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Geoffrey and Chaucer

The contest, one of the most popular and well renowned ones in all of literature, asked for a simple tale of moral and merriment. Each member of the company of nine and twenty are told to tell a tale as they venture off together to the distant land of Canterbury for sanctification through pilgrimage. At the end of the contest, the teller that outshines them all with a wonderful story will win a prize supper at the cost of all the other pilgrims. Among this diverse group is a quiet spectator by the name of Geoffrey. Chaucer's pseudo-persona enters The Canterbury Tales to tell the tale of Sir Thopas. The abstractly answered questions of sentence and solaas, the motives behind the introduction of Geoffrey the pilgrim, and the inclusion of the horrible tale make the tale of Sir Thopas the best in the Canterbury sequence. Even though it is not the best in content and would not have eventually won the prize supper, the tale of Sir Thopas accomplishes more for the overall benefit of Chaucer than any other in The Canterbury Tales. 

The question of sentence is not directly addressed in the tale of Sir Thopas but it is inadvertently answered in the parallel between the pilgrimage and the journey of life. Although the content of the tale does not make a point to provide a specific moral, the existence of Geoffrey's character helps Chaucer to illustrate that learning is an auditory phenomenon. When the host first casts his eye upon Geoffrey, he asks him "what man artow?" illustrating Geoffrey's passive nature thus far. (Ln. 696) The host then asks the other pilgrims to make room for Geoffrey and "lat this man have place" suggesting that the lack of Geoffrey's presence in the journey aids him in being a good narrator. (Ln. 699) Presenting Geoffrey has an objective observer that has been very much in the background of the journey; Chaucer shows that Geoffrey obtains his ability to narrate by hearing the tales and not by vocalizing himself excessively as other pilgrims do. Since Geoffrey keeps to himself for the majority of the journey and then becomes the eventual narrator of the entire Canterbury experience, Chaucer indicates to his reader that more can be learned from listening to others than talking about or defending oneself. In paralleling the pilgrimage to the universal path of life, Chaucer implies that as each person travels to his own "Canterbury," he must remain a passive observer who yearns to learn the most he can from his surroundings. If we get too caught up in our own selves, we lose the opportunity to be educated by the experiences of others. Since the limitation of time thwarts us from learning about every detail of the world, we must try to learn from the stories of others' tribulations. Chaucer carefully weaves this message into the tale of Sir Thopas via Geoffrey and fulfills the first requirement of sentence.

The fulfillment of the entertainment obligation through a burlesque story remains one of the highlights of the tale itself. Chaucer decides to include a little bit of humor into the tale to add a little pizzazz and not just leave it as a boring addition to the mastery created thus far. The story line makes fun of the knightly tradition by illustrating the protagonist as a coward who knows nothing about the methods of chivalry. When a giant approaches him to fight, Thopas tells him that "tomorwe wol I meete with thee, whan I have myn armoure." (Lns. 818, 819) The lack of his armor questions his worthiness as a knight while creating a little laughter. It is utterly ridiculous to have a knight that parades in the forest without his armor with him. Sir Thopas fumbles with his armor and cleverly shies away from battle. He presents himself as a noble knight, yet his preparation is less than perfect and he makes a fool of himself trying to live up to the standards he portrays. The parody would have created a huge laugh amongst the audience of Chaucer's time. A normal knight would have practiced the art of putting on his armor and welcomed the opportunity to prove his heroism in a good fight, but our Sir Thopas creates laughter with his opposite ways. Thus, Chaucer adds the element of comedy to the tale of Sir Thopas and achieves the requisite of solaas.

After answering to the requirements of the host, the Tale of Sir Thopas goes on to provide reliability for the audience. Geoffrey is abruptly brought forth by the host to tell the tale of Sir Thopas. Thus far not mentioned in the narrative, the storyteller emerges from Chaucer's mind, a pseudo-persona of the author himself. By generally assuming the name of Geoffrey, Chaucer implies that the character of this pilgrim represents himself since the first names are identical. Establishing that the poet and the narrator are very similar, the addition of Geoffrey allows the reader to believe that the narration of the entire Canterbury Tales comes from a reliable source and was not created just for the sake of story telling. The narrator notes that "I [Geoffrey] hadde spoken with hem everichon that I was of hir felaweshipe anon." (Lns. 31, 32) Chaucer shows that Geoffrey has taken the time to speak with the pilgrims and get to know them and their background. The tales he relates have a sense of realism because he knows the tellers intimately. This preparation suggests that only Geoffrey is fit to tell the Canterbury Tales and he becomes the best source of information for readers. Therefore, the tale goes beyond sentence and solaas and brings the Canterbury Tales to a higher level with the inclusion of Geoffrey.

Geoffrey also allows Chaucer to include himself and his beliefs into the story by passing them off as another's interpretation. This impressive tactic enables Chaucer the poet to display his thoughts of people such as the "harlot" friar and the "market - betere" miller, without being criticized because his defense would submit that these ideals belonged to Geoffrey the pilgrim. (Ln. 647 in summoner's tale, Ln. 3936 in Reeve's Tale) Chaucer is then free to say what he pleases without having to worry about scrutiny from his audience or other members of the literary world. Thus, the introduction of Geoffrey the pilgrim makes Chaucer free to speak his mind. The freedom that comes from Geoffrey is one of the greatest reasons why Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas is the best part of The Canterbury Tales. The tale provides the author with a vehicle to release his opinions. 

