Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Squire's Tale"

Genre: a romance, but also, possibly a satire on its teller, courtly culture, or the tale-telling game, itself.

Form: rhyming couplets divided into three narrative parts, the third of which is interrupted by the Franklin.

Source: No known source, though some critics speculate about oriental "nested tale" sources like the "Thousand and One Nights" (RC 890-1).

Characters: Cambyuskan, his sons Algarsif and Cambalo, his daughter Canacee, a strange knight, and "the peple."

Summary: Oure Hoost asks the Squire to tell a tale "somwhat of love" (V.2) and the Squire demurs, but promises to tell a tale "as I kan/ [ . . . ] My wyl is good" (V.4, 8). After this unpromising beginning, the tale unfolds in three segments: Cambyuskan's birthday party; the arrival of the mysterious, gift-bearing visitor, the struggle to interpret his four gifts, and Canacee's use of the mirror and ring in her meeting with the "faucon peregryn"; and the interrupted description of Cambuskan's victories, Algarsif's wedding and escape from danger with the brass horse, and Cambalo's tournament victory to win Canacee. This is followed by the Franklin's interruption of the Squire in mid-sentence with a series of awkwardly delivered (or ironic) compliments. The Franklin is, himself, interrupted by the Hoost in the midst of a diatribe about his son's failure to pursue "gentilesse" (V.682-95). Then the Hoost asks the Franklin to tell a tale, and he agrees to do so.

Interpretive Issues:

1) The Squire's character in the "General Prologue" is unique among the pilgrims in that he is said to be literate and a poet (I.95-6). He is "Curteis . . . lowly, and servysable" (I.99). Like Damyan of "Merchant's Tale," he serves his father's table as carver, a position of authority in the household. Given the GP's description of him as one who loves so intensely that he hardly sleeps, the Hoost's suggestion that he "sey somwhat of love" makes sense. However, given Harry's remorseful and self-censored ruminations about his own marriage, and the Merchant's sordid tale of a marriage badly made and betrayed, could the Hoost also be hoping for something to mend the tale-telling game's balance? (For a very good discussion of how the pilgrims' inscribed listening behaviors and commentary balance the tales' values, see Michaela Paasche Grudin, "Discourse and the Problem of Closure in the Canterbury Tales," PMLA 107:5 (October 1992) 1157-67, esp. 1160.)

2) The Squire's reluctance to "sey somwhat of love" and his disclaimer of his own tale-telling skills are also puzzling for the same reasons mentioned in #1 above. Could this possibly have something to do with a courtly style of self-presentation, perhaps something we might find discussed in Castigilioni's The Courtier? (Hint: sprezzatura.) How does the tale he tells either confirm or deny this apparent evocation of the courtier's style?

3) Another way to look at the Squire's position is to consider how he has heard love and the noble estate described so far in the tale-telling game. What kind of an audience is this courtier now performing for, and what kind of tale will advance his interests?  For a brief summary of the impact of previous teller's tale on the Squire, click here.

4) The setting in the Tartar or Mongol Empire appears to allude to the Squire's father's war experiences (see I.54-58), but the Squire apparently knows of it only second-hand. How might this tale be a kind of "homage" to his father? Consider the figure of Cambyuskan in comparison with the General Prologue portrait of the pilgrim Knight.

5) The Squire's style of narration resembles his father's, six times using Dad's favorite rhetorical device, the extended occupatio or "not enough time or narrative skill to tell you" strategy for telling without seeming to tell (V.34-41, 61-72, 95-7, 105-9, 278-90, 401-8). Does this make him a naive imitator, a self-conscious rhetorician, or a teller who genuinely does not want to tell his tale? If you consult the RC notes (890-91) you will see that from the late 1890s to the current day, critics still don't agree about how to read him.

6) The Squire's use of "Gawayn, with his olde curteisye," has been explained as a commonplace (see RC 892), but let's imagine for a moment that the works of the other great Middle English poet of the late fourteenth century was known to Chaucer. (Formerly, it had been supposed that the West Midlands dialect of the Pearl Poet meant that he could not have been writing in London, however, it has recently been argued that poor, "free-lance" knights from Cheshire on the Welch border formed a key component of Richard II's household troops, and that the Pearl Poet's works might have been composed to suit their nostalgic tastes for the language and values of their home county.) If Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were on Chaucer's or the Squire's mind, how might its plot and themes relate to either the Squire's tale-telling situation or to the mysterious visitor and Canacee's talk with the falcon?  For a structuralist overview of the "Gawain romances" in which this knight is represented as the exemplar of chivalric courtesy, see Joe Turner's Gawain Project site.  (One of the Gawain tale-types is the marriage to the "loathly lady," i.e., the source of "Wife of Bath's Tale"--is this inter-textual reference only a coincidence?)

7) The sudden visit from the strange knight introduces four magic gifts whose potential for symbolism immediately leads the court (and Chaucer critics!) to hot debate. What nobody has yet explained is why two of the gifts apparently are intended for Cambyuskan and his sons (the horse and sword) and two are specifically given to Canacee (the mirror and ring, see V.142-4). Can you suggest a reason why they are appropriate gifts for a young lady in her position?

