A Prologue to Sir Topas
In my continuing search for what wonder meant in the Middle Ages, and how Chaucer and his contemporaries regarded what we now consider mythical creatures, and why Chaucer would write about these beings, I came across a curious article regarding the tale of Sr. Thopas. In “The Moment of Sir Thopas: Towards a New Look at Chaucer’s Language,” critic Alan T. Gaylord examines the language of the story and Chaucer’s experimentation with the new “written” English even while dismissing the nature of the story—the plot and characters—as merely a device to deliver some of his most stylized and intricate writing. While I agree with most of his principals, I feel dismissing the story outright robs the reader of dual meaning. All in all, Gaylord argues that Chaucer uses the story to “show the attentive reader a great deal about [his] language” and also his ideas of language (311). I will further demonstrate how that argument is relevant to my research project through an analysis of a few passages from “Sir Thopas.”
There are five points Gaylord uses to support his thesis. The first are definitions of Chaucer’s contemporaries concerning their ideas of language. Gaylord quotes both Eustache Deschamps and Dante Alighieri. Of Deschamps he writes, “Deschamps emphasizes the recreative function of poetry as musique naturele, and provides an inventory of metrical forms; in speaking of patterns, rhyme schemes, and medicinal lyric refreshments,” and for this he mentions Sir Thopas and its lyrical speak (312). We can hear such patterns and rhyme schemes from the opening lines of the tale, where Chaucer writes, “Listeth, lords, in good entent, and I wol telle verrayment of myrthe and of solas, al of a knight was fair and gent in bataille and in tourneyment; his name was sire Thopas,” and when the lines are quoted aloud—not just read—we get the lyricism Deschamps was referring to (712-717). Dante’s exposition is similar but with a crucial difference, that “language one naturally learns to speak is to be transformed, as the poet invents—in the rhetorical sense of “discovers”—a purified and elevated version for expressing the highest matters” and it is with this crucial definition that Chaucer’s contemporary admirers praised him for throughout most of his works. This definition seems the meat of the argument that his contemporary critics argued against this tale in particular (313).
Examining the critics, Gaylord then begins to dissect the argument that linguistically and stylistically the story is bad—as the host protests. Looking at texts from English school children and critiques by George Kane, Chaucer’s style of writing shouldn’t be overstated. Of George Kitchin, Gaylord writes “Thopas is presumed to act as a kind of foolsbane, exterminating a “stupid fashion” with homeopathic magic,” (313). His biggest contention is with Laura Hibbard Loomis—his “chief offender” for chastising Chaucer’s tale, and while he concedes she makes some good points throughout her article, he rejects her inadequate argument of the failure of the text as she uses such vague and subjective terms as “long-winded” and “inconsequent” and her points are reduced to opinions with no substantive value (314).
After dissecting the critics arguments, he then moves on to show how this is a great linguistic and stylistic tale by comparing it to contemporary romances written at the time. Looking first at “The Romance of Guy of Warwick,” Gaylord’s arguments are so far focused on the technicalities of poetics. He dissects the lines for meter and rhyme and compares them to Chaucer’s Thopas. Beginning in this section he limits Chaucer’s idea of language to the creation of poetic meter. He allows with no direction this presumption that he has limited this argument of language to poetics alone is processed further as he leads the reader to a passage from Thomas Chestre’s Lybeaus Desconus. This is an Arthurian story about Gawain’s son. By this time, Gaylord should have illustrated a road map for this essay expanding his argument beyond the technical. Here would have been a great place to draw literary comparisons between Thopas as son and Gingelein as illegitimate heir. Instead, Gaylord focuses on the “Same twelve-line tail-rhyme with less formal integrity,” and “the meter is more or less in lines of three stanzas,” and he expounds on this for three more paragraphs until comparing a passage of Chaucer, more stylistically proficient, he argues, than Chestre.
The issue raised at this point should be glaring. There are—speaking as a writer of fiction/prose/story (which despite its poetic form, “Sir Thopas” is a story and so like any other narrative should adhere to the following)—three “characters” needed to make it a story. It must have technicality in the writing, which Gaylord has been addressing but it seems as though this all he is addressing, it must have diction, and it must have content. Content will include character and plot and narrative devices. It is at this point, though Gaylord’s arguments are sound with what he does address, that his argument for this story to be considered great (despite the protests of the host) is essentially weak. He should have warned us in the beginning that he would address all of these aspects. He doesn’t, and so his argument seems one-sided.
