Deprivation and Excess in The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee

Chaucer, the pilgrim, is the only member of the group who is allowed to present a second tale on the way to Canterbury. He delivers his second tale following the failure of his minstrel song, “The Tale of Sir Thopas” and his second tale is told in prose form. It is about a rich man named Melibeus (meaning “honey-drinker”) who lives with his wife, Prudence (meaning “judicious”), and daughter, Sophie (meaning “wisdom”). One day, Melibeus wanders out into his field to entertain himself while three of his enemies break into his house and abuse his wife and daughter, leaving them nearly dead. When Melibeus returns he weeps deeply for them, Melibeus and his wife Prudence, along with a group of Melibeus’s friends, engage in a lengthy philosophical discussion about the nature of sorrow. This will not be a tale of mirth despite the Host’s request. Instead we are exposed to excessive weeping and exposition about its meaning.

The tale contains echoes of the Hebrew Biblical figure, Job, as he laments his woes to his friends. Job is explicitly cited in the tale, along with a slough of other classical writers, such as Ovid and Seneca, among many others. The Tale of Melibee is dense, intellectual, and quite frankly a boring diatribe. Why would Chaucer deliberately give himself two of the worst tales in the collection? Perhaps there is a degree of Chaucerian irony here.

Both of Chaucer’s tales are characterized by immoderation: the Tale of Sir Thopas is characterized by a certain lack or deprivation which prevents it from being a good or whole tale. It lacks classical form and edification, and it is simple, comedic, light, and un-engaging. On the other hand, the Tale of Melibee is characterized by excess -it reads like an extended philosophical treatise or a dialogue, though it is far less powerful than any Platonic dialogue. It is overwhelming in its length and breadth, and almost nothing happens in the tale. Whereas Topas contained several beginnings with no ending, Melibee is more akin to a lengthy lecture.

Chaucer gives himself two of the worst tales in order to highlight the limits of the poet and his craft. There is a certain Aristotelian moderation required for the art of poetry to succeed, and this moderation is bounded by philosophical excess, as well as comedic distance. In other words a certain blend of heavy and light material is necessary for a good story: a tale which both delights and informs. Each of Chaucer’s tales performs one or the other but not both.

In the end of the “Tale of Melibee,” and against the counsel of his warmongering friends, Melibeus relents to his wife and he calls upon his enemies to express forgiveness for harming his household. Continuing with the marriage theme, in Chaucer’s tale the successful marriage is one in which spouses may listen and also be persuaded, or put another way, a husband and wife must both govern and be governed according to their nature (a la Plato’s Republic).


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.

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.

Moonraker

Moonraker (1979) Director: Lewis Gilbert

Moonraker_(UK_cinema_poster)

★★☆☆☆

Moonraker is the eleventh Eon James Bond film, the fourth to star Roger Moore, and the third Bond film directed by Lewis Gilbert: You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979). Moonraker was the third Bond novel published by Ian Fleming, initially released in 1954. The producers originally intended to create For Your Eyes Only (as originally shown in the closing credits of the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me), however with the rise of the recent Star Wars mania, they decided to go with the space theme for James Bond.

At the outset of the film, a Moonraker space shuttle is hijacked in midair so M summons James Bond to investigate. While on the plane en route to England, Bond’s plane is also hijacked by Jaws, the towering henchman from the previous film, and the credits open with a dramatic skydiving scene. Immediately, we get a sense of how goofy this film will be when a midair Bond steals a parachute from the falling assassin, and instead Jaws falls, not to his death, but gently onto a comical circus tent. James Bond is then sent to California, to the headquarters of Drax Industries, the manufacturer the Moonraker the space shuttle. He meets the sinister head of the company, Hugo Drax (played by Michael Lonsdale -the role for which he is best known), along with his Samurai henchman, Chang (Toshiro Suga), and Dr. Holly Goodhead (played by Lois Chiles -the role for which she is best known). Bond tests the centrifuge chamber when Dr. Goodhead is called away and Chang disrupts the test, nearly killing Bond as he spins around in circles. That evening, Bond sleeps with Drax’s pilot who feeds him blueprint information of a glass vial made in Venice, so the next day when Bond goes hunting with Drax (for some reason) and Bond deliberately shoots a marksman out of a tree, and Drax sends his attack dogs after his pilot. In a dark scene for a Bond film, she is hunted and killed by the dogs.

Bond trails the lead to Venice where he, once again, encounters Dr. Goodhead, and he realizes she is a spy, as well. They learn that the glass vials are being designed to distribute toxic nerve gas, and we see a ridiculous gondola boat chase scene through Venice. Bond is attacked by Chang, but he kills Chang by tossing him through the clocktower at Saint Mark’s Square. In another ridiculous scene, Jaws falls in love with a woman he meets. Bond and Goodhead then follow Drax’s business to Rio de Janeiro -Bond travels even after being dismissed by MI6, as they were disappointed in Bond’s lack of information about the nerve gas vials. Bond survives various attacks by Jaws. Bond travels down the Amazon River to Drax’s base. The last portion of the film takes place at a large space station where Drax is apparently attempting to create a master race of humans -an act which offends Jaws so he turns on Drax. This is followed by an absurd space laser battle, and Bond launches Drax into space. Bond and Goodhead escape in a pod, as do Jaws and his new girlfriend, Dolly.

