Introduction to the Squire’s Tale
The Host asks the Squire to draw near and tell the next tale.
The Squire's Tale
The Squire tells the tale of Cambyuskan, the king of Sarai in Tartary. With his wife Elpheta he had two sons, Algarsyf and Cambalo, and a daughter Canacee (previously mentioned by the Man of Law). In the twentieth year of his reign, on the Ides of March, his subjects celebrated his nativity. During the great feast with the king and his knights, a strange knight came into the hall on a brass horse, carrying a broad mirror of glass, wearing a gold ring on his thumb and carrying a naked sword by his side.
This knight saluted the king and queen, and all the lords, in order, so reverently and nobly that even Gawain could not have bettered him. The narrator apologizes for not being able to reproduce the nobility of his elocution, punning that he could not climb “over so heigh a style”, and resolving only to reproduce the meaning, not the expression, of what the knight said.
This knight had been sent from the king of Arabia and India, to bring Cambyuskan a steed of brass that could, within twenty-four hours, transport a person safely anywhere on the globe. He also presented to Canacee a mirror that foresaw impending mischance and could determine the character of friends and foes, and a ring that enabled the wearer to understand the language of any bird, and the healing properties of all herbs. His final gift was the sword, whose edge would bite through any armor but whose flat would cure any wounds inflicted by the edge.
Having told his tale, the knight rode out of the hall, leaving his steed standing in the court, and was led to his chamber. The presents were carried into the tower, and the ring given to Canacee, but the brass steed would not move until the knight taught people how to move it. The horse was a source of wonder for the people, compared alternately to the Pegasus and the Trojan horse. All one had to do to move the brass horse was to twirl a peg in its ear, according to the knight.
After the revelry of the night before, the next morning everybody but Canacee remained asleep until late. She had dreamt of the mirror and the ring and thus had her first satisfying rest in a very long time. As she went out walking that morning with her maids, she came across a bleeding peregrine falcon that cried out in anguish. It had maimed itself. Canacee picked up the falcon and spoke to it, a power she had gained from the ring the knight had given her. The falcon told her a tale of a handsome tercelet as treasonous and false as he was beautiful, who fell in love with a kite as well as with the falcon, and left the falcon to love the kite. Canacee healed the bird with herbs which she dug out of the ground, and carried it to a box, covered in blue velvets, with a painted meadow inside it, which she laid by her bedside.
The narrator then leaves Canace, promising to return to the story of her ring and show how the falcon regained her love, thanks to the mediation of Cambalo, the king’s son. First, the narrator says, he will tell of Cambyuskan, and how he won his cities, and after that of Algarsyf, and how he won his wife (for whom he would have been in great peril, were it not for the brass horse) and after that of Cambalo, who fought with the brothers in order to win Canacee, and then – after all that – the narrator intends to pick up where he left off.
The narrator has just begun to set the scene, when he is interrupted…
The words of the Franklin to the Squire and the words of the Host to the Franklin
The Franklin tells the Squire that he has served himself well, praising his wit, and asserting that no-one in the company is as eloquent as the Squire. The Franklin then comments that he would give twenty pounds worth of land if his own son were a man of such discretion as the Squire – who needs possessions, if he is virtuous! The Franklin continues that he has often rebuked his own son for not listening to virtuous people - the Franklin’s son only plays at dice and spends money, and would rather talk with a page than a nobleman.
At this point, the Host interrupts - “Straw for youre gentillesse!” (“Straw to your nobility!”) – reminding the Franklin that what he is saying is irrelevant, and that each pilgrim must tell at least a tale or two, or break his vow. The Franklin reassures the Host that he is aware of this, even if he is taking a moment to speak to the Squire, and – as instructed by the host – tells his tale, commenting that, if it pleases the Host, his tale will certainly be a good one.
Since the Squire's Tale exists only in a fragmentary form, it is difficult to determine precisely how we are supposed to read it. The tale may be a fragment because Chaucer never finished the tale or because the later section of the tale was lost in the manuscripts from which the Canterbury Tales were taken. And yet, the Franklin’s interruption comes at a point which suggests that the Squire’s Tale might be one of Chaucer’s many trick interrupted-endings (see, for example, his House of Fame, or Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas).
For the moment at which the Franklin interrupts comes only two lines after the Squire has outlined his plans – extremely lengthy plans – for the rest of his tale, giving as the last plot point to be covered in his telling Cambalo’s fight for the hand of Canacee. There seems nothing very unusual about that, until we remember that, at the start of the tale, we are clearly told that Canacee and Cambalo are brother and sister. And this is where the tale becomes interesting. Canacee, of course, is the person discussed in the Man of Law’s Prologue - Chaucer, the Man of Law claims, will not tell her story, and nor will he.
Yet here is Chaucer, in the mouth of the Squire, promising to tell the story of incestuous Canacee. It is certainly true that the Squire’s plan for the rest of his tale looks as if it might take four pilgrimages of its own to complete – the Squire, the son of the Knight, certainly inherited his father’s long-windedness – and some critics have argued that the Franklin breaks off the tale (either with irony or with faux modesty and compliments) only to prevent the pilgrimage from having to endure all of it. Yet critics – who have paid scant attention to the Squire’s Tale, often disregarding it as unfinished – have yet to come up with a fully persuasive explanation of why it is the promise of incest which seems to motivate the abrupt termination of the Squire’s Tale.
William Kamowski has also pointed out that the abridgement of the Squire’s Tale precedes an abridgement of the Host’s original tale-telling plan:
In fact, at the very moment when the Squire breaks off, an apparent reshaping of the grand plan for the Canterbury Tales also takes place. Harry Bailly reminds the Franklin, "wel thou woost / That ech of yow moot tellen atte leste / A tale or two, or breken his biheste" (696-98). Evidently the Host's original plan for four tales apiece will not be realized. It seems more than coincidence that the Host trims his own colossal ambition so soon after the aborting of the Squire's grand plan, which is too large to be realized within the framework of either the Host's storytelling contest or Chaucer's frame narrative.
There are lots of interesting avenues for exploration and interpretation with the Squire’s Tale, yet it only seems fair to conclude that the critical work on the Tale remains, like the Tale itself, frustratingly inconclusive.