On Chaucerian Irony in the Tale of Sir Thopas

At this point in the journey, Chaucer describes the whole mood of the group of pilgrims as “sobre” following the previous tale, the Prioress’s morbid story of martyrdom. Then, the Host starts joking and for the first time he looks down at the narrator –the fictional character of Chaucer– who is an unusually quiet and observant person. He is an intellectual: maladroit, moody, somber, soft, and one who can barely recall a tale for the group. The Host asks what kind of a man is this? Especially considering that he is always looking at the ground and roundly shaped in the waist (like the Host) and elvish in appearance. The Host makes note of Chaucer’s effeminacy, likening him to a doll who will likely tell ‘some dainty thing’ but he instructs Chaucer to please tell a tale of mirth, which Chaucer agrees to do. In fact, he says he will tell a “rym” he learned long ago (the only rhyming tale he knows). Remarkably, the rhyming pattern of the tale is unusual and does not follow the classical rules of order and iambic pentameter. It is a parody of a crude minstrel rhyme; a satire of popular English chivalric romances –the kind which are so brutally lambasted by Cervantes.

The tale is of Sir Thopas, a fair and gentle knight from Poperinge in West Flanders. He is honorable, a good hunter, and loved by fair maidens. One spring day, he finds himself pining for a lover. He longs for an elf queen he sees in a dream, since no earthly woman is worthy of him. So he rides to the country of the “Fairye” where he encounters a giant creature named Olifaunt who threatens Thopas by throwing stones, but Thopas escapes and prepares to return and fight the giant.

In the second and third parts of this brief tale, the story wanders and constantly re-introduces itself to the group for no apparent reason as Sir Thopas would likely have returned to fight the giant but Chaucer is eventually interrupted by the Host who says:

“Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee” (919)

“Myne eres aken of thy drasty speche” (923)

“Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!” (930)

Chaucer’s tale of Sir Thopas is hilarious, mainly because it is an ironic and self-deprecating portrayal of his own poetic and rhetorical skill. The tale is wandering, uninteresting, and the rhyming is odd which leads the Host to interrupt and rebuke Chaucer for his ignorance and he offers Chaucer the chance to tell another tale, one without a rhyme, such as a prose or alliterative verse tale. Thus Chaucer elects to tell a prose tale.

Notably, the Host critiques Chaucer for the unusual formal structure of his tale, not necessarily for its content. The formal structure of a work of poiesis influences the content, and in the contest among the pilgrims the best tale must also have the best form. It must not continually have an introduction. If the structure is unappetizing, then the rest of the tale will falter, as well. Therefore, like the Cook and the Squire before him, Chaucer’s first tale of Sir Thopas is ironically interrupted and abandoned, and the Host demands a new tale that contains ‘doctrine.’ He wants to be informed and also entertained.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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