In fact Gaylord does argue next the point of diction. He is more concerned with this for Chaucer than we would be for a more modern writer because he argues effectively what I will call historical linguistics. He convincingly argues the next point toward his thesis, that Chaucer “has made something new,” and that “Before our eyes…he invents his own English, his literary idiolect,” only then to parody not the romances (which is the first sign Gaylord plans to negate the importance of the third part of the story) “but his own practices,” at writing, and so negates what he has just successfully argued—that there was earnest style in how Chaucer structured the story(320). He discusses Chaucer’s use of language in daily life, and that English was not something Chaucer invented but what he spoke, what he heard but that it was “poverty-stricken” as a literary resource because it hadn’t been written much (322). He gives the impression—and maybe it’s true—that English was a bastardization of spoken French, Latin, Italian, and German, and that “For “language” to Chaucer is virtually synonymous with “speche” and “tunge,” and what he invents is not so much a structure or a series of new books, but a voice,” and I do agree with this point (322). As Gaylord surmises, Chaucer was writing down what he heard in the street the best way he could. What he concludes is that “Thopas, then, is marked for a special set of meanings…the prosody…the only thing Harry complains of…the rhyme and its variations…the diction,” and finally “the suite of gestures displayed by the narrative,” which culminates in the interruption of the story (325).
The story, he surmises in his concluding paragraph, is not important to what Chaucer was doing for the language. He says in “Sir Thopas” that “meaning is reduced to illustrating the vanity of a style that becomes its own subject,” but it is this rejection of the narrative, of the content of the story that makes for Gaylord’s undoing.
My paper will incorporate Gaylord’s ideas by using his main points to argue against Bailly and the critics of this story, and this will be a jumping off point for the importance of a tale about a knight searching for the Fairy Queen to be his wife. If it were simply a rambling story of a man on a horse with no relevance to plot, Chaucer did this already with The Squire’s Tale. What more can we glean from the story? I will incorporate the historical research I’ve already examined and the linguistic insights of this article to further examine more of what Chaucer could have accomplished by writing this tale.
Chaucer & Sir Topas:
A World of Wonder and the Wonder of Words
When one thinks of the Middle Ages, what one might imagine are Renaissance Fairs, those absurdly outlandish but undeniably fun escapes—sometimes well done and sometimes not so much—filled with jousting knights and Kings and Queens and Ogres as men on stilts, dragons, and oversized roasted turkey legs. We imagine the movies about the knights of the round table, and—for the layman who doesn’t understand we don’t group these periods together—Shakespeare, who set a lot of plays during this time period but lived outside of it by a couple of hundred years. Most people would also think of Chaucer, recognizing him by either forced reading in high school or college or the enjoyment of. What is most amazing is the stories of fairies and elves (not their modern Disney versions) and how Chaucer writes about them in his stories. The Wife of Bath speaks of a time when the elves ruled the island of England. The Squire tells of the strange knight that brings gifts imbued with the magic of the elves. Sir Thopas searches for a fairy-queen to make his bride. But unlike Shakespeare, whose plays include witches and fairies integral to the plot, Chaucer seems to regard them second-handedly, not completing either tale of Thopas or the Squire and the Wife of Bath’s reference was merely to set the setting, so to speak. So why mention them at all? As this paper will show, the miracle stories Chaucer uses in the Canterbury Tales—fantastic stories which were widely believed as factual accounts—serve an even deeper purpose: recording the miracle that is the formation of modern English in this time, and Chaucer’s recording this new language in posterity. Using a close reading of “Sir Thopas,” we will first examine the history of such stories in the Middle Ages. Then we will look at the writing style he chose for the story and the criticism it received. Next we will look at the futility of the story and its plot, its abrupt ending and inconsequential plot to the whole of the story, which segues into a less important tale by the author as pilgrim. Finally, we will examine Chaucer’s authorship and how he might have viewed his own writing to try and see if we can get a glimpse into his goals and intentions as a writer.
We know that stories of wonder widely told in the Middle Ages. More than that, we know that they were widely believed as factual accounts rather than viewed as myth or fictional stories. In “Sir Thopas,” we see this belief reflected in the main character, when he prays aloud, “O Seinte Marie, benedicite! What eyleth this love at me to bynde me so soore? Me dremed al this nyght, pardee, an elf-queene shal my lemman be and slepe under my goore” (784-789); he, above just expressing his loneliness, is asking for a companion that we today would in no way believe could exist. His is asking for a fairy queen to be his mistress. But while we don’t believe in such things today, there is ample evidence that belief in the supernatural was widely held by the peasants and educated alike during this time.