8) The "lewed peple" interpret "gladly to the badder ende," says the Squire (V.221-4). How might this turn into another of those inscribed "ethics of tale interpretation" we have seen (Cf. "reading like the devil" in "Summoner's Tale")? Who are the "lewed" (uneducated, not lustful or obscene!) pilgrims listening to this tale, and how might this ludicrous drama of misinterpretation be intended to address them?

9) The dancing which closes this courtly celebration is "described" by the most extensive of the Squire's uses of the occupatio trope (V.275-90). Because the Squire will not divulge what he imagines and/or knows, we must use our imaginations to construct the scene. Who is the strange knight dancing with, and how will the evening end?

10) The Squire's report of the "MS-Bronze-Horse99" operating instructions is laughably incomplete. Here he claims outright ignorance: "The hors vanysshed, I noot in wht manere, / Out of hire sighte; ye gete namoore of me" (V.342-3). What kind of relationship between teller and audience does the usage "to get" imply here?

11) Canacee's walk in the garden, hearing and understanding the speech of birds by virtue of the ring, leads her to the suicidal peregrine falcon whose lament of the cruel tercelet's betrayal of her love strikes deep into Canacee's heart. The falcon's lament echoes language and values we've seen in the "Knight's Tale" and that we will see in "Franklin's Tale." It also contains yet another usage of the famous line, "That pitee renneth soone in gentil herte" (V.479). We've seen it in the Knight's explanation of why Theseus is so quickly moved to pity Arcite and Palamon (I.1761), and we have seen it sarcastically repeated in the Merchant's excuse for May's sudden decision to love Damyan and to betray January (IV.1986). The linkage suggests that the Squire is here trying to re-establish the nobility's claim to know "pitee" and the "gentil herte." How does it work in this tale and How might the falcon's situation relate to the Merchant's tale?

12) The falcon describes an arrangement between herself and the tercelet which will be extremely important to the "Franklin's Tale" and its formal marriage agreement between Dorigen and Arveragus (V.529-33 vs. V.745-52). This kind of arrangement creates a kind of inside-outside division in the lovers' consciousness. The outer world perceives the lover as free, but inside she's bound. What will this do to the lover's speech, gesture, and awareness? (Note its effect on the falcon.) The falcon also describes a "heart exchange" that we can see famously in Criseyde's dream (Troilus and Criseyde, Book II.918-31, RC 502). In both instances, this image concretizes the divided consciousness of the lover in a particularly vivid way, and in both instances the outcome is disaster. What is Chaucer saying about love, especially secret love of the sort described in Andreas Capellanus' Art of Courtly Love? (See also V.568-71, "my wyl was his willes instrument.")

13) The tercelet's deception is described as the effect of art: "So peynted he and kembde at point-devys / As wel his wordes as his contenaunce" (V.560-1). What does this mean about the ethics of tale-telling when tales are made beautiful by "peyntyng"?

14) When the falcon must cope with the tercelet's absence, she says "I made vertu of necessitee, / And took it wel, syn that it moste be" (V.593-4). The RC notes (894) cite, without comment, the close paraphrase of the Knight's tale at I.3041-2. What does the Squire mean by echoing his father's protagonist's most famous speech here?

15) In a weird twist, the falcon complains about the tercelet's behavior and says that "Men loven of propre kynde newefanglenesse, / As briddes doon that men in cages fede" (V.610-11). However, as many critics point out with glee, the tercelet is a bird, not a man, and surely can't be blamed for behaving like a bird! Or can he? See the characterizations of birds as people in Parliament of Fowls and in the "Nun's Priest's Tale."

16) Interpret the symbolic structure of the cage Canacee makes for the injured falcon. What does it represent, and by whom would it be best interpreted? Would any of the pilgrims "get it"?  Think about the social conventions implied by the literary phenomenon sometimes called "courtly love," which presumes the lovers are unmarried, quite possibly adulterous, bound by a code of complete secrecy, and surrounded by spies envious of their secret ("le jaloux" in Provencal).  For a quaint but still well-constructed pop song capturing the spirit of this kind of relationship, listen to the 1980s band, the Go-Gos, performing "Our Lips Are Sealed."

17) We have seen tales' prologues interrupted by ironic questions (WoBPro) and by angry threats (MPro, WoBPro, FPro, SPro), and we suspect "Cook's Fragment" might be intentionally incomplete, though it ends with a complete sentence and some argue that's all there was meant to be. However, never have we witnessed one pilgrim halting another's tale in mid-sentence, and never has a halted telling not been rebegun. Clearly this is a new kind of experiment. What motivates the Franklin's outburst of ungainly compliments, and why does the Hoost at first mock him and then aid him in this interruption?  This is not the last time it will happen.  See "Monk's Tale" for an interruptor who may surprise you, though not if you consider what kinds of stories he was halting.

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