Chaucer: Sir Thopas

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

THE TALE OF SIR THOPAS


Chaucer spontaneously shifts gears and offers this pure fun, probably the first parody of literature. He gives himself the worst story (but also the funniest), ostensibly the best the pilgrim Chaucer can manage, so once again, like the servant of the servants of love, the Chaucer persona is an outsider, a bungler. And it really is garbage; the Host stops it because it is bad, not because it is dull.

Prologue:

The tale of the Prioress was a downer and the pilgrims were silent (or stymied) and cannot react. The Host wants to liven things up and get the show on the road. It is noticeable that the link is in the stanzaic format of the preceding.

Tale:

The genre is parody (or burlesque) of the bourgeois romance. It emerges from a degeneration process demonstrated in the evolution of characters such as King Arthur, who begins as an active warrior but degenerates into a doddering cuckold. (Gawain takes over; then he too degenerates into burlesque). The degeneration of the hero (Charlemagne, Robin Hood), from established to cliché to parody, can take place over hundreds of years.

The tale parodies:

  • love. Thopas lives in fantasyland. He loves elves, as a cop-out from any real relationship. And he never even has met the fairy queen. (The tale fits the teller here in that Chaucer always portrays himself as an outsider to love.)
  • knighthood. “Thopas” is the stone of chastity. His dress and code are outlandish, his exploits non-existent or cheesy.
  • style. “Matter of England” romances often use a tail-rhyme stanzaic structure. The one-stress line is called the “bob” of the “bob-and-wheel” stanza. This is not bad if used correctly, because the tail rhyme lines can bear weight for the stanzaic climax or to summarize (like an abbreviated form of the final couplet in a sonnet). But when it’s bad it’s really really bad. Pop minstrels use literary colloquialisms that quickly become clich√©. Chaucer adds bad rhymes and poor effects. He essentially is biting the hand that fed him.

There is no need for this tale to end: the effect is accomplished. The last words before the interruption contain their own subtle joke. (What would be coming next? What should have been?)