- Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas
In Canterbury Tales, there is a character named Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer's portrait of himself is unflattering and humble. He presents himself as a reticent, maladroit figure who can barely summon a tale to mind. In comparison to the other travelers in the group, Chaucer the character is reluctant to speak, but when he does tell a tale, it is a rather frivolous burlesque very different from what went before.
Sir Thopas is the story in tail rhyme of a child knight who goes on a quest to find his elf-queen but is waylaid by the giant Sir Oliphant (elephant). He runs back to his merry men for a feast of sweets and to ready for a battle with his giant foe. The tale is interrupted by the Host, though, for its tail rhyme format and is never finished. The tale is a parody of romances, with their knights and fairies and absurdities, and Chaucer the author satirizes not only the grandiose, Gallic romances, but also the readership of such tales.
The tale is a hodgepodge of many of the popular stories of the time which even apes their simple rhymes, a style Chaucer uses nowhere else. Elements of deliberate anticlimax abound in as much as the poem as Chaucer is allowed to present. The knight's name is in fact topaz, one of the more common gemstones; in Chaucer's day, "topaz" included any yellowish quartz. The knight hails from Flanders, which earlier had been a favorite haunt of errant knights but in Chaucer's time was better known for prosaic merchants. In the only scene of derring-do that Chaucer tells in the two and a half chapters he gets in, Sir Topas flees the battle, pelted by stones. The poem thus contains many suggestions that it was intended in a mock-heroic sense.
Thopas is the first of what is usually called the surprise group of tales, as each is quite different from the preceding and they are seemly written to confound expectations. The host, Harry Bailey, does not seem to appreciate this new style of tale and he interrupts Chaucer, telling him that "thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord".
The character Chaucer then tells the laborious and dull debate of the Tale of Melibeus. Again, this is in keeping with the character Chaucer: a man of too much learning and too little experience. The tale is full of moral sentiment and philosophy, but it is fairly slow for modern readers.
The reception of Sir Thopas is perhaps the most interesting thing about it. When Chaucer began to be treated as a treasure of English letters after his death, his satiric intent was lost. Into the 18th century, readers regarded Harry Bailey's interruption as a sign of poor breeding, and they treated the tale of Sir Thopas itself as a great work. It was Thomas Warton who first suggested (at least in print) that Chaucer was not serious, that the whole tale is a parody and that the character of Geoffrey Chaucer must not be confused with Geoffrey Chaucer the author.
- ^ Prologue to Sir Thopas - lines 8-21
- Side by side modern translation of "The Tale of Sir Thopas"
- Modern Translation of the The Tale of Sir Thopas and Other Resources at eChaucer
- General Prologue
- The Knight's Tale
- The Miller's Tale
- The Reeve's Tale
- The Cook's Tale
- The Man of Law's Tale
- The Wife of Bath's Tale
- The Friar's Tale
- The Summoner's Tale
- The Clerk's Tale
- The Merchant's Tale
- The Squire's Tale
- The Franklin's Tale
- The Physician's Tale
- The Pardoner's Tale
- The Shipman's Tale
- The Prioress's Tale
- Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas
- The Tale of Melibee
- The Monk's Tale
- The Nun's Priest's Tale
- The Second Nun's Tale
- The Canon's Yeoman's Tale
- The Manciple's Tale
- The Parson's Tale
- Chaucer's Retraction
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