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The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topaz | Summary

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Summary

The Prioress's tale has a sobering effect on the company, so Harry Bailey calls on Chaucer to tell a "tale of mirth." The tale Chaucer delivers is divided into fits, an archaic word for a division in a poem or song.

The First Fit

Chaucer begins a story about Sir Topaz, a knight so handsome, rich, and accomplished that young women longed to be with him. However, he was chaste. One day, while out riding in the forest in springtime, he hears a bird sing, and the sound of it causes him to fall into an overpowering "love-longing" for an Elf-Queen mistress. To find such an Elfin woman, he makes his way to Fairy-land, where he is confronted by a giant. He challenges the giant to a duel the next day.

Back at home Sir Topaz's friends and servants help him prepare for the duel. They give him sweet, spiced wine and clothe him in fine clothes and elaborate armor.

The Second Fit

Chaucer again asks the company to be quiet and listen to his story of battle, chivalry, and "making love in wantonry." But, as he continues to tell about Sir Topaz, knight extraordinaire, Harry Bailey interrupts him, saying his story is "illiterate" and that the rhymes are "purgatory." Chaucer agrees to tell a story in prose instead.

Analysis

The humor of this tale lies in the difference between the readers' and the pilgrims' reactions to it. Harry Bailey sums up the pilgrims' reaction: He says it is not "worth a turd!" The dramatic irony, of course, is that readers know Chaucer is a well-read, clever, versatile storyteller. While Harry Bailey may think Chaucer the pilgrim is illiterate, readers know Chaucer the writer is just having a bit of fun.

In this fragment of a story, Chaucer is at his most satirical. Common in Chaucer's time were romances full of stock noble characters and predictable plots. In telling such a tale, he uses ridiculous verse to make fun of how ridiculous the story is—a perfectly moral knight who must duel for the love of a beautiful and unattainable fairy queen. The story is filled with cliché events, characters, and figures of speech, such as "His lips were red as rose." The sheer awfulness of the entire package betrays the glee with which Chaucer writes this parody.

Springtime, with its blooming flowers and singing birds, figures heavily in the story. Sir Topaz, normally a man of self-control, is suddenly undone by a bird's song. All of the sensuality of spring gives him such a powerful longing for a woman he feels he must act immediately to fulfill it. His reaction underscores the situational irony of other pilgrims' tales, such as the Knight's, where "noble" heroes are blatantly motivated by the same base desires.

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