Along with the freedom to write Chaucer obtains in the Canterbury tales, Geoffrey the pilgrim adds a sense of realism to the experience of the pilgrimage. The introduction of Geoffrey enables Chaucer to bring a sense of reality to the Canterbury experience through the use of the first person point of view. The audience is more apt to sympathize and care for the pilgrims if the narration comes from someone who was "redy to wenden on [his] pilgrymage to Caunterbury" with the "nyne and twenty in a compaignye." (Lns. 20-22, 24) Since the narrator is a part of the pilgrimage, the audience deviates from questioning Chaucer's authenticity. The main point of view created by Geoffrey's "devyse" seduces the senses of the past audience and all of those to come because emotions are a common truth that everyone experiences. (Ln. 34) Geoffrey then becomes the connection between the imaginative story and the readers. This attraction to the characters through a sense of realism brings the audience closer to the story and increases their enjoyment and appreciation of it. The reality created by the first person also relates to both past and future generations, making the Canterbury Tales a universal work. With the introduction of Geoffrey, there is a stronger level of believability created in the Tale of Sir Thopas than in any other tale. This addition then makes the tale one of the best because it accomplishes a connection between the reader and the storyteller and enables Chaucer's audience to relate to the tale. 

In addition to the character himself, Geoffrey is specifically associated with the Tale of Sir Thopas because it helps Chaucer to display of his ability to compose great literature by doing the exact opposite. For a master like Chaucer who has developed the ability to write well over time, it must be increasing difficult to conjure up a horrible piece of writing. In describing the features of Thopas's countenance, Geoffrey notes that "his lippes rede as [a] rose" and "his berd was lyk saffroun." (Ln. 726, 730) The simple feminine characterization turns this mighty knight into a wimpy character. The lack of good diction and detail make the tale of Sir Thopas not worth literary merit. When "he [Thopas] worth upon his steede gray" and had "a long swerd by his side," Chaucer illustrates Geoffrey's inability to compose good poetry because of the unimaginative form. (Lns. 751,753) The careful integration of dogtrot rhythm and mindless tetrameter illustrate the inferiority of the tale of Sir Thopas to other well crafted tales preceding it, such as the Miller's tale which consists of pentameter lines and elaborate word choice. To write badly on purpose takes a certain amount of skill because the author must separate with the foundation of good literature he has learned thus far. The inferiority of this poem, in terms of its literal form, clearly separates it from the carefully orchestrated tales that have come before it. The ability to segregate shows the audience Chaucer's diversification of literary form and the mastery of his profession. For these reasons, the horrible tale actually enhances Chaucer's position and rank as an author. Chaucer does a wonderful job of being inconspicuous about his self-elevated mindset. He manages to show his command of writing by connecting his name, Geoffrey, with the worst story in his collection of tales. The ingenius effect adds to the motives of the tale, which go above and beyond the initial requests. 

Not only does the tale refine the status of the author; it illustrates Chaucer's mastery of irony with a comedic tone. Geoffrey, being a partial representation of Chaucer himself, relates the worst tale on purpose to add a twist of irony and create humor to further establish himself as a master of authorship. Thus far, Chaucer's tales have authenticated him as an expert of story telling with the various genres of fabliau, romance, and Breton Lai. However, when it comes to his own persona, he purposely writes a horrible tale to encourage laughter amongst his audience and have them come to the realization that he is merely engaging in self-mockery. While Geoffrey is carrying on the second fit of this tale, the host abruptly intrudes to say "namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee" and asks Geoffrey to stop his tale. (Ln. 919) When the host interrupts Geoffrey, he characterizes him, and thus Chaucer himself, as ignorant and incapable of telling a well-developed tale. The host goes on to suggest that Geoffrey and Chaucer are ignorant in authorship because of the "lewedness" of the tale. (Ln. 921) The irony is that Chaucer has written all the tales and he has already proved himself a guru of his time. In placing a bad tale under his name, he encourages the audience to see this maneuver as a clever way of illustrating his mastery of writing. Thus the irony brings forth a comedic element while inadvertently proving Chaucer's ability to write well. Therefore the inclusion of the Tale of Thopas answers more than just the questions of sentence and solaas because he elevates his own status as a composer of literature. 

The tale of Sir Thopas successfully completes the requirements of the pilgrimage while managing to accomplish some of Chaucer's personal goals as well. In addition to the ideals of sentence and solaas, the presence of the tale enables the reader to connect with the entire Canterbury experience while freeing Chaucer from the constraints of his critics. The tale provides irony and flattery while establishing Chaucer as a master of literary form. It is unanimously understood that this tale is a far cry from other superior tales, such as the Miller's, but the motives elevate Sir Thopas onto a new platform where it can not be compared equally to any other. The Miller may win the prize supper at the end, but Geoffrey, the pilgrim and author, have already won the audience and has thus made The Canterbury Tales a classic of generations.     


More by :  Tanvi Patel

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