Moonraker was created with the astronomical budget (no pun intended) of $34M, approximately twice as much as budget for The Spy Who Loved Me. And the high budget worked, fat least from a financial perspective, because Moonraker became the highest grossing James Bond film up to that point, a feat that was only later upstaged when Goldeneye was released.

Whereas in the early days Sean Connery had sophistication and wit, Roger Moore’s James Bond of the ’70s was sort of like a silly uncle always making uncouth jokes with a face that seemed to say: “I didn’t do it.” Aside from being a visually impressive film, Moonraker is a pretty terrible movie. It is almost like a parody of the James Bond series. Roger Moore is starting to show his age, and the once dynamic and intense James Bond chase scenes feel slapstick and campy. Perhaps the biggest eye-roll of the movie comes when Jaws, the menacing and fearsome henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me, falls in love with an awkward young girl. The element of space travel is something new for Bond, but it is an obvious grab at the popularity of Star Wars at the time. Though I enjoyed it more than I thought I would watching it through this time around, Moonraker ranks among the worst of the James Bond movies for me.

The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) Director: Lewis Gilbert

The_Spy_Who_Loved_Me_(UK_cinema_poster)

★★★★☆

The Spy Who Loved Me is the tenth Eon James Bond film, the third and by far the best of the Roger Moore Bond series. The title is derived from the Ian Fleming novel -apparently Fleming disliked this novel so much that he refused to release it in order to prevent it from being made into a film, so studio executives simply created a whole new plot but kept the title. They also wanted to re-introduce the infamous Blofeld character, after the somewhat lackluster villains in the previous two Roger Moore Bond films, but, once again, they were unable to acquire the rights for either Blofeld or SPECTRE due to ongoing issues with the copyright holder Kevin McClory. The Spy Who Loved Me is the first James Bond film made solely with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli as the producer, after his unfortunate falling out with Harry Saltzman. Previously, Saltzman and Broccoli were the dynamic duo who produced every prior James Bond film through their company Eon Productions, overseeing the franchise from a small-budget novelty film into a massive blockbuster series.

The Spy Who Loved Me opens with the mysterious disappearance of two submarines: one British and the other Soviet. The Soviets call up their best agent, Major Anya Amasova (a.k.a. Agent XXX, played by Barbara Bach -wife of Ringo Starr), and the British call up their best agent, James Bond (a.k.a. 007), who is predictably in bed with a woman in Austria, but when he gets the call he sports a vibrant yellow suit and starts skiing downhill away from a group of villains until he plunges off a massive cliff and opens a parachute revealing the British flag -the “Union Jack.” One of the skiing henchmen he kills is a rival agent -who turns out to be Amasova’s former lover at the beginning of the film. Bond then travels to Egypt to seek out recently stolen microfilm plans for a highly advanced submarine tracking system, where he meets up with Amasova. The two reluctantly join forces, realizing they have mutually shared objectives in this case. Bond also encounters a massive henchman who is seemingly indestructible with steel teeth named Jaws (played by Richard Kiel -a 7 foot 2 inch tall man who struggled with gigantism all his life until his death in 2014. He also reprised the role of Jaws in Moonraker). Bond and Amasova encounter Jaws in a train scene that contains strong echoes of From Russia With Love.

Both agents learn that the man behind the submarine attacks is a megalomaniacal billionaire named Karl Stromberg (played by Curd Jürgens). Stromberg brings the two scientists who developed the submarine tracking down to his submerged vessel “Atlantis” to thank them, but he demonstrates his power to them by shockingly dropping his secretary into the shark tank where she is killed for stealing information from Stromberg. He then allows the two scientists to escape but he blows up their helicopter shortly thereafter for some reason. 007 and XXX travel to Sardinia to investigate Stromberg’s secret base. Posing as a married couple, they infiltrate the base and learn that Stromberg has ofthe massive underwater base called “Atlantis.” They are captured, and Amasova learns that Bond killed her lover. She vows to kill Bond after the mission. Stromberg reveals his plan to use the two captured Soviet and British submarines to launch nuclear warheads from each, thus spawning a massive nuclear holocaust, while Stromberg remains secluded in his underwater lair, Atlantis. He hopes to create a new civilization under the sea. He takes Amasova as his prisoner down to the Atlantis, meanwhile Bond escapes his captivity and he frees the trapped British and Soviet submariners and they reprogram the submarines not to fire the nuclear warheads. Next, Bond goes to Atlantis to rescue Amasova -he encounters Jaws again and throws him into Stromberg lethal shark tank, but instead Jaws kills the shark and survives. Bond and Amasova leave in an escape pod together and Amasova decides against killing Bond. They are rescued by the British Royal Navy. Meanwhile, Jaws escapes the destroyed Atlantis and we see him swimming off into the ocean at the end.

The featured song at the outset of the film is performed by Carly Simon entitled “Nobody Does It Better” -a surprisingly apropos song. Interestingly enough, the cinematography for the film was done by Claude Renoir, son of the actor, Pierre Renoir, and the grandson of the famous Impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The Spy Who Loved Me is one of my favorite Bond films, or at least my favorite from the Roger Moore era. The mystery and intrigue surrounding a villain who desires to build a submerged, deep-sea civilization is amusing and compelling all at once. Also, the introduction of Bond working together with an enemy, albeit reluctantly, and then falling in love with a rival Soviet spy is a new twist. The Spy Who Loved Me is a welcome departure from Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun.