Summary and Analysis
Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas
After the story of Hugh of Lincoln, everyone is in a somber mood until the Host begins to tell jokes to cheer the group. He then tells Chaucer to come forth with a tale of mirth. Chaucer explains that he has only one story — a rhyme that he heard long ago.
Far across the sea in Flanders, a handsome, young knight by the name of Sir Topas lives. Sir Topas is a great hunter, an accomplished archer, and a skilled wrestler. Every maiden in the land pines for his love, but Sir Topas takes little interest in these maidens. One day, after an exhausting ride through the forest, Sir Topas rests beside a watering place and dreams of an Elf Queen. When he awakes, he is determined to ride to the ends of the earth in search of an Elf Queen.
He soon meets a three-headed giant who bids him depart this part of the forest because it was the kingdom of the Elf Queen. The giant threatens death, and the knight accepts the challenge and rides home to ready himself for the battle. At his father's castle, Sir Topas feasts elegantly and prepares for the battle with the finest armor and excellent weapons.
Here, the Host interrupts Chaucer, crying "For God's sake, no more of this . . . I'm exhausted by your illiterate rhymes." ("Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee . . . for thou makest me/ So wery of thy verry lewednesse . . . .") He then asks Chaucer to leave off the rhymes and tell something in prose. Chaucer agrees to tell a little ("litel") thing in prose but warns that he might repeat some of the proverbs that the pilgrims have heard before.
In place of the Prioress' image of the miraculous pearl and her general concern with heavenly treasures, the pilgrim Chaucer offers his tale of another "gem," Sir Topas (or "Topaz") — a member of the merchant-born Flemish knighthood. The Prioress' concern with virginity, meekness, and innocence finds its reflection in the symbolic significance of the topaz as an emblem of purity and in the comparison of the knight's pasty complexion with "payndemayn," a kind of bread that had once commonly been stamped with the images of the Savior and the Virgin Mary.
The Tale of Sir Topas has long puzzled scholars. At the time Chaucer wrote it, a plethora of tales about handsome knights in search of adventure and fair maidens were already in existence. In the third stanza from the end, Chaucer mentions the tales of several knights in search of glory — Sir Horn, Sir Hypotis, Sir Bevis, Sir Guy, Sir Libeus, and Sir Pleyndamour. Chaucer chose these characters because all were naively simple and long-winded, and the tales themselves were larded with minute descriptions and plotted with improbability.
It is, of course, ironic that Chaucer says to the Host that these are the best rhymes that he can do. Each stanza is filled with traditional clichés and absurd speech. In the Tale of Sir Topas, Chaucer makes fun of himself, ridiculing this type of literature and belittling the people who read this type of poetry. And most ironic is that Chaucer assigns this silly tale to himself. Furthermore, when the Host interrupts Chaucer, Chaucer is a bit offended, saying that these are his best rhymes. And then he promises a little thing in prose (The Tale of Melibee) with a few familiar proverbs. Instead of a "little" thing, he gives us a long, dull tale that rambles on forever and is filled with many proverbs; the entire output is as boring and tedious as it possibly can be.
Flanders the region that encompasses most of Belgium and parts of Holland.
mead a strong alcoholic drink made from honey.
palfrey a top-grade riding horse, as contrasted to a work horse.
Termagant a supposed heathen idol.
throstle a song thrush.