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Chaucers Use of the Topos of the Other-Worldly Mistress in The Canterbury Tales Anne Nies

Although, at the behest of the host, all of the pilgrims are to tell a story the host himself cuts off Chaucer when he is part way through line 918 of The Tale of Sir Thopas, by crying Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee! (919) When Chaucer protests the host proclaims: Thy drasty ryming is nat worth a tord / Thow doost noght ellis but despendest time (930-931). This harsh criticism, by the host, of Chaucers rhyming can, at first glance, be viewed as a criticism of the structural quality of the rhyme itself, which Manly shows is abnormally complicated and does not follow the usual stanza form for a chivalric romance, as well as a criticism of the entertainment value of Chaucers tale. When compared with The Wife of Baths Tale, which also is a tale in which an other-worldly woman appears, it becomes apparent that this criticism is well deserved. Ultimately one finds that The Tale of Sir Thopas possesses only a literal presence; that there is no moral substance to the tale; and that the literal presence, in its narrative and its versification, is too derivative to possess any merit. Unlike the other tales, the familiar elements of medieval stories that Chaucer uses in The Tale of Sir Thopas do not vary in any meaningful way from their sources. In The Source of Chaucers Rime of Sir Thopas Magoun outlines how closely The Tale of Sir Thopas follows The Ile dOr Episode in Libeaus Desconus. In fact The Tale of Sir Thopas follows The Ile dOr Episode so closely that one may view it as a condensed retelling of that very story. In addition to general acquaintance with the romances which supplied him with the jargon in Sir Thopas, Chaucer had, it would

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seem, closer familiarity with King Horn, Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick, and Libeaus Desconus, and probably regarded them as representative of the type (metrical romances) which his satirizes (Magoun 833-834). It is important to note here, that although The Tale of Sir Thopas most resembles The Ile dOre Episode in narrative, it shares similarities with other medieval romances such as those listed above, Graelent, Lanval, and Sir Launfal. These similarities support the general belief that Chaucer was knowledgable of and well versed in the romances of his time. In The Ile dOre Episode the hero, Lybeous, is riding on a somerys day, mery is the ffowlis songe (LD: Lambeth, 1279), when he comes across a fayre cite called Jl de Ore. He is threatened by the giant Maugis, who he threatens in return. They fight and he defeats the giant. In The Tale of Sir Thopas the hero, Sir Thopas, is riding, the birds are singing, when he decides to take a break, during which he announces that he has dreamed that an elf-queen will be his lover. He sets off to find her, and discovers the contree of Fairye where he encounters a giant named Sir Olifaunt, he threatens the giant, throws stones at him, then runs off. Sir Thopas returns home, for his armor and his friends serve him a stimulant to drink, then he sets off to return to the giant; at which point the tale ends. Magoun well argues that although not given, both the pilgrims and readers are able to infer that it would continue to follow the story line of The Ile dOre Episode of Lybeaus Desconus. As is common in the retelling of a tale, there are differences between Chaucers Sir Thopas and Ile dOre, but rather than making changes that would allow the tale to be viewed with a new perspective, Chaucers changes work only to trivialize any moral

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value of the tale. The most apparent way he does this is in his portrayal of Sir Thopas, who on the surface appears to be the perfect chivalric knight. Not only does he introduce Sir Thopas with thirty-two lines describing his appearance, but he also lends Sir Thopas an effeminate air, both in twice referring to the lilye-flour, often used to represent maidenhood, when describing his dress and in Chaucers initial description of him: Whit was his face as paindemain Hise lippes rede as rose. His rode is lik scarlet in grain, And I yow telle in good certein He hadde a semely nose. (725-729) Here we find that the line His rode is lik scarlet in grain is reminiscent of the description of Emelye in The Knights Tale, For with the rose colour stroof hir hewe (1038), but even more it is reminiscent of the description of the lady of Ile dOre Wyth rode reed as rose on ryse (LD: Cotton, p 152, line 1244). Furthermore, Chaucer trivializes The Tale of Sir Thopas by spending lines 833 through 914 describing Sir Thopas, who has just run away from a fight, in additional detail as his friends make him a drink of swete win, / and meded eek in a maselin, / And real spicerye (815-853), and by telling the listener what is going to happen in very generic terms, which Magoun argues point to The Ile dOre Episode, herkneth to my spelle / of bataille and of chivalry, / and of ladies love-drury (893-895), without significantly furthering the plot. Which is a failure of story telling in the schema of The Canterbury Tales, where the host has explicitly instructed:

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Tel us som murye thing of aventures! Youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures, Kepe him in stoor til so be ye endite Heigh style, as whan that men to kinges write. Speketh so plein at this time, we you preye That we may undersonde what ye seye. (15-21) As well as a failure of Chaucer (the pilgrim) to provide the listeners with any thing at all worth hearing. At no point in The Tale of Sir Thopas is the reader given something unconventional or unexpected, in either character portrayal or in plot development. In comparison to the other pilgrims tales, which are rife with subtle and blatant changes to the elements of the tales form, this is remarkable. Additionally, one may notice that unlike the tale of Graelent, Lanval, or even The Wife of Baths Tale that the hero, Sir Thopas, is in no need of nor is particularly deserving of an other-worldly mistress. In Graelent the hero denies the queens advances because love is a serious business, not a jest and also because he is the vassal of the King, and on [his] knees [has] pledged him loyalty and faith, and sworn to defend his life and honour (Graelent 3). Frustrated by her failure to seduce Graelent, who has proven to be an exceptional knight, the queen turns the king against him so that he falls into poverty and is shunned by the other nobles. Then the other worldly lady steps in and rescues him from poverty and loneliness. In Lanval the hero is a kings son, but penniless in a strange land. He serves the king of the land he is in, but is envied by all of the court for his braveness,

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generousness, beauty, and prowess. Thus the other-worldly lady saves him from poverty by providing him with gifts and love. Even in the Wife of Baths Tale we find the hero in need of saving. After raping a maid in the woods, the queen decides to stay his execution, and will allow him to keep his life if, within a year, he can tell her what women most desire. Just before the year is over the knight has still not found an answer he can provide to the queen. Desperate and on his way back to the queen, he comes across an old hag (who is clearly otherworldly, as she appears after a group of dancing maidens vanish). She provides him with the correct answer for the queen, thus saving his life, and then she marries him, eventually turning into a fair maid. But, in Sir Thopas, we see no reason why he needs intervention from an otherworldly lady. We are not told his is disliked, out of royal favor, or poor; rather we are told hes well dressed, which would indicate that he is wealthy. We do know that hes good looking, athletic, and generally appears to be quite a happy guy. So, theres no apparent reason (other than his fanciful desire, which trivializes love in light of Gaelent) for him to need or to deserve the intervention and affection of an other-worldly woman. Similar to how The Tale of Sir Thopas follows the Ile dOre Episode, The Wife of Baths Tale closely follows a common medieval romance convention, through use of the loathly lady, but only thirty-one lines into The Wife of Baths Tale there is a surprising and unexpected development as a bachelor of King Arthurs house comes across a maiden alone in the woods and By verray force he rafte hir maidenhed (888). Although The Wife of Baths Tale closely follows the basic structure of the loathly lady

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convention, the differences from a conservative telling are significant, and although it may not be considered a morally exemplary tale, she is allowed to finish it. The general form of the tale of the loathly lady is: (1) An old woman appears suddenly in the woods at a moment of great discomfiture for the hero; (2) the hero makes a rash promise to the lady in return for her supernatural help; (3) the hero shows reluctance when he learns he must marry the hag; (4) the old woman changes into a young girl after being accepted by the hero into marriage. (Folks & Lindahl 245) As mentioned above, the first departure from the usual Medieval Romance is that our hero is a rapist and a lecher. His moment of great discomfiture is his failure to find What thing is it that wommen moost desiren (905), and he is drawn to four and twenty ladies dancing in the wood, who resolve into the hag. He does make the rash promise, but then most of his reluctance is given when it is time for him to consummate the marriage. Finally the old woman changes into a young girl; not after being accepted into marriage, but when he unwittingly gives her sovereignty over himself after listening to her lecture him about gentilesse. The Wife of Baths Tale is also remarkable for its uncommonly realistic characterization of the knight. He is not good, fair, and wise as knights should be, but rather he is lusty, selfish, and foolish. There is no sense that in any way the knight has developed in character sufficiently for him to have earned his wife turning bothe fair and good (1241). Beyond the fact that Chacuers Sir Thopas ... is first and foremost a literary jeu desprit - a pointed burlesque, not of romance in general, but of the English romances of his day (Burrow 113), the ridiculousness of the knight in The Tale of Sir Thopas

