English Poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tale of Sir Thopas

14th century, Middle English. Handful of 15th century manuscripts, numerous printed copies.

Goddess(es)again and again

"Heer is the queen of Fayerye, with harpe and pype and simphonye dwelling in this place."

'Chaucer says that his Canterbury Tale of Sir Thopas is the best he knows, when he's asked to tell a story to all the other pilgrims on the way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral,’ said Quintin. 'But then he tells this worst parody of a gung-ho romance that you can imagine! The Tale of Sir Thopas. But could it be a double bluff?

'Chaucer was quite a witty bloke, you see; look, if you summarise the story: Having introduced Sir Thopas as a young man who cannot fall in love, just like Guigemar in Marie de France's Breton lai, he has Sir Thopas gallop wildly through a forest intent upon seeking an elf-queen whom he has seen in a dream and fallen in love with. Where an Irish hero might dive down into the depths of a lake to reach the Otherworld, or an Arthurian one cross an underwater bridge, Sir Thopas gallops through a forest. Certain death I would imagine, with all those overhanging branches. Soon he finds himself in a hidden part of the woodland that is guarded by a giant, who has the name of a soldier who defended Stirling Castle from the English eighty years before, as well as the obvious, comical association. Sir Oliphant. A dead soldier.

'"Child!" shouts this giant, Sir Elephant. "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." – Heer is the queen of Fayerye, with harpe and pype and simphonye dwelling in this place.'

Tale recounted from: Skeat, Walter W, edited from numerous manuscripts, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press. Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's own tale of Sir Thopas.

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