly silence, starts to banter with "me" (i.e., the Chaucer-the-Pilgrim voice we last heard in the "General Prologue" and the "Miller's Prologue."  After the Man of Law's build up of "Chaucer's" strengths and weaknesses as a poet, one wonders what sort of tale Chaucer-the-Pilgrim will tell.  Harry describes Chaucer in terms that may ironically suggest he's perhaps a bit fat ("This were a popet in an arm t'enbrace / For any woman" and "He semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce" (VII.701-2, 703).  Chaucer replies that he only knows one tale that he learned long ago--yeah, right.  Alas, he tells it.

    Thopas, a rather sweet and delicate knight, rides like crazy all over the landscape at great cost to his horse.  After a dream of a mysterious "elf-queene" he rides in search of her, only to encounter the giant, Olifaunt, who defends "the queene of Fayrye" with shouted threats.   "Sir Thopas runs away, away; Sir Thopas runs away (etc. with apologies to Monty Python). He prepares himself for battle with a three-headed giant, the fairy queen completely forgotten, by eating and drinking enormous amounts.  He's armed in a cute little suit, rides to battle on a lady's ambling palfrey, and sticks a lily in the tower that decorates his helmet's crest.  You really have to imagine what that looks like.   Then Harry, the literary critic, in rather firm terms advises Chaucer-the-Pilgrim to stop. 

Interpretive Issues:

1) This tale has been recognized as a parody of the popular tail-rhyme romances since the first readers of Chaucer left written records (see the note on the Scottish poet, Dunbar, in RC 918).  Why would he make himself a bad poet?   Note that after Harry's interruption, we are socked with the huge, seriously moral, "Melibee."

2)  The Hoost's question, "What man artow?" (VII695) has stimulated an enormously productive discussion of Chaucer's self-representation in the tales, especially his construction of a fictional self that obviously is somewhat at odds with, but also oddly resembling, what we know of his real persona.  Medieval authors rarely, if ever, represent themselves bodily in their works.  The more common form of self-representation is the so-called "signature," or self-naming by which the author claims ownership of the work.  Making one's self a character in one's own work has occurred once before, however, in a very famous medieval work: Dante's Divine Comedy.  Is this pilgrimage in some sense similar to the Italian poet's arduous allegorical journey through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven? 

3)  Much of the plot's comedy will be lost if you are unfamiliar with other short romances of the sort Chaucer is parodying, but some of it is obvious.   Notice, for instance, that the "wilde best[s]" Thopas encounters in the forest are "bukke and hare" (deer and rabbit).  His reaction to the "love-longynge is so bizarrely energetic that it wears the little guy out and he has to lie down for a nap.  His confrontation with Olifaunt is ended when "Sire Thopas drow abak ful faste" (VII.827) and he heads for the banquet table, where victories are more fun and less work.  Even the poet's traditional address to his audience degenerates from the standard "Listeth, lordes, in good entent" to "Yet listeth, lordes, to my tale" [i.e., don't go to sleep on me here!] to "Now holde youre mouth, par charitee, / Bothe knyght and lady free" (VII.712, 833, 890-1).  The third one would translate to "Shut your trap!" in ModE.   How many more of these ludicrous mistakes in telling or in content can you find?

4)  The Hooste's interruption delivers us from more of this "drasty speche" with a particularly vivid piece of literary criticism.  He then invites Chaucer-the-Pilgrim to tell something that doesn't rhyme, but rather something "in prose somwhat" (VII.934).  Might this indicate that the "Melibee" is part of the satire, or was the satire a kind of entertainment (like the Pardoner's exemplum about the three men in search of Death) to prepare the way for a kind of sermon?  Note that the "sentence" of "Melibee" is about the necessity to forgive injuries and to forego revenge when one is the victim of violence.  How might that work with the evolving, "cut-up" narrative of Harry Bailey's character, the same man who so violently interrupted this tale (and the Pardoner's sales pitch)?

5)  The two tales assigned to Chaucer-the-Pilgrim, "Sir Thopas" (i.e., Sir Topaz) and "Melibee," continue Chaucer-the-poet's pattern of changing the rules of the game just when we get settled down to expecting either a moral tale or an entertaining though obscene quarrel.  Since at least the 1602 Speght edition of Chaucer's collected works, readers have recognized "Thopas" as a deliberate parody of tail-rhyme "Northern" romances, but "Melibee" always has been taken quite seriously as moral instruction.  Its linkage to "Monk's Tale" introduces another revelation by Our Host of his home life and personality that grows increasingly ominous.  As in the case of "Pardoner's Tale," Our Host is both the instigator of the telling and the interrupter, and in both cases his interruption is scatalogically laced with references to a "toord."  Chaucer-the-Pilgrim reacts with charmingly injured pride to Harry's contempt for his "rymyng" and unleashes "a litel tale in prose," the "Melibee," which is perhaps his most unoriginal composition in the CT cycle, being a close translation of  Renaud de Louens' Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence (after 1336), which is itself a translation of Albertanus of Brescia's Liber consolationis et consilii (1246).  The highly moral nature of "Melibee," with its extensive arguments against revenge justice, might be tailored to suit Harry's fear of his own propensity for violent revenge, which follows in the epilogue wherein he asks the Monk to tell a tale (see especially ll. VII.1888-1923).  We have seen his violent temper when he interrupted the Pardoner's attempt to pitch his false relics as authentic.  Remember he threatened to castrate the Pardoner.  Only the Knight seemed able to halt him.  What has Chaucer-the-pilgrim (or -the-Poet?) got to do with Our Host?


Some Critical Articles Relevant to "Sir Thopas":

Jessica Brantley, "Reading the Forms of 'Sir Thopas.'"  The Chaucer Review 47:4 (2013) 416-38. Web.  MLA Bibliography and JSTOR.

J. A. Burrow, “‘Sir Thopas’: An Agony in Three Fits,” Review of English Studies, n.s. 22 (1971): 54–58; repr. in his Essays on Medieval Literature (Oxford, 1984), 61–65.  Available on JSTOR: 

Mary Hamel.  "And Now for Something Completely Different: The Relationship between the "Prioress's Tale" and the 'Rime of Sir Thopas'." The Chaucer Review 14:3 (Winter, 1980)  251-259

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