Prologue to the Sir Thopas
When the Prioress' Tale was done, every man in the company looks serious, having heard of the miracle she described. Until the Host, beginning to joke, turns to Chaucer himself (“he looked upon me”) and asks him what sort of man he is, as he is always looking at the ground. “Looke up murily”, the Host tells Chaucer, calling him a doll (“popet”) and describing him as elvish-faced. The Host then demands that Chaucer tells a “tale of myrthe”, and “that anon” (do it soon). Chaucer replies to the Host that he only knows one tale: a rhyme that he learned many years before.
The Tale of Sir Thopas
Asking the “lords” to listen, the tale announces itself as being “of myrthe and of solas” (fun and seriousness). It then introduces Thopas, a fair knight with a white face, rose-red lips, blond hair and beard, and a seemly nose. Thopas was very well dressed and he could hunt for deer, go hawking, and he was a good archer. Many maidens were brought in for him to sleep with, but he was chaste, and no lecher.
One day Thopas went out riding on his gray horse, carrying a launcegay and a longsword, and passed through a forest which had many wild beasts in it (buck as well as hares). Thopas heard the birdsong and fell into a love-sickness, and rode so fast that his horse sweated. Thopas therefore lay down to give him and his horse a rest, deciding that he would be in love with an elf-queen.
Thopas then climbed back into his saddle to find an elf-queen, but he came across a great giant called “Sire Olifaunt”, who threatened Thopas that, if he left his territory, he would kill his horse. Thopas (described as “the child”) said that he would meet with the giant tomorrow, as he had forgotten his armor, and travelled in the opposite direction very fast. This giant threw stones at him, but he got away.
“Yet listeth” (keep listening) to my tale, the narrator continues, because Thopas has again come to town. He commanded his merry men, as he had to fight a giant with three heads. They gave him sweet wine and gingerbread and licorice, and then Thopas got dressed in his armour. The end of this fit tells the company that if they “wol any moore of it” (want to hear any more) then the narrator will try to oblige them.
“Now holde youre mouth, par charitee” (Now shut up, for charity’s sake) begins the third fit, before explaining that Thopas is of royal chivalry. Thopas drank water from the well with the knight Sir Percivel, until one day…
Here the Host “stynteth” [stops] Chaucer’s Tale of Thopas
No more of this, for God’s sake, says the Host, criticizing the “rym dogerel” which Chaucer uses. Chaucer asks why he has had his tale stopped when it is the best rhyme he knows – and the Host replies that his crappy rhymes are not worth a turd, advising him rather to tell something in prose. Chaucer obliges, promising “a litel thyng in prose”, finally asking the Host to let him tell “al my tale, I preye”.
Sir Thopas offers up one of the funniest moments in the Canterbury Tales. Written in ridiculously bouncy tail rhyme, the poem is a hilarious parody of Middle English verse romances packed full of bizarre pastoral details. Thopas, for example, is hugely effeminized, well-dressed, and with a girl’s name (Thopas was usually a woman’s name in the medieval period). Thopas falls in love, in the manner of the courtly knight, before he has decided who he will be in love with (an elf-queen, in the end) and runs away from his climactic battle at the end of the first fit because he has forgotten his armour.
In the Ellesmere manuscript, the setting of Sir Thopas has the tale ever vanishing into the margin, and close readers will note the way each fit is half the length of its predecessor - there is, as well as its “dogerel” parody of verse romance, a definite sense that Chaucer the character has definitely run out of things to say. Note the number of times Chaucer has to ask the company to listen or to be quiet (implying perhaps the jeers and responses of a less-than-impressed pilgrim audience) and note too the way that details from the prologue seem to echo in the Tales: an effeminized, antisocial Chaucer becomes an effeminized, entirely chaste Thopas, the Host’s comment that Chaucer looks like he would find a “hare” becomes a forest with hares for wild beasts, an “elvish” looking-Chaucer inspires the “elf-queen who is to be Thopas’ lover. To that, we might add, a storyteller Chaucer reluctant to tell a tale (but pushed into the spotlight) becomes a knightly Thopas desperate to escape knightly combat. The apparent purposeless of the narrative, packed with pointless details, might well reflect a narrator who is making the tale up as he goes along.
There are several interpretable jokes hidden in the fabric of the tale. Chaucer is parodying his own endless inventiveness, celebrating his own skill at creating varied voices, by presenting himself as someone who cannot even come up with a single bearable story – and, silenced by his own characters, the abortion of Chaucer’s tale actually points to a remark about the strength of his characterization. Chaucer’s characters, it seems, are so well written that they give advice about tale-telling to their writer. Sir Thopas, vanishing fit by fit as it does, also demonstrates Chaucer’s awareness of his own elusiveness, the self-vanishing quality which enacts the invisibility of the writer’s point of view – which we have already mentioned in several other tales. The Chaucer sent into the fiction to represent the author is, we and he know all too well, a poor imitation of the real thing - but it is the nearest thing to an omniscient author we are going to get.