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versus the exaggerated realism of the knight in The Wife of Baths Tale leads one to recognize that The Tale of Sir Thopas acts also as a parody of the medieval chivalric romance involving the other-worldly lover. One may then ask: why does the host cut off Chaucer? Perhaps the answer is that Chaucer has the host cut off Chaucer (the pilgrim) because although the parody is fun, fun is not the sole purpose for telling a tale. Rather, it is because one should only tell tales with a purpose, and the Tale of Sir Thopas does not appear to be developing one. Although the entire point of the tales in this pilgrimage is to waste time each of the tales (except Sir Thopas) in themselves hold some quality that causes the reader to question medieval values. Lindahl beings to approach this idea: The supremely educated Chaucer...[has] this in common with the tellers of oral folktales: both believe that familiar stories are always the best, that the art of story telling lies not in surprise, surface variation, or superfluous innovation, but in retelling a well known story so well that an audience throughly familiar with its contents will still respond with excitement, as if experiencing it for the first time. (Lindahl 143) But, he falls somewhat short of missing the mark, as he does not explain how one is to get the audience to respond with excitement. One the other hand, he does come close, as the surface variation and superfluous innovation used in The Tale of Sir Thopas clearly leaves the audience and the reader unsatisfied. It is common knowledge today that (medieval) authors did not invent the material for their work. Rather, they contented themselves with embellishing this material - that is they adapted it to a given public and era (Walter 61). In a way The

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Tale of Sir Thopas serves to ensure that there is no doubt in the readers or listeners mind that Chaucer was familiar with medieval romances. One may even guess that he was also familiar with the sources of these romances. The Wife of Bath and the loathly lady both resemble each other, based on the Wife of Baths prologue and tale, but they also resembles a dignified, independent and all powerful being, who is never surprised, and who is never coerced into becoming the mistress of anyone, - the typical Celtic fe (Cross 385). During Chaucers life writers defined themselves more than anything as those who made accessible to their patron or to a given audience a story to which they added their own commentary, their gloss, and their meaning (Walter 66). Chaucer appears to have been acutely interested in this aspect of the medieval authors work, pulling tales apart and putting them back together again in a way that gave his audience familiar material while simultaneously posing unexpected questions to them. What should a womans role in marriage be? What makes a man worthy? What is beauty? What is love? In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer leads by example, giving both the pilgrims and the characters within the tales themselves unexpected personalities and actions that provide the tales with social and moral depth. In case the message was not received he highlights it by beginning The Tale of Sir Thopas then not finishing it, using the marvelous and the other-worldly mistress twice to draw the readers attention to how a tale can be told, versus how a tale should be told.

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Bibliography Burrow, J.A. The Canterbury Tales I: Romance. The Cambridge Chaucer Companion. Ed Boitani, Piero and Mann, Jill. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Clerks Prologue. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Jill Mann. Penguin Books, 2005. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Tale of Sir Thopas. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Jill Mann. Penguin Books, 2005. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Thopas - Melibee Link. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Jill Mann. Penguin Books, 2005. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Wife of Baths Prologue & Tale. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Jill Mann. Penguin Books, 2005. Cross, Tom Peete. The Celtic Fee in Launfal. Kittredge Anniversary Papers, pp. 377-388. Ed. Robinson, Sheldon, and Neilson. Boston and London, Ginn, 1913. Folks, Cathalin B. and Lindahl, Carl. Loathly Lady. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Beliefs, and Customs, pp. 245-246. Oxford University Press. France, Marie de. Lanval. trans. Shoaf, Judith P. Graelent. Rrans. Mason, Eugene. Cambridge, Ontario: In Parentheses Publications, 2001. Lawrence, William Witherle. Satire in Sir Thopas. PMLA, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Mar., 1935), 81-91. Modern Language Association. Lindahl, Carl. Folk Tale. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Beliefs, and Customs, pp. 142-148. Oxford University Press.

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Magoun, Francis P. Jr. The Source of Chaucers Rime of Sir Thopas. PMLA, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Dec., 1927), pp. 833-844. Modern Language Association. Manly, John Matthews. The Stanza-Forms of Sir Thopas. Modern Philology, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jul., 1910), pp. 141-144. The University of Chicago Press. Mills, M. Lybeaus Desconus. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Sir Launfal: Introduction. ed. Laskaya, Anne and Salisbury, Eve Walter, Philippe. Myth and text in the Middle Ages: Folklore as Literary Source. Trans. Ali Nematollahy. Telling Tales: Medieval Narratives and the Folk Tradition. Ed. Conchado, Di Scipio & Sautman. New York: St. Martins Press, 1998. 59 - 75.