Robert Bartlett writes in his book, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225, “There were, however, other beings to be met with in the wide world who did not fit into this triad of sentient beings—animal, human, or angelic/demon” (686), creatures just as sentient but not as easily classifiable. Into this category are placed the monsters, the fairy folk, the witches and strange beasts like vampires and werewolves and other such beings. Moreover, Bartlett writes that, “a learned education did not make one less likely to believe in such beings” (672). He goes on to illustrate that it was from these learned men that these stories are spread throughout Europe and England. This is enlightening to learn that these tales weren’t the ramblings of the uneducated, but that rational, educated men were engaging in this discourse.
- S. Lewis expounds on this idea, and names these “Other” creatures in his book, The Discarded Image, as he writes in the chapter set apart from the rest of the manuscript that he had separated out “the Longaevi or longlivers…because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth,” (122). He calls them marginal, fugitive creatures that he refuses to call fairies because “that word, tarnished by pantomime and bad children’s books with worse illustrations, would have been dangerous…it might encourage us to subject some ready-made, modern concept of a Fairy and to read the old texts in the light of it” (123). Lewis is correct. This is what a modern reader would imagine in reading that Thopas was looking for an elf-queen, as though he had a fetish for Tinkerbell or something. But these concepts of fairies are not what Chaucer’s contemporaries would have imagined. Beowulf, Lewis says, ranks the armies of elves and fairies as just as dangerous as the other enemies of God. Lewis quotes Milton who refers to them as vile things from his Comus and relates them to the demons in his Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained epics. The stories of fairies kidnapping children and replacing them and tricking lost travelers ran rampant through England at this time, and like any good dark tale, would have been extremely popular. Chaucer would have known this, introducing these types of stories into his Canterbury Tales would have increased the interest of the English participant.
But what I’m arguing, what is more important than the plot of these stories is the style of writing Chaucer chose for the individual tales. It could be argued that Bailley mirrors many critics who scoffed at Chaucer’s use of the language in “Sir Thopas.” This is nowhere more evident than when the host interrupts Chaucer, saying, “Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee…for thou makest me so wery of thy verray lewednesse that, also wisly God my soule blesse, myne eres aken of thy drasty speche” (919-923). While it is funny, especially when the Host says of Chaucer’s “drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!” (930), it does more; this break removes the reader from this experimental rhyme scheme found nowhere else in the Canterbury Tales and returns us to the couplet. In his article, Gaylord defends “Sir Thopas” and Chaucer, arguing that Chaucer was engaged in “language planning” and that this meant more to Chaucer, whom Gaylord believes viewed language as “a dynamic force” and “that it grew and developed chiefly through his lifelong work as a creative translator” (311). His article goes in depth into this, dissecting the lines and stanzas of “Sir Thopas” and comparing them painstakingly to contemporary Romances upon which Chaucer based his story. Arguing that Chaucer saw himself as the poet to shape this new language, an amalgam of languages as diverse as German, Latin, and French, that up until this point had not been written down in great detail.
The position this puts Chaucer in is one writing popular fiction for an audience that would appreciate it, but also an author playing with the words and syntax of the language of the common people. Next, in looking at the abrupt ending of the plot, we will show how the story becomes inconsequential and so gives way to syntax. In fact, the story’s abrupt ending comes much quicker than, say, the Squire’s Tale, who is allowed to drone on and on. Chaucer the pilgrim isn’t given this opportunity by the Host or by Chaucer the author, when his story ends “Hymself drank water of the well, as dide the knyght sire Percyvell so worly under wede, til on a day…” (915-916). What is important to note here is that Harry Bailley doesn’t interrupt him at the end of a line or stanza, to further show that the host was tired of this rhyme, but in the middle of a line. Chaucer returns to the couplet and then leads into the next story, devoid of rhyme, but reads more like prose fiction centuries before this genre was popularized. He writes, “A yong man called Melibeus, myghty and riche, bigat upon his wyf, that called was Prudence, a doghter which that called was Sophie” (p.133). “The Tale of Melibee” seems devoid of poetics, with no stanzas or rhyme scheme evident and—like “Sir Thopas” before it—is a style not duplicated anywhere else in the Canterbury Tales. It is this obvious switch in styles that draws attention away from these minor—and in the case of Thopas, unfinished—stories, and all we are left with is the writing. In Craig Berry’s article, he reduces Chaucer’s “Sir Thopas” to a “farce meant to poke fun at the social pretensions of its central character” (136) and finding Thopas’ desire to marry a fairy queen a ridiculous plot that Chaucer was simply making fun of. The problem with this notion is two-fold. One, Berry is thinking with a modern view on the idea that fairy queen’s existed, which this paper has already shown would not have been the case in Chaucer’s time. Two, for the farce to work, as Chaucer has shown us in other areas like with the Miller’s Tale, there has to be a resolution. If the story were central, or just a farce, Chaucer would have wanted to finish the story for his reader; he would not have passed up the chance to end the story of a farce with more whimsical and comedic fare poking fun at this genre. But that he did not finish the story is evident that Chaucer had something more in mind. The story of the Romance adventure, as formulaic and common to his contemporaries as police procedurals are to us today, would have drawn the reader in, but Chaucer wanted them to stay for the language.
