Tale of Sir Thopas, The

Tale of Sir Thopas, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1390)
   When the Pilgrim CHAUCER is asked by the Host to tell a tale of his own, the poet’s persona launches into a rollicking, singsong burlesque of popular English TAIL-RHYME ROMANCE, a recitation so apparently incompetent that the Host stops the performance in mid-narrative. Many readers of The CANTERBURY TALES have since been disappointed not to see the completion of this brilliant parody of MINSTREL literature created by the courtly Chaucer (who at the same time displays no little affection for the popular genre).
   The verse form of The Tale of Sir Thopas is unique in Chaucer: six-line stanzas rhyming aabaab, the a-rhyme lines having four metrical feet, and the b-lines having three. Five stanzas include a third aab tercet, appended to the main stanza by a two-syllable transition line or “bob.” Such appendages seem to be completely random, and are, with the verse form generally, part of Chaucer’s parody.
   The tale begins by introducing Sir Thopas, a brave and chaste knight of Flanders, adored by all the young maidens in his hometown of Poperyng. He is handsome—“He hadde a semely nose” (Benson 1987, 213, l. 729)—well attired—his robes “coste many a jane” (Benson 1987, 213, l. 735)— and good at archery and wrestling (not exactly aristocratic sports). But Thopas himself is in love with an elf-queen whom he has seen only in a dream. Riding off to seek his love, he encounters the ominous giant Sir Olifaunt. The giant orders Thopas to be off, saying he cannot come near because the elf-queen dwells there. Sir Thopas leaves, promising to return to fight the following day, after he has got his armor, and the giant chases him off with stones. The second fitt (fitts were common divisions of minstrel romances) begins in proper minstrel fashion, with the narrator’s call of “Listeth, lordes to my tale” (Benson 1987, 215, l. 833), and continues with a lengthy and clichéd description of the arming of Sir Thopas. As the third fitt opens with a parody of the minstrel’s call for attention, “Now holde youre mouth, par charitee” (Benson 1987, 215, l. 891), Thopas sets off again on his adventure, but before the pilgrim Chaucer can get to the climactic battle, the Host, Harry Bailey, interrupts him, calling his rhyming “drasty” (crappy) and “rym dogerel” (Benson 1987, 216, ll. 923–925), and asking for something in prose if the pilgrim Chaucer can do no better in verse. Chaucer responds with a nearly interminable moral allegory, The TALE OF MELIBEE.
   Specific ways that Sir Thopas parodies existing tail-rhyme romances like BEVIS OF HAMPTON and the English Sir Tristrem are outlined in J. A. Burrow’s notes to the tale in the Riverside Chaucer (Benson 1987, 917–923). Perhaps the most interesting of recent critical approaches to Sir Thopas is that which views it as a significant part of Fragment VII of the Tales—a long, coherent section of the unfinished Canterbury Tales text that seems particularly concerned with the act of storytelling. At the beginning of the frame story, the Host called for tales with “the best sentence” (i.e., wisdom, moral significance), and “moost solaas” (solace, or pleasure). Sir Thopas may be seen as a tale of pure solaas, virtually without any kind of sentence at all.
   ■ Benson, Larry, et al. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Burrow, J.A.“Sir Thopas: An Agony in Three Fits,” Review of English Studies 22 (1971): 54–58.
   ■ Gaylord, Alan T. “The Moment of Sir Thopas: Towards a New Look at Chaucer’s Language,” Chaucer Review 16 (1982): 311–329.
   ■ ———. “Chaucer’s Dainty ‘Dogerel’: The ‘Elvish’ Prosody of Sir Thopas,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 1 (1979): 83–104.
   ■ Jones, E. A. “ ‘Loo, lordes myne, heere is a fit!’: The Structure of Chaucer’s Sir Thopas,” Review of English Studies 51 (2000), 248–252.
   ■ Patterson, Lee. “ ‘What Man Artow?’: Authorial Self- Definition in The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 11 (1989): 117–175.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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