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The queen of elves

CHAUCER'S CANTERBURY TALE OF SIR THOPAS

This tale of Sir Thopas is one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the one he first chooses as his own tale, before the host stops him in mid-flow. It is widely taken to be a parody of the style of romance found in Sir Tryamour, Sir Eglamour of Artois and Sir Perceval of Galles. But could it be that Geoffrey is betraying a deeper knowledge than he is willing to admit to? After all, he chooses it as his own tale on the road to Canterbury for the reason that, in his own words: ‘it is the best rym I can.’ Is this simply for comic effect, or could it be a double bluff?

Given that his House of Fame, Book of the Duchess, Parliament of Fowls and some of his other Canterbury tales hint at an underlying religious paradigm that is shared (it is proposed) with the romances and with this tale of Sir Thopas itself, then perhaps, although he did not like the style of romance, with its giants, dragons, heroes who feel obliged to conceal their identity for no apparent reason, and often general crudity, he is telling the truth when he says that its underlying idea is the one that he wants to give expression to the most. If this is the case, then Chaucer is perfectly able to say that it is the best rhyme he knows, whilst going out of his way, perhaps for his own safety, to imply the opposite.

The purple highlighting corresponds to words that Hannah herself has highlighted by underlining in the manuscript.

Listeth, lordes, in good entent · And I wol telle verrayment · Of mirthe and of solas · Listen, everybody, listen with an open mind and I shall provide both light entertainment and solace. It is the finest tale I know, and it is about a knight named Sir Thopas.

Sir Thopas was born beyond the sea, in Flanders, and by God's grace his father was the lord of all that land. He grew to be a very strong young man, with the ludicrous good looks of an Irish mythical hero; his lips were red, his face was white, his cheeks were bright scarlet – and he had a very handsome nose! His hair and beard were saffron yellow and hung down to his waist, his shoes were of the finest Spanish leather and his clothes were worth a fortune. He could stalk a deer, go hunting by the river with a grey goshawk, and was a very good archer as well. But above all, he excelled at wrestling and could throw anybody to the ground. There was no one his equal.

Many damsels tossed and turned at night thinking of him, but he had developed no interest in love at all. Like the Breton knight Guigemar, he remained unable to fall in love. 1 But one day, urged on by a dream to find the woman he truly sought, a lady of the Otherworld, Sir Thopas rode out on his grey steed, a lance in his hand and a bright sword by his side. Galloping through the forest, suicidally through the trees, swerving past overhanging branches that threatened his life at every turn, past thickets harbouring wild beasts, I tell you, he very nearly came to grief!

On the forest floor were many plants used in medicine, and nutmegs to put in ale, or to lay in a coffin.

The birds were singing, thrushes and jays, and wood pigeons calling high above in the oaks. Sir Thopas heard these sounds and, fired with love, he spurred his steed onwards as though he was mad! His horse was so bathed in sweat that men might wring the animal dry, and its sides were bloody from the spurs.

At last, Sir Thopas was so weary that he lay upon the ground, and his horse wandered off, riderless, to graze. 'Oh, Mary!' cried Sir Thopas, 'I am consumed with love! I dreamed last night that I lay with an elf-queen. There is no woman in this whole Earthly world, in any town or city, that I can love – I reject them all and shall search far and wide for my elf-queen!

Sir Thopas climbed back into the saddle, and before long he had ridden so far that he found himself in a hidden part of the forest that no women or child ever dared to enter – it was a secret and deserted place, the very gates of the Otherworld.

Soon he was approached by a giant, whose name was Sir Oliphant, an old soldier who had been led in chains to the western isles of Scotland in the days of King Edward II. A dead soldier 2 who said: 'Child, by Termagaunt, unless you take yourself out of my haunt, I will kill your horse with my iron mace. For the queen of the Otherworld lives hereabouts, with all manner of sweet music to soothe and entertain her.