So what does all this say for Chaucer’s authorship? Chaucer recognized this new language’s impact on his citizenry and country and he would have also recognized he was at the forefront of this up and coming speche. He would have centuries of tomes to comb through of Latin and Greek. He knew French, and was probably well aware of the more Germanic languages from which English had descended. Each of these would have been centuries older than the street language being spoken by the commoner in Britain. As a taxation officer and merchant, Chaucer would have seen England’s growing impact on the rest of Europe, and more than likely understood that as the crown grew, so would her language. As well, the longevity of the ancient texts and older languages from where he drew his stories and ideas would have played on his own written word, as it has done every author since. This is slyly evident in words of the Man of Law with regards to Chaucer the pilgrim: “But nathelees, certeyn, I kan right now no thrifty tale seyn that Chaucer, thogh he kan but lewedly on metres and on rymyng craftily” (45-48) and goes on to extol himself as a great writer through another character’s voice. I add that this is slyly done because it speaks to Chaucer’s authorship. He is very smartly showing his readers that he wants to be known as a great writer.
In his book, Medieval Theory of Authorship, A.J. Minnis wraps up his chapter on Chaucer and his continual referencing to himself in Canterbury Tales and in Troilys and Cryesede as merely a translator or compiler. In a comparison to a contemporary of Chaucer’s, Minnis writes that while John Gower “was a compiler who tried to present himself as an author, Chaucer was an author who hid behind the ‘shield and defence’ of the compiler” (210). He references Chaucer’s general prologue and acknowledges that Chaucer has positioned himself as a compiler so as to not be responsible for what the other pilgrims say, even though this is a fictitious journey. Minnis illustrates this well after showing the works of actual compilers such as Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, John Ashenden (an astrologer who takes a similar humble approach to astrology in his short treatise), and an unknown compiler of the work Liber judiciorum. He argues that Chaucer is mocking this humble, self-depreciation combined with a disavowal of responsibility. Taking a step further than mocking, however, Minnis suggests that Chaucer “treats his fictional characters with the respect that the Latin compilers had reserved for their auctores” (203).
This suggests that Chaucer might be concerned with the popular conviction of authors as compilers, careful to limit their creations to what they may draw upon for inspiration. But I don’t believe Chaucer is doing this because he is afraid of stepping outside of literary boundaries of his time. Rather, I believe Chaucer—and many of his contemporaries would have been aware of this—is creating enough new material above and beyond what would be required by the act of compiling so that his works—in part and taken in whole—would be their own standalone works of fiction. I also don’t believe that he is acting like a compiler simply to insure the survivability of his work. Instead, as evidenced from what we’ve seen above, Chaucer was reinventing new syntax and a new (to the English language) genre of writing, one fictitious and creative and still influenced by earlier works, but not completely controlled by what came before it.
Only when we look at all these pieces together can we get a strong indication of what Chaucer was up to. He relied on common forms and genres, on the staple of “compiling”—which he claimed he was though he clearly was more than—and of various literary genres including Romance, to entertain styles of writing and the syntax and—as close as he could muster—the speche of English for the people who spoke the language. In the end, the Romance became as inconsequential as “compiling” and as is evident throughout all of Chaucer’s work, including “Sir Thopas,” what gains in importance is the language itself. With “Sir Thopas,” as the Romance is cut off, as the supernatural creatures are lost, what we find instead is a literary form the likes of which had not preceded him in the English language.
Bartlett, Robert. England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2000.
Berry, Craig A. “Borrowed Armor/Free Grace: The Quest For Authority In The Faerie Queene 1 And Chaucer’s Tale Of Sir Thopas.” Studies In Philology 91.2 (1994): 136-166. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 2 May 2012.
Gaylord, Alan T. “The Moment Of Sir Thopas: Towards A New Look At Chaucer’s Language.” The Chaucer Review: A Journal Of Medieval Studies And Literary Criticism 16.4 (1982): 311-329.
Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 1964.
Minnis, A. J. Medieval Theory Of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes In The Later Middle Ages. London: Scolar, 1984. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 2 May 2012.
Gaylord, Alan T. “The Moment Of Sir Thopas: Towards A New Look At Chaucer’s Language.” The Chaucer Review: A Journal Of Medieval Studies And Literary Criticism 16.4 (1982): 311-329.