Chaucer: The Squire’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE SQUIRE’S TALE
Requesting a tale of love from this guy seems appropriate. His response to the Host is certainly courteous and concise — even the begging pardon in advance “if I speke amys” (7).
This one has no known sources, just maybe some elements and motifs. Therefore it’s been tempting for Chaucerians to say that Chaucer tried his own hand at inventing a story and failed, and then assigned his abortion to the Squire. That shows how much faith they have in their own man.
The genre is romance (aristocratic love) or maybe oriental romance (with magic, marvels, plot upon plot in a Mandevillian world).The Squire sets this tale in “Tartarye” (9), or somewhere in the Mongol empire — potentially exotic, but problematically remote. He seems pretty glib about deaths in war (11), unlike the ponderous qualifications in the tale of his father the Knight. In describing the king, Cambyuskan, the Squire is totally unreserved; the king excels in every virtue. This is all just given, not developed as with Theseus in The Knight’s Tale. This lord has two sons with weird names and a daughter, Canacee. (We’ve heard that name before, but where … ?) On mentioning her beauty, the Squire offers an ornate and overdone rhetorical flourish, drawing attention to himself while exaggerating his insufficiencies as a narrator (34-41). Piles of astrological nonsense follow as the Squire continues setting the tale. Then he emphasizes the pomp and the odd exotic Mongolian foods at a banquet (59-71), followed by some occupatio culled from his dad.
We’re deluded into thinking the actual plot has begun when a knight bursts into the banquet with some cool stuff and lots of polite greetings to the nobles. Eventually, “He with a manly voys seide his message” (99) and we wait about a dozen lines of Squire filler to find out what it is. In essence, the knight has brought four magical gifts: a steed of brass that can take you anywhere quickly by the manipulation of a pin (an instant gratification machine); a fortune-telling mirror that especially can show lovers’ treacheries (so fanciful romance matters are more important that the potential political advantages); a ring that translates birdsong; and a sword that smites and heals (appropriate for a world without consequence). The “lewed” people are fascinated with the horse but don’t know how to work the pin; thus the Squire sets up elitist dynamics, excluding the “lewed” from this supposedly special knowledge, for dozens of lines of wonder and gasping, after which he shows off his book learning and more astrology, and the tale goes nowhere.
Who koude telle yow the forme of daunces
So unkouthe, and swiche fresshe contenaunces,
Swich subtil lookyng and dissymulynges
For drede of jalouse mennes aperceyvynges?
No man but Lancelot, and he is deed.
The Squire continues describing the “wondryng” (305) and the pin manipulations.
The apparent problem is that the set-up involves four magical gifts received, but the tale runs away from the Squire and he can’t control the stories’ too many elements. So the magical objects remain in storage. “The telling is graced by a kind of youthful enthusiasm and enterprise, but ungraced by narrative discipline”; “Certainly it reads at times as if its author had swallowed a rhetorical handbook whole but had not fully digested it” (Donaldson 1086).
The Squire describes human anatomy as a chemical factory — mechanical, like the horse. He gives a bit of dream theory, but mentions that Canacee is dreaming not about the knight, but about the toys. How much does this guy really know about love? More astronomical precision and mechanical optics take the place of any poetic sensibility about sunrise. He reports that Canacee could, because of the magic ring, understand the morning chatter of birds, but he doesn’t tell us what she heard! Does this dolt have any sense of his audience? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to find out what birds sing about?
Any love story potential is for the birds, literally: a self-mutilating female falcon tells its woeful tale to Canacee, during which the Squire plagiarizes what no doubt was a successful line from his father: “pitee renneth soone in gentil herte” (479).
The tale is, though, nicely suited to the teller beyond the superficial level. The Squire has a naive enthusiasm for the trappings of such stories and all the pageantry. It’s a medieval MTV tale: style above substance, elitism, instant gratification, posing, the fanciful above worth, a world without consequence, amorality, lines emptied of meaning, and it all goes nowhere.
The tale ends with a summary of future topics which sounds as if it would require thousands more lines at this rate, and then a “two-line rhetorical warm-up at the beginning of Part III” (Donaldson 1087). And we’re left with an incompletion. Or are we?