The child replied: 'I defy you! We shall meet again tomorrow when I have my armour, and I will strike you so hard in the mouth with the point of my lance that you will be killed!'

Sir Thopas made his retreat and the giant threw stones at him with a sling. But he managed to escape unscathed, through God's grace, and through his own excellent horsemanship, and soon he arrived back in his own city. Listen, everybody, to this tale! It is more comforting than the song of the nightingale! Sir Thopas commanded his men to prepare him for battle.

'I must fight a giant with three heads,' he declared, 'in order to reach the love and bliss of a shining queen. Come minstrels, come jesters and tell tales of romance and of love while I arm myself. Tell of Popes and of cardinals!'

Wine was fetched, and gingerbread, mead and liquorice, while Sir Thopas put on a linen shirt and pants, a tunic to wear beneath his chain mail, a double layer of body armour, both of mail and of steel plate, and above this, a surcoat with his own coat-of-arms emblazoned upon it. His shield was of gold, with the emblem of a boar's head and a diamond at the centre. Sir Thopas swore that whatever happened, the giant was a dead man! His legs were protected with thick leather and upon his head was set a shining helmet. His scabbard was of ivory, his saddle of whalebone, and his bridle shone like the moon. His lance was sharpened for war, not for jousting, and his horse, a dapple grey, carried Sir Thopas magnificently! My lords, shall I tell you what happened next?

Silence, then, for charity! Listen to my tale of love, of battle and of chivalry. Men sing the tales of many fine knights, but Sir Thopas bears the flower of royal chivalry! He mounted his horse and shot off like the spark from a coal. His heraldic emblem was a tower surmounted by a lily, may God keep him from harm. And like a true knight errant, he shunned the comforts of castles but slept in the open air, using his helmet as a pillow. He drank water from the forest spring, like the worthy Sir Perceval. 3 And one day...

'No more of this, for God's sake!' said our host. 'It hurts my ears to have to listen to such crap! The devil take your story!'

'Why?' said Geoffrey. 'Why stop me so quickly when it is the best story I know and since you’ve let all the others drone on for much longer?'

'Because such rubbish is not worth a turd! You waste our time!'

Translation and retelling of Chaucer's first choice for his own Canterbury tale, Sir Thopas copyright © 2000, 2016 by Richard Scott-Robinson

references

Geoffrey Chaucer – Wikipedia

The Canterbury Tales – Wikipedia

Sir Thopas – Wikipedia

Canterbury Tales – Sir Thopas – eChaucer, original and translation

www.geoffreychaucer.org – Links to online texts, and much more

Amazon

notes

  1. This sentence is an insertion by Hannah and does not appear in any other copy of Chaucer's tale of Sir Thopas. It is a valid observation upon the preceding sentence, however, and shows that Hannah was finding common themes in the romances she was reading and copying. Chaucer may, indeed, be making a reference to the Breton lai of Guigemar when he says of Sir Thopas: 'But he was chaste and no lechour, and sweet as is the bremble-flour [wild-rose] that bereth the rede [red] hepe [rosehip]'

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  2. Chaucer does not explain the nature of the giant Sir Oliphant in any other copy of the tale of Sir Thopas we have, except to say: 'His name was sir Oliphant, a perilous man of dede.' - His name was sir Oliphant, an unequalled man of action. This could be said fairly to describe the character of Sir William Oliphant of Aberdalgie, who was famous for defending Stirling castle against the forces of King Edward I of England in 1304 and was last heard of in exile in the Outer Isles of Scotland. By 1390 or so, when Chaucer penned this sketch, he would indeed have been a dead soldier. Perhaps Hannah is making an assumption here, but it is not an unreasonable one. .

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  3. Hannah spells the name Sir Perceval to conform to the romance of Sir Perceval of Galles. There is no reason to suppose that Chaucer did not have this romance in mind when he wrote: 'Him-self drank water of the wel, as did the knight sir Percivel' and shows that Hannah was keen to find the links between all